How do you pull off a Mass for 100,000? Start with buses--lots of
them. Seemingly every school bus in the region today was enlisted
to transport people from suburban pickup points down into St. Louis's
TWA dome area for the papal Mass. Every available seat in the dome
or adjoining convention center was spoken for, which adds up to over
100,000 attendees. It was billed as the largest U.S. indoor gathering
People had to be inside the buildings by 7:30 a.m. (so police could
secure the complex), which meant the buses began loading early, about
4 a.m. For those traveling from outlying areas of the archdiocese
or beyond, that meant leaving home at an ungodly hour.
But none of the gathering crowd was complaining at pre-dawn outside
TWA dome. Doug Mennemeir and his ninth-grade son, Ryan, from O'Fallon,
Missouri, were in line about a half block back from the entrance,
with plenty of people behind them. They won admission tickets through
the lottery that was set up at their parish, St. Barnabas. (Archbishop
Rigali had recommended lotteries to distribute the limited tickets.)
Ryan had spent yesterday at the Light of the World Youth Rally and
came back with his father today. Facing a block-long line at 6:30
a.m. didn't bother Doug: "You don't even think about that when you
think of the greatness that's going to be inside." He's always known
the pope was head of the Church, Doug says, "but when you see him
in person it helps to put things into perspective."
Rose Marie Pilipowski got into the Mass even though she had driven
down from her home in suburban Chicago without tickets. "I had been
praying to St. Jude [patron of lost causes] since the visit was announced
in October." It seems she had some medals she wanted blessed, and
she was still kicking herself for missing Pope John Paul II's visit
to Chicago some 20 years ago.
Getting desperate, she asked a priest if she could count a blessing
by jumbotron TV outside the event in case she didn't get in. He told
her, "Rose Marie, after driving down here without admission tickets,
they're already blessed." On Saturday her faith paid off. She donned
a sign around her neck in the Papal Plaza that said, "If St. Jude
sent you with my ticket, then here I am." A journalist who had tickets
for all events but couldn't stay for the Mass saw the sign and, well,
you might say St. Jude came through!
At Eucharist With the Pope
The Mass itself was unforgettable, if not as electric as the youth
rally. Three big choirs, a complete orchestra, procession after procession,
hundreds of bishops, all cooperating like clockwork. The Holy Father
came in from a parade route by popemobile, first touring through the
convention center crowd, then being driven once around the inside
perimeter of the cavernous hall of the main TWA dome.
The papal Mass was dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and the
mercy of Jesus was on the pope's mind: "In the Mass and in Eucharistic
Adoration we meet the merciful God of love that passes through the
heart of Jesus Christ," he said in his homily. The homily was a challenge
to America to more fully adopt the Gospel of Life, for Christians
to be unconditionally pro-life in every situation: "I renew the appeal
I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death
penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary," he said.
The crowd applauded at this point, as they had at some of his other
principal points in his homily. Yet, the overwhelming majority of
Americans, including Catholics, tell pollsters they support the death
penalty. The State of Missouri had delayed an execution that had coincidentally
been scheduled to occur during the pope's visit. (That move was denounced
by the Vatican as a ploy to avoid negative publicity.)
The pope also emphasized the importance of marriage and family,
"the first school of social virtue and solidarity." The Massgoers
broke into sustained applause when he said, "As the family goes, so
goes the nation!" The Holy Father again sounded his theme of millennium
preparation, calling all to a renewed sense of repentance and calling
for anyone alienated from the Church for any reason to return and
accept the mercy of Christ.
Talking to people at the rallies, marches, on the streets and at
Mass, a common theme emerges. People go to great lengths to see the
pope because they are looking for a bedrock faith experience, the
kind of foundational experience that happens only a few times during
Gina Ponstingl says she brought her two young children to Mass for
that reason. In 1984 she spent time in a coma after being struck head
on in her auto by a drunk driver. "When I was in a coma I had a feeling
like I met God. It was just such an overwhelming experience." She
hopes that bringing her children to see the pope will bring them closer
to God, too, "since the pope is like God." Her pastor helped her to
get the tickets.
Gina will have a rare souvenir from the event. A "friend of a friend,"
a local woodworker, made the presider's chair that the pope used during
the Mass. There were some small scraps of wood left over, one of which
she received. She wore it on a string around her neck at Mass so it
would be blessed by the pope.
The pope wrapped up his 30-hour visit with two events. First was
an ecumenical prayer service to be held at Cathedral Basilica of Saint
Louis, with Vice-president Al Gore in attendance. There the pope was
expected to return to this pastoral visit's theme of freedom and responsibility--this
time to address America's responsibility as a world leader. That service
was underway when this entry was posted on American Catholic Online.
After the prayer service there would be a very brief meeting with
civil rights legend Rosa Parks, no doubt as a sign of solidarity with
the U.S. bishops' conference, which in November targeted racism again
as a priority. Parks is the woman whose refusal to yield her bus seat
sparked the Montgomery bus boycott in the 1950's.
Finally the pope and the vice-president would have a courtesy meeting
at the airport before Shepherd One (courtesy of TWA) and
Air Force Two depart for Rome and Washington, D.C., respectively.
John Bookser Feister is editor of American Catholic Online.
His full report on the papal visit will appear in the April edition
of St. Anthony Messenger magazine.