Recovering from the Papal Mass

As evidenced by my last post, I tried very hard to get myself pumped up for yesterday’s occasion of attending the papal Mass at Yankee Stadium. The Mass was very nicely done, and it was wonderful to hear a stadium full of people thunder “Amen” and the other responses, but it was still a massive crowd attending an orchestrated “event,” and both these factors, unsurprisingly, wore on me greatly.

I think it probably would have been an unmitigated pleasure for me had the organizers of the event chosen to focus solely on the pope’s coming to celebrate the Sunday liturgy with the assembled throng of faithful – including, of course, his application of the readings of the day in his homiletic address. As it worked out – and forgive me if this seems cynical – the papal appearance came across to me more as the headlining act in an afternoon of far-flung entertainment. Not that I think the Holy Father intended any such thing, but the three hours (or whatever it was) of nonstop entertainment preceding the Mass was simply not a fitting or effective way to prepare to celebrate the sacred mysteries, as far as I’m concerned. I know many people really enjoyed it, but I felt like I was at a spectacle, not a Mass.

I got off on the wrong foot as soon as I got to the stadium, as I had to stand in a line (the word being used here quite loosely) outside of Gate 4, unwillingly listening to a bullhorn-type speaker, which sounded as if it must have had a frayed cone (or whatever the technology was), blaring out at an obnoxious volume the music that was beginning to be played inside. Through the cacophony, I surmised it must have been organ music (which seemed sensible enough). Later, having a program to help me interpret what was going on, I realized that there were several marching bands that were supposed to be part of the show, but which I never saw. I could barely believe it…

The cacophony that had been blaring incessantly out of that dilapidated speaker outside Gate 4 was not organ music at all, it was marching bands! It sounded so bad, I couldn’t tell the difference! My senses felt absolutely assaulted, and while the instrumentation was at least discernible once inside the bowl of the stadium, it was often still too loud to hear clearly. But the bigger question seems to be this: What do marching bands and the lounge-sound shtick of court jesters like Harry Connick Jr. have to do with preparing for the arrival of the Bishop of Rome to celebrate the liturgy of the 5th Sunday of Easter?

How does expression move from entertainment to liturgy, from performance to prayer? This strikes me as the central problem of yesterday’s experience. The worst of it is that there didn’t even seem to be an implied discontinuity: the spectacle segued into the sacrosanct as smoothly as any other made-for-TV production. The “opening acts” climaxed just before the pontiff’s arrival with one of those ridiculous, choreographed “presentations,” complete with men in white leotards running around the stadium carrying huge paper ducks on sticks (Joyce insists they were supposed to be doves – they looked like ducks to me). It was indistinguishable from the schmaltz that a “big event” organizer would use for something like the opening ceremonies of the Olympic games.

What does it mean to bring the Holy Father into that kind of context? What are we saying by that? -And no serious Catholic can deny that context always speaks volumes about meaning – the Incarnation and sacramental economy stand squarely in the path of any such attempted denial.

The music got a lot better once he arrived, and Benedict carries the insignia of his office with such humble dignity that it almost made it possible to forget the tribulations that waiting for him had entailed, but by the time he opened the Mass, I was worn out, frazzled, and thoroughly uncollected. I needed some quiet time, and I sure wasn’t going to get it in Yankee Stadium.