– Vol. 5, No. 1: March 1999
Pope Visits St. Louis
Liturgical Spectrum in Papal Masses, Prayer Services for John Paul II’s January Visit to the United States
In a two-day visit in January that many Saint Louisans described as the most important event in the city’s history, Pope John Paul II brought his characteristic messages respect life, strengthen sacramental practice, and "Be Not Afraid" to one of the most Catholic cities in America.
New Orleans and Saint Louis are perhaps the only major American cities that have had a strong Catholic presence since their founding. Saint Louis, founded in 1764, is the ultimate "mother" diocese of every Western US diocese, and many in Canada.
The visit January 26 and 27, 1999 included a raucous but orderly Youth Rally on Tuesday, a solemn Mass of the Sacred Heart at a downtown sports dome on Wednesday, and a solemn high Vespers service Wednesday evening at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, a Romanesque-Byzantine style church that has been called one of the most beautiful in North America.
Confessionals at youth rally
Tuesday, January 26, 1999, was given over to the "Light of the World," a day-long youth rally culminating in a prayer service and speech by the pope in Kiel Center, a downtown hockey arena. Throughout the day, young people filled the Kiel; those without tickets lined parade routes and gathered in the "Papal Plaza", a closed-off intersection downtown, to listen to Christian rock bands and watch giant TV screens of the rally inside.
Volunteer ushers and police working overtime often commented on the orderliness and good nature of the crowd. Some evangelical groups took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the crowds to distribute tracts questioning Catholic beliefs.
At the Kiel Center, 174 volunteer priests in rotating shifts staffed 50 sites for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, many in temporary confessionals of white canvas, as well as eight more stations at Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist Church, next door to the "Papal Plaza", for those youths who didn’t have tickets to the Kiel rally. The Sacrament of Reconciliation was available from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The confessionals saw steady business throughout the day. In a typical comment, one volunteer, 77-year-old Monsignor Charles Forst, described the experience as "one of the highlights of my priesthood" and praised the young people for their "soul-searching … genuine" confessions.
The youthful crowd in the Kiel Center, many of whom sat for eight or nine hours before the pope arrived, was kept pumped up by rock music provided by leading Christian music acts. Between songs, various speakers "witnessed" the Gospel message.
Hype vanished when Pope appeared
Teri Seipel, who covers Christian music for KUCR radio station in San Diego and writes about it for publications including Christian Music Today!, was disappointed that the Saint Louis choirs of young people were scheduled early in the day, when many of their peers did not have a chance to hear them.
She also wondered why so many groups scheduled — such as dc talk, Audio Adrenaline, and the W’s — were Christian, but not Catholic.
"The Christian bands booked into Kiel and the Plaza are very good at what they do", said Seipel. "They extol the love of Christ in lyrics usually identified as secular…. Yet the flashing lights and pounding bass could not hide the fact that these artists do not partake of the sacramental life of the Catholic Church. Neither the Communion of Saints, nor the Mother of God, nor the Virgin Mary find a place within their lyrics. How then can these artists serve as a model to Catholic youth to live their faith?" she wondered.
"Yet when the pope entered Kiel", Seipel continued, "the bands might as well have vanished. The music, the hype, the performance dropped away.
"By his mere presence, His Holiness brought the kids to their feet, with sustained whoops, claps, cheers, tears, and shouts for 15 solid minutes. Why? The pope brings the message of the Gospel and lives the message of the Gospel. No fluff. No frills."
Just before the Popemobile entered the auditorium, the image of Saint Louis Cardinals’ home-run star, Mark McGwire bending forward to kiss the pope’s ring backstage was flashed on the JumboTron TV screen. The Popemobile entered and circled the Kiel Center to thunderous cheers and applause before the Holy Father made his way to the stage.
Pope’s message welcomed by youth
The pope’s speech to the young audience, focused on training for the Christian life, was interrupted many times by applause and cheers. He pulled no punches in stating what was necessary for Christian discipleship.
"Do not listen to those who encourage you to lie, to shirk responsibility, to put yourselves first", he urged. "Do not listen to those who tell you that chastity is passe.
"In your hearts you know that true love is a gift from God and respects His plan for the union of man and woman in marriage. Do not be taken in by false values and deceptive slogans, especially about your freedom…. Freedom is not the ability to do anything we want, whenever we want. Rather, freedom is the ability to live responsibly the truth of our relationship with God and with one another."
He stressed that personal prayer was indispensable and closed by saying, "Remember: Christ calls you, the Church needs you, the Pope believes in you and he expects great things of you!"
After his speech, the pope was presented with gifts, including a Saint Louis Blues jersey and a hockey stick. He seemed amused, and provoked laughter when he ad-libbed, "So I am prepared to return once more to play hockey! But if I will be able to, that is the question. Perhaps after this meeting, I will be a bit more ready!" Upon leaving the stage, he swung his cane like a hockey stick to further laughter and applause.
The Papal Mass
The climax of the visit was the Papal Mass, held Wednesday morning, January 27, 1999, at the downtown Trans World Dome, which normally hosts football games and other large events. Crowds began to form queues at 5 a.m. for the 9:30 Mass, and a spirit of jubilant anticipation filled the unseasonably warm morning air.
The crowd of 104,000 people in both the Trans World Dome and the Cervantes Convention Center, which are under one roof, was called the largest indoor gathering in the nation’s history.
