By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 17, 2008
When Pope Benedict XVI speaks during his first papal visit in the United States, Catholics should consider the pope’s message with “an open heart,” said Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory.
“I like to use the words from the Gospel of Luke that describe the Blessed Mother. That we ponder his words in our heart and take them to heart, hear them, reflect on them.”
During the pope’s visit, he will get to better understand the church here and that will shape his own ministry, said the archbishop.
“The Holy Father is being a good pastor. A pastor visits his people. And in that visitation he learns more about his people. And so he will take back to the Vatican his impressions of the United States. He will take back with him impressions, memories and thoughts about the people of the United States and that will shape the way he serves us,” said the archbishop, who is participating in a prayer service with the pope at Catholic University of America.
The pope is visiting Washington, D.C., and New York City through Sunday, April 20. Among his stops will be a major speech at the United Nations on Friday, a prayer service at ground zero where the former World Trade Center stood, an interfaith gathering, and a speech to nearly 400 Catholic educators. Archdiocesan Superintendent of Schools Diane Starkovich will be part of the educators’ meeting.
The nearest the pope will be to Atlanta is 638 miles away when he stops in the nation’s capital. The distance has not cooled the enthusiasm locally. Some 2,000 requests were submitted to the Atlanta Archdiocese for 500 tickets for the public Mass in New York. A three-minute video greeting the pope from Archbishop Gregory and people of the archdiocese will be shown at the stadium in Washington, D.C. prior to the papal Mass there. Dennis Johnson Jr., director of the archdiocesan Office of Religious Education, is attending this Mass, one of a group of catechetical leaders. Seventeen seminarians from this archdiocese will assist at that Mass, near Mt. St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland, and 10 other seminarians will go to a rally in the New York Archdiocese.
Deacon Bill Garrett and his wife, Susan, are heading to Yankee Stadium for what he called a “once-in-a-lifetime event.”
“The state of Christianity is in an interesting position. Many faith traditions struggle with what’s right and wrong,” he said. But in Catholicism, the role of the pope makes him the “ultimate decider.”
“We may not always agree, but it keeps us in a common fold,” said Garrett, a deacon for the Atlanta Archdiocese and hospital executive at Saint Joseph’s Hospital. He serves at Our Lady of the Assumption, Atlanta, and All Saints, Dunwoody.
And for the former New Yorker, the trip is also a goodbye to the storied stadium where his idols like Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra took the field. The stadium, which has hosted Pope Paul VI on the first papal visit to North America in 1965, and Pope John Paul II in 1979, is to be torn down.
Pat Chivers, communications director of the archdiocese, will have an insider’s view of the papal visit. She is one of 20 diocesan directors asked by the U.S. bishops’ Communications Office to help the 5,500 credentialed journalists following Pope Benedict. She is one of only five who will devote the entire week to it, traveling to New York by bus after the Washington leg is over.
Being “part of the work force for this … suits me well,” said Chivers, who has never seen a pope in person before. “I am very excited to have a part, even a small part, in making this happen.”
“I am personally so on fire with excitement just to be near the pope and be close enough to have a blessing from the pope. Just the realization that this is the leader of our church, the universal church. It is a spiritual renewal just in hearing him speak, not only what he is saying to the people of the United States, but what he is saying to me,” Chivers said.
“If I personally had an opportunity to speak to him, I would like to thank him for his love and the sacrifices he made to come to the United States. I would like to say what a blessing it is to be part of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. I have never been part of a diocese so on fire for love and devotion to the Eucharist. I think that is why we are growing and the faith is so alive here,” she said.
This will be the second pope Vayla Cornell has seen, with a 50-year lapse in between.
The Blue Ridge woman, with her husband, Russell, and several others from St. Anthony Church are driving to New York.
“We feel very privileged that out of 60,000 tickets worldwide, two little people in Blue Ridge, Georgia, got two of the tickets,” Cornell said.
She saw a pope for the first time in 1958 in Rome. Her father was stationed at a base in Germany.
“I was about 4 years old and saw Pope Pius XII. When they processed in, he touched the top of my head. … My father held me up as high as he could and I was one of the lucky ones who got a blessing. I think it helped me all through my early years,” she said.
The 55-year-old and her husband were married in the Catholic Church last November, reconnecting after many years away. She thinks Pope John Paul II brought them back. She watched his funeral on television, kneeling and crying. “I think my husband realized I was more of a Catholic than he thought.”
“We are both cradle Catholics. Let’s just say we’ve been sinners and we’ve been away,” she said.
Paul Voss, an English professor at Georgia State University and provost of Holy Spirit College at Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta, and his wife, Mary, are taking their three oldest children to New York, much like Voss’ father took him to see Pope John Paul II in 1979 on an Iowa farm.
“I was a ninth-grader and it made an indelible impression on me. I said I am going to do for my children what my father did for me. I am paying a debt to my father and paying ahead for my children,” he said.
Voss said he’d like the pope to “speak with utter clarity and loving guidance” to the church here. Recent years have challenged the church, especially with the clergy sex abuse scandal, he said.
“(As a church,) we took on a lot of water in that crisis. … It just seemed that Rome was a little distant. I would love more of a spiritual lifeline. I think sometimes Rome is really, really far away. It would be nice if there was some place we could turn in the midst of this crisis and get some help dealing with it,” said Voss.
“He said right before he became pope we have to clean up the church. We need help doing that,” Voss said.
Archbishop Gregory said he has met the pope on three of his four visits to Rome since coming to Atlanta. On the first visit, in February 2005, he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, leading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the archbishop. As Pope Benedict that June, he presented Archbishop Gregory with a pallium that symbolizes the unity between an archbishop and the bishop of Rome.
Archbishop Gregory said Catholics are excited to see “the successor of Peter.”
“That is always a blessing, to have Peter in your midst. I’m edified that he has chosen the United States as one of the places that he wants to visit. I have no doubt that he has received many invitations to visit other nations,” he said.
Contributing to this story was Gretchen Keiser. To see the video from the Archdiocese of Atlanta visit www.archatl.com/clife/pope/papa.html.