During the papal Mass at the Catholic University of America last Wednesday, Pope Francis ended his homily by quoting St. Junipero Serra’s motto, “Siempre Adelante!” Indeed, as has become a cornerstone of his teaching, the pope’s entire homily was about not remaining bottled up inside ourselves or our churches or our ecclesial institutions, but about going out to meet people where they actually are and not, as he would echo in New York, where we would like them to be. He spoke of the joy associated with living out this pilgrim spirit and, with power and poetry, he challenged:
Go out to all, proclaim by anointing and anoint by proclaiming. This is what the Lord tells us today. He tells us:
A Christian finds joy in mission: Go out to people of every nation!
A Christian experiences joy in following a command: Go forth and proclaim the good news!
A Christian finds ever new joy in answering a call: Go forth and anoint!
These last few days have been remarkable on so many different levels and the impact of the Apostolic Journey of Pope Francis of Rome will be felt, studied, pondered and — we pray to God! — experienced for years to come. In keeping with his charge to keep moving forward, he himself has left Cuba, Washington, and now New York. As I write these words he has just landed in Philadelphia on the last leg of his North American sojourn. Each and every stop along the way has significance, both in itself as well as in relationship to his whole overarching vision of the church as the loving outstretched hands of God’s own mercy. We, the Church, are servant-missionaries, going out to encounter others in their own sitz-im-leben, their own particularities of life, their own existential realities, and caring for each other there. As Christ Himself told his followers: “Be not afraid,” and, “Put out into the deep.”
I was so blessed to be able to participate as one of the corps of deacons assigned as ministers of Holy Communion during the papal Mass at the Catholic University of America. As a deacon of the Archdiocese of Washington who is currently serving in the Diocese of Monterey (the home of our newest Saint), and as a former resident of the District and student at CUA, just arriving back in town was a thrill. But experiencing the pope on such familiar territory was electrifying and beyond words. It will take a long time for its full impact to sink in. These are a few initial recollections.
The day began early. Even though we’ve lived in Washington many times over the years, trying to gauge the impact the pope’s travels through the District would have on public transportation was nearly impossible. The Catholic University campus was scheduled to open at 10:00 AM, with Mass beginning at 4:15 PM. Concelebrating priests and assisting deacons were told to be checked in and at our staging areas by 2:00 PM. My traveling companions and I decided to forego the Metro and splurge on a taxi, leaving at 7:00 AM. Traffic was light and we made great time. Michigan Avenue was closed at Trinity Washington University, so we got out and walked toward Catholic University. We hit the first security checkpoint at 7:30 and there we waited until they opened at 10:20. The mood was good, however, and people were just excited about being in place instead of stuck in traffic across town! There were pilgrims gathering from all points of the country. People of all ages, colors, languages and backgrounds were lining up. There were also sisters, some very young and others in their wisdom years, as well as priests and deacons (perhaps most noticeable by our ubiquitous little bags carrying albs and stoles for the Mass!). The weather was wonderful, although by mid-morning, the temperature and sun began to bake a bit. Some sisters found temporary relief under some nearby trees!
As a former career Navy officer, I was also struck by the sheer volume and diversity of the security forces assembled around the checkpoint: TSA, Homeland Security, the Secret Service, DC police, FBI, and others who left their uniforms and windbreakers at home to operate more subtly.
At 10:20 we began going through the checkpoint and, with the exception of being able to leave our shoes on, the procedure was exactly like going through security at the airport; in fact, that’s probably because the officials handling it were all TSA! Belts off, jackets off, bags checked, and on and on. However, everyone, including the TSA personnel, were in great spirits and full of excitement (unlike most lines at the airport!).
Once through we made our way to our assigned entrance point. Priests and deacons had to check in with our own coordinators to receive additional instructions about where to vest and so on. Then there was time to wonder around the familiar campus and check out the venue. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is the best known feature of the campus and, of course, the papal Mass was going to be celebrated right outside in order to accommodate as many people as possible. Even though the Basilica is the eighth largest church in the world, it was no where close to being adequate for the estimated 25,000 to 30,000 pilgrims who were gathering.
