On a sun-filled April day in 2008, more than 60,000 people filled Yankee Stadium in New York City to welcome Pope Benedict XVI, who was concluding a six-day visit to the United States.
It was a remarkable scene — the pope, smiling and waving from his special car as he was driven around the venerable baseball park — and the people who’d come from every corner of the nation to see him. There were 600 people from the Archdiocese of Louisville among the throng — along with Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz and the late Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly.
Together with representatives of all of the nation’s 194 other dioceses, the crowd represented a remarkably heterogeneous mixture of people. Every dialect, every racial and ethnic component of our society was present, and it was one of the few times in history that such a gathering of disparate people had so much in common.
They were all smiling.
They all appeared to be filled with happiness at seeing Pope Benedict XVI. Some of them sang; some of them chanted cheers as if they were at a sporting event. More than a few shed tears.
But they were all glad they were there. For the two hours or so of that special Mass honoring the bicentennials of the Archdioceses of Louisville, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, people shared a joy that can only be described as spiritual.
To someone who had never been in the presence of the pope — or any pope — it produced an inarticulate moment. There were few, if any, words to describe the crowd, the Mass, the sense of elation that was being felt throughout the ball park.
When he came to lead the church, Pope Benedict XVI, some speculated, might not have been seen as one clearly defined, given the shadow of his beloved predecessor, Blessed John Paul II. Pope Benedict had been elected just three years before — in 2005 — and was known chiefly as a scholar and theologian when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
His deeply shadowed eyes led some national commentators to speculate that Benedict XVI didn’t have the easy personal warmth or the gregarious nature of the pope who preceded him. But in Yankee Stadium on that spring day in 2008, those same commentators would have seen faces that belied the truth of their projections.
There could have been little doubt that this pope, this scholar, was the object of the crowd’s affection. If there had been doubts about his warmth, his personality, his history or his nature, those doubts could not be found that day in New York City.
His smile was all the crowd could have hoped for. His affection for those in his presence seemed completely genuine. Even from stadium seats high above the temporary altar, the glow of this pope was apparent.
He was, to all who experienced that day, a holy man.
Archbishop Kurtz spent time with the pope in January of last year during his ad limina visit to Rome, and during the three weeks of the Synod for the New Evangelization last October. He told reporters on Monday that Pope Benedict was a humble man, filled with the Holy Spirit and possessing a “real pastoral heart.”
“I saw it when I visited Blessed John Paul II in 2004, when Pope Benedict was prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” he said. “There were 20 of us in the room, but with him I felt like the only one there.” In the pope’s presence, Archbishop Kurtz said, he came to know him as a pastoral figure, a great scholar and someone with a strong desire “to seek what is true, what is good and what is beautiful.”
The archbishop also recalled the day in August of 2005 when, together with Pope Benedict, he helped to celebrate the 20th anniversary of World Youth Day at special services in Cologne, Germany.
“It was inspiring to me, being there with 1.5 million of his closest friends,” Archbishop Kurtz said. And when the pope spoke, “you could hear a pin drop.”
“I came away from that saying that he (Pope Benedict) is his own man,” the archbishop said. “He is soft spoken, a man who speaks clearly and who is known as a great teacher.”
Now Pope Benedict has become the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign. Archbishop Kurtz was right — this pope is “his own man.” But he also belongs to everybody in the church, and those who saw him in New York City not only witnessed it, they felt it, too.