Birds of a feather flock together for the sake of the flock!
A beautiful, emotional and inspiring week made possible by one man has passed; quite possibly never to return. We're referring, of course, to the Holy Father's return trip to the Americas - first Mexico City and then St. Louis - the heartland city which has always served as the gateway to the west. The emotions and images of Pope John Paul II's awe-inspiring Masses televised around the world, thanks in large part to the total dedication of EWTN, will forever be etched in the minds and hearts of millions. The Mexican people have always been outgoing and emotional, but they topped themselves in their outpouring of affection for the Pope in all of his venues. From outside the magnificent modern Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to the hundreds of thousands who jammed Azteca Stadium on the sprawling campus of Universidad de Mexico in the heart of Mexico City between the downtown skyscrapers and Chapultepec Park, there wasn't a soul in all of Mexico and most of South America who didn't know the Pope was in town. Sadly, the same can't be said in the United States because, for the most part, the papal visit remained a footnote to all the garbage going on in Washington D.C. centering around William Jefferson Clinton whose sexploits depleted the coverage of the Holy Father's visit to Cuba a year ago as well. It shows where the media's priority is! If it hadn't been for EWTN and its thirty million strong, few would have realized the impact the Vicar of Christ had on the flocks wherever he visited this past week. The Odyssey Channel and MSNBC devoted more time than the networks, but still it paled in comparison to the glut of information from the notorious senate trial on Capitol Hill. While in St. Louis the local affiliates gave his visit top priority, but unless you live in the immediate vicinity of the greater St. Louis area you probably didn't get to see it. Again, thank God for EWTN. Isn't it time every cable company in America carried Mother Angelica's excellent programming as basic cable? We have seventy plus stations on cable in Southern California and the only space they can find for EWTN is to share it with the Lifetime Channel from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. each day. Thanks for small favors!
Nevertheless, in case you missed it, the Pope continues to set records. The 104,000 who packed the TWA Dome in downtown St. Louis Wednesday morning set an all time high for an indoor event - not just for an indoor Mass, but for any indoor event!!! Take that NFL! What amazed this editor was that, despite the masses gathered from the upper rafters where few Ram fans have ever ventured to the astroturf floor of this cavernous modern marvel, there was great reverence and decorum during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. As is the Holy Father's tradition of incorporating tradition, he used the same gold chalice that the missionary Jesuit Father John St. Cosme first used to celebrate the first Mass ever said in St. Louis back in 1764. Back then there were a handful who received Holy Communion in a little log-cabin chapel. In 1999 under this massive dome and set against a backdrop of a 45-foot-high brushed aluminum replica of the magificent soaring gateway arch that is the symbol of this midwest Mississippi River city, the Pope stood behind a great white oak altar that had been set up at the north end of the endzone as he elevated the sacred host and chalice at the consecration. The rush of flashbulbs that streaked at that particular time brought to mind the angelic lights that one can imagine adorn every altar throughout the world at this precise moment of the Mass. After the Agnus Dei more than 900 priests distributed Holy Communion along with the Sovereign Pontiff. What a beautiful, edifying site. Another magnificent site were the blue and gold bunting that conveniently covered secular billboards and beer ads in this city also famous for the suds.
