Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Never Be the Same"

The thought might console the many folks consumed for the better part of a year with pulling off the next papal visit to these shores, but over a lunch a few weeks back, your narrator was reminded that the first news of the newly-elected John Paul II's intent to make a six-city Stateside trek in October 1979 was announced to the host-dioceses with all of... six weeks notice.

No joke -- plans were announced days later, in the final yawn of August, a mere 37 days before the late Great landed at Boston's Logan Airport.

How times have changed. But clearly, when Wojtyla told his longtime co-conspirator at a post-election dinner that "We have to get together to sing Goralu" -- the bittersweet mountaineer's song he loved so much -- he meant it.

Amid this week's confluence of the third anniversary of John Paul's death -- which B16 will observe on Wednesday morning with a huge open-air Mass in St Peter's Square -- and the reigning pontiff's upcoming US trip, it's a good moment to look back on the five visits JP made to these shores, the first of which took place under a dearth of security that, given today's circumstances, is nothing less than eye-popping.

Over the course of the pilgrimages, their cumulative list of stops would seem to include more places than were left out: Boston, Philly, Chicago, DC, New York (twice), Baltimore, Phoenix, New Orleans, Miami, LA, Detroit, Brooklyn, Newark and the Meadowlands (in the midst of a monsoon), Des Moines, San Antonio, Anchorage, South Carolina, San Fran, Fairbanks, Monterey, St Louis and Denver (scene of the triumphant World Youth Day in 1993).

All told, millions of Yanks turned out for some of the largest gatherings in American history, the last of which -- 1999's St Louis Mass before 110,000 in the then-TransWorld Dome -- remains the largest indoor event this nation has ever known.

And, well, what better way to recall the guy his own spokesman termed the "Pope of Images" than with video?

Arriving on the DC campus of the Catholic University of America during his lone trip to the capital, John Paul held a mini-World Youth Day, addressing the gathered students on the steps of "Mary's House"...

(Part II.)

...and, of course, no memory of JP in America would be complete without Tony Melendez -- the guitarist born without arms who played for the pontiff during his 1987 stop in LA.

At a 2003 concert marking John Paul's silver jubilee, Melendez told the story of his encounter with the Pope at a youth rally (with footage):

Suffice it to say, far from the camera's lens, an even greater mass of memories from those visits remains well and alive out there.

One Saturday morning in middle-school, while jogging around the printing plant of the Philly papers -- my Dad's office -- I struck up a chat with one of the security guards who, as it turned out, had once been involved in constructing the altar for a papal liturgy.

The crew watched from the sidelines as the event proceeded, not expecting to be singled out in any sort of way. At the Mass' close, however, the Pope expressed his wish to meet those whose work made the celebration possible. So, one by one, each got to meet John Paul, say a word or two, and was given a rosary as a memento of the experience.

"He just wanted to thank us," the guy said, still in a sort of disbelief that the Pope would want to do such a thing. A non-Catholic, he added that while he "never really understood your church" before that, "I've admired it ever since."

As he vividly recalled the experience -- clearly not the kind of thing he got to talk about every day -- it seemed he was going to start weeping or something.

The guard still belonged to and cherished his Evangelical church... but even so, he let slip that the papal rosary was still, hands down, his most cherished possession.

And lastly, from the "deja vu" file, the well-noted story goes that a young cleric on the altar for one Stateside PopeMass decided to do it up for the occasion and don a lace alb... which was all well and good until, bounding up the steps to the platform, the lace ripped.

So he wouldn't trip in the course of the worship and suddenly in a panic, the guy had to find an inconspicuous place... and, to his great sadness, tear the frilly portion off.

Lest anyone feel tempted to do the same this time around, have fun... but just be careful.