There were volunteers everywhere, most of them very excited and happy students, who directed folks to tents for water, cookies, and nutrition bars, and the Basilica Gift Shop had set up a couple of huge tents in front of Mullen Library. I made my way to our assembly point for deacons and checked in. It was a wonderful reunion, since many of the deacons gathering were brother deacons from the Archdiocese of Washington, along with a small contingent of deacons from the Diocese of Monterey and, of course, from other dioceses around the country. I showed the Monterey group around a bit, and we had lunch together sitting on a curb along with some undergraduates taking a break from their own escort duties.
As we reassembled in our staging area, we found out how this was going to work. We deacons would remain in the building during the first part of the Mass. We could follow the Mass through the windows or on a TV located in the building. We were introduced to our teams as well. Each of us had an assigned “escort” who was, in most cases, an undergraduate student from CUA. The escort would have an umbrella to hold over us during communion, not so much for us, but to show people where the communion ministers were actually located! In addition to the escorts, we had team captains for each section who helped get us where we needed to be and help with crowd control. It was all very well organized. Long before the Mass began, every one of those chairs was filled with students and deacons. And that was just one of the rooms being used.
And then, the Pope arrived.
Look, I’m a teacher, and I love being around students. Here we were, assembled in a hot, humid classroom. But the students (as well as most of us deacons) all had their cell phones out, tracking the pope’s location. Their own excitement and love for the man was palpable — and noisy! “He’s just left the nunciature!” “They’re approaching the USCCB!” “They just left the USCCB — can you see him yet?” “There he is! There he is!” “Francis! Francis!” They were standing on chairs, they helped each other find space at the windows, and I have never seen such joy, as they saw Francis make his way in the popemobile along the same paths that they walked every day to classes. I have to admit, I was pretty much an undergraduate at that moment myself — it was surreal to see this man, this Pope, on such familiar territory.
The Mass itself was glorious. Several things stood out, for me at least. The canonization of Junipero Serra, the subject of concerns raised by some Native American groups, was handled beautifully. In fact, not only did Native Americans participate in the canonization itself, the first reading of the Mass, from Isaiah, was proclaimed in Chochenyo, a native language previously declared to be a “dead” language, which has now been restored. In fact, the man who proclaimed that reading was himself one of those responsible for restoring the language and here it was being heard again publicly for the first time by millions of people watching around the world! After the Mass, the Pope met with nine Native American tribal leaders from California, including descendants of the Peoples with whom St. Junipero had served. One of those leaders was Andy Galvan, who had helped present the relics of the saint during the Mass. A fascinating and passionate man, he eagerly recounted his meeting with the pope as well as his pride in his cousin, who had proclaimed that first reading during the Mass.
Another part of the Mass which I will always remember took place during the pope’s wonderful homily. A number of hosts had been consecrated at an earlier Mass to facilitate the distribution of communion during this Mass. During the homily, Masters of Ceremonies brought a ciborium to each deacon so that we would be ready to form our procession and get to our communion stations. Picture this: we were seated listening to the Holy Father speak of “going out” and of bringing Christ to all peoples where they actually are, and calling us all to a joyful mission, and all the while we were holding the Eucharistic Christ in our own hands, ready to do just that in a very real way. For me, and I believe for all of us deacons assembled that day, this was a profound moment.
Perhaps another point to ponder for deacons. It was interesting that it was the Order of Deacons who distributed Communion that day. We were not able to sit outside with the bishops and priests in front of the Holy Father, but were instead staged inside with our student-escorts and team captains. But then the Order of Deacons emerged from that building and processed to all points of the assembly to serve, as we should, the People of God. It was the deacons who were called to serve in a particular way at that Mass. As the ordained servants of the People of God, we were focused on carrying out that service.
As always, distributing Holy Communion is a joy: we experience the Christ who is really present under the sacramental forms of bread and wine, and we also experience the Christ who is really present in the people coming forward. Some people dropped to their knees to receive, other stood and received on the tongue and others on their outstretched hands: all were reverent, joy-filled, and happy.
As people left the campus after the Mass, some of us stayed behind to speak with the media and to enjoy the afterglow before finding our way back to wherever we were staying. It had been a long day, but a glorious one. And all who were there left, I believe, with a renewed sense of mission.
A mission to “keep moving forward”: Siempre adelante!
In the next blog, we’ll reflect on the Pope at the Congress of the United States.