More spectacular than that were the fruits of his words. While his accomplishments in defeating communism are legendary, many are still amazed at how he managed to soften the heart of one of the most stubborn dictators of our time - Fidel Castro; for in less than a year's time the communist leader has made many concessions to the Cuban people in regard their faith and provided a much more lenient atmosphere for the people. But that pales in comparison time-wise to the Holy Father's most recent request. Wednesday his Holiness spoke out strongly against capital punishment no matter how evil felons might be - all part of the culture of death syndrome. The Vatican itself had been very critical of Missouri's postponing the execution of convicted killer Darrell Mease Wednesday because it coincided with the Pope's visit. Therefore they intended to delay it until after the Bishop of Rome would leave. But a funny thing happened on the way to the gas chamber and Mr. Mease can get on his knees and thank God Almighty as well as His Vicar on earth. You see, during the Holy Father's departure ceremonies after speaking to an ecumenical group at historic St. Louis Cathedral, he shook hands with the governor of Missouri Mel Carnahan and offered one last bit of advice to him, "Have mercy on Mr. Mease." A few hours later, while the Pope's plane Shepherd One was enroute back to Rome, the Governor returned to Jefferson City, met with aides and made the stunning statement that he was commuting the death penalty and assigning Mease life without parole solely because of the Holy Father's request. "In reaching this decision," the Governor said, "I took into account the extraordinary circumstances of the Pope's request and the historical significance of the papal visit to St. Louis and the state of Missouri. I continue to support capital punishment, but after careful consideration of his direct and personal appeal and because of a deep and abiding respect for the pontiff and all he represents, I decided last night to grant his request." Now that's clout! Remember the old movies where the criminal is on death row and waiting to see if the governor will call at the last moment? Now days, there may be more of them waiting to see if the Pope calls!
The entire scenario this past week was a fitting climactic tribute to the man who has been seen by more people in person than any man who ever lived. This was his 85th trip outside of Italy and, if you will, the Holy Father has come full circle. We mentioned in the first paragraph that this visit marks an anniversary of the Holy Father returning to Mexico and St. Louis for it was Mexico City to where the Pope first traveled in January 1979, his first trip outside of Italy as the 264th successor of Peter. As Pope he had never visited St. Louis but that is not to say he had not been to St. Louis before. In fact, it was thirty years prior that he visited the Budweiser metropolis when Stan "the Man" Musial was just hanging up his spikes after a distinguishing Hall of Fame career as a Cardinal. It was back then that this humble ballplayer of Polish descent first met Cardinal Karol Wojtyla in the latter's visit to the city. Thirty years later Stan once again was reunited with his Polish friend whose residency is now Vatican City. Both have passed out of their Cardinal days but there were two others who met with the Pope during this trip to St. Louis who represent the Cardinals of the present and future. One was home run phenom and St. Louis Cardinal first baseman Mark McGwire who set the single season homer record with 70 dingers this past year and, next to the Pope, drew more people to see him than anyone else; big Mac represents the current Cardinals. Representing future Cardinals was Archbishop Justin Rigali, head of the Archdiocese of St. Louis and a personal friend of the Holy Father's who is most responsible for bringing the Pope to the heartland. The magnificent manner in which he coordinated the whirlwind 31-hour visit that went off without a hitch and his special pull with the Heavenly Meteorologist (after all, when have you seen a balmy 65 degrees in January in St. Louis!?!) have made him a front-runner for the next Consistory that could be held next summer. Thanks to John Paul II the Church's future is bright, not only because of what he has imparted to all during his twenty-year pontificate, but also his wise choice of Church leaders for tomorrow - men like Archbishops Rigali and Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. of Denver to name just a few.
In reading through some old history books a few months ago we came across the fact that good King Saint Louis treasured and nurtured cardinals in his garden court. No wonder the Cardinals are so synonymous with St. Louis. The faith remains strong and vibrant in this American heartland city named for the great, holy French monarch because of the dedication of men and women who forged the faith along the banks of the mighty Mississippi, Missouri and St. Charles Rivers and have left a legacy of love that the Holy Father punctuated with an exclamation mark of affection, "I will always remember St. Louis. God bless St. Louis! God bless America!" As he winged his way back home in Shepherd One, as McGwire and Musial returned to their interests, as cardinal-to-be Rigali returned to his duties in the aftermath of the exhilaration, and as tens of thousands wait out the opener of the Cardinals' first game at Busch Stadium, we suspect there were even a few cardinals of Audubon lore who alighted on the budding branches in St. Louis with a chirp of cheerful hope for the coming spring. A springtime of renewal for all. One thing is certain, the Pope left a lasting impression with his words and presence that all can ponder in their hearts.. The Church's flocks have been challenged once again. Now it's time to fly. The Holy Father is unifying us all by asking us to work together for the Sanctity of Life! You might say, birds of a feather flock together for the sake of the flock!