Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Salt Lake City seminarians cheer Pope Benedict

by Christopher Gray

The sun was at its height as thousands of people stood and waited in growing excitement. The field behind St. Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y. was palpitating April 19 with the heightened emotions of 20,000 people – mostly high school and college students – vibrant with expectation. The pope was already on the way.

Seminarians formed a small army of cassocks and roman collars near the stage. For two seminarians studying at Mount Angel Seminary in St. Benedict, Ore., for the Diocese of Salt Lake City, the Youth and Seminarian Rally during Pope Benedict’s apostolic visit to the United States was a unique opportunity more than simply to come together with an overwhelming presence of other men in priestly formation, but rather a microcosm of the Church in its fullness, from the faithful to the magisterium to the servant of the servants of God.

Both from Salt Lake City, Joseph Frez, a second year theologian who just a few weeks before had received the ministry of acolyte, and I, a pre-theology student, were chosen by lottery from among the students in college and theology at Mount Angel Seminary to travel to New York for the papal visit. For some students, this was the furthest away from home they had ever been, and for others this was their first visit to a city as immense as New York. Staying at the headquarters for the Maryknoll fathers and brothers in Ossining, N.Y., this was also a first experience with foreign missionaries, a kind of vocation different from our own.

Pope Benedict XVI is greeted by cheers and smiles.
Pope Benedict XVI is greeted by cheers and smiles as he visits with seminarians and other young people outside Saint Joseph Seminary in Yonkers, New York. Salt Lake City Seminarians Joseph Frez and Christopher Gray were in the enthusiastic crowd. IC photo by Christopher Gray
IC photo by Christopher Gray

We stood shoulder to shoulder for hours, waiting. It was Pope Benedict’s first time to the United States as pope; it was certainly our first time in the outward appearance of a cleric being in the presence of the pope. Together with seminarians from the dioceses of Denver, Philadelphia, Mexico, and elsewhere across the continent, as well as a smattering of religious orders, we shared stories of our seminary experiences, of our vocational journeys. We were united in our direction and purpose, solid in the conviction of our faith.

As the hours passed and a litany of entertainers tried to woo the crowd whose hearts had already been given to someone else, seminarians responded with our own cheers of “Habebimus Papam” (“We will have the Pope”) and choruses of the “Regina Coeli,” the Marian hymn for the completion of the Divine Office. The chant swept over the field, with more seminarians joining every moment.

Pope Benedict is a rock star. Following Christian rock superstars and American idols, he arrived at the seminary and entered the field to swelling counterpoint of Bach and the screaming cheers of thousands after personally greeting disabled children in the seminary chapel. The crowd’s expectation was fulfilled, the pope was present; the field erupted and would not relinquish the pope for several minutes of intense cheering.

In his address, the theological reflection was deep and expansive. The ultimate truth is found in the ultimate being, he said, exciting every fiber of St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy among the seminarians – and all the people again broke out into shouts of joy.

At the far-flung missions in the Diocese of Salt Lake City, where the celebration of the Mass can be a monthly luxury, the spiritual support of the Christian faithful, though strong, is minimal. The Body of Christ is integral always and everywhere, though the reinforcement of joining people en masse is a uniquely moving moment without which the experience of faith loses a critical taste of universality.

The pope’s message has practical appeal to everyone. As Catholics, he said, we must foster our personal relationship with Christ, as well as be faithful to our liturgical prayer, work actively for charity, and be attentive to God’s call for each person: one’s vocation.

The excitement that filled the day at its beginning became the vehicle for the pope’s words into the lives of everyone who listened to it. For seminarians, it was a first exposure as men in priestly formation to the fullness of the priesthood through the presence of the curia. From the desert of the Boneville Salt Flats to the center of every great city, this was a moment no one who experienced it will ever let go.

Gray is a seminarian for the Diocese of Salt Lake City studying at Mount Angel Seminary, Oregon, writing for EXTENSION Magazine.

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