The Mass of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was celebrated on an altar whose backdrop included a scale model of the Gateway Arch and lamp-like pillars suggesting the Mississippi waterfront. Suspended over the altar was a 34-foot-high yellow cross and the JumboTron TV screen, which gave the crowd a close-up look at the Holy Father during the Mass. The billboard-sized ads that are normally displayed on one level of the stadium were covered by the papal colors of yellow and white. Special places were reserved in front for priests, deacons and seminarians, cloistered religious, and for people with disabilities.
Cardinals and bishops filled the altar area. Musicians were behind the backdrop.
Dance — but not during the liturgy
Dance was on the program during the papal visit — notably at the Youth Rally — although organizers took care to keep it separated from actual liturgies.
During the Youth Rally, there were white and yellow robed dancers in front of the stands like cheerleaders; their choreographed movements sometimes included waving banners in time to the rock music. Later, during the prayer service, a "candle dance", in which two groups of dancers holding yellow torches swirled in interlocking circles, was performed before the pope.
The dance teams were a group of Sisters wearing habits and a group of girls from local Catholic high schools in long black dresses. (One reporter asked if the dance was meant to represent the ten wise and ten foolish virgins.)
The performance was choreographed by a novice and postulant of the Sisters of Saint Francis of the Martyr Saint George from nearby Alton, Illinois. According to novice-master Sister Martin, the Sisters initially thought they would be dancing only for the teens, rather than during the prayer service itself. She said the organizers of the youth rally changed the program so that the pope could see "liturgical movement".
There was no dance during the Mass at the Trans World Dome. However, during the early part of the pre-Mass musical program, Laura Jammer, 17, performed a solo dance. Miss Jammer’s dance, which she choreographed herself, was described in a feature story in the Saint Louis Review as combining elements from "West African Dance, jazz, ballet, and liturgical movement". The story said that Miss Jammer regularly dances at liturgies in her parish, Saint Alphonsus Church.
Since neither of these events was an actual liturgy, the organizers avoided conflict with the Vatican directive forbidding liturgical dance. The 1975 letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship had concluded that, even though dance or dance-like gestures may be permissible in some cultures, "the same criterion and judgment cannot be applied in the western culture"; thus it "cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever". If religious dance were to be introduced in the West, the Vatican letter said, "care will have to be taken that in its regard a place be found outside of the liturgy". (This Vatican directive appeared in the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Newsletter in 1982.)
The distinction between non-liturgical prayer services or events and true liturgies, however, may have been lost on the tens of thousands of people who attended these events.
Papal M&Ms, majestic music
Backstage, priests, bishops and volunteers who had been up since 4 a.m. or earlier found bagels, coffee, and bowls of yellow and white M&Ms.
Behind the altar and stage were five choirs: the Papal Orchestra, the Archdiocesan Choir, the Archdiocesan Handbell Choir and the Papal Gospel Choir, a group assembled from parish choirs for the visit. The Archdiocesan Handbell Choir called the faithful to pray with a rendition of Gustav Holst’s Andante Maestoso Fanfare. The 200-member Archdiocesan Choir and the papal symphony (made up mostly of members of the Saint Louis Symphony) performed a mix of classical and gospel songs for the entrance processional.
At 8 a.m., the long procession began. Streaming blue banners representing the waters of baptism and the Mississippi River were carried as the Papal Gospel Choir sang "Jesus is the Light". First were the priests in identical white chasubles. They were followed by 200 deacons and 200 seminarians; then representatives of 30 religious congregations and 110 contemplative nuns.
The 175 cardinals and bishops who concelebrated processed in to Anton Bruckner’s "Ecce Sacerdos" ("Behold a Great Priest") and Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy". At 9:25, the Archdiocesan Handbell Choir began to ring out "Psalm of Celebration," followed by Charles Callahan’s "Mosaics – the Third Movement".
Accompanied by the papal entourage, the Popemobile, whose progress had been tracked on the JumboTron screen, entered to "Tu Es Petrus" ("Thou Art Peter"), a 16th-century Latin hymn by Giovanni Palestrina, followed by Humbert Parry’s "I Was Glad". Archbishop Justin Rigali entered from the sacristy to the strains of John Rutter’s arrangement of "All Creatures of Our God and King".
From Foley to Rachmaninoff
During the Preparation Rite, the Archdiocesan Choir sang hymns ranging from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing", to the Saint Louis Jesuit John Foley’s "Lord By Your Cross and Resurrection", to Serge Rachmaninoff’s "Ave Maria".
The petitions of the Prayers of the Faithful were read in six different languages: English, Spanish, German, French, Vietnamese, and Polish. (Some wondered at the absence of Italian in a city with a strong Italian heritage.)
Many of the items used in the Mass had historic associations with the Church in Saint Louis. The chalice elevated by the Pope was used by Father Jean Saint Cosme to celebrate the first Mass on the present site of Saint Louis, in l699. The chalice belongs to the Church of the Holy Family in Cahokia, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Saint Louis, which is celebrating its 300th anniversary and is said to be the oldest continuous parish in the United States. Other chalices used in the Mass have ties to Father Pierre Jean de Smet, the famous Jesuit missionary, and Saint Philippine Duchesne.
The Holy Father’s homily was interrupted by applause 18 times, the loudest applause for his praise of Catholic schools and his statement, "As the family goes, so goes the nation!"
An Ecumenical Service
The Wednesday evening Vespers service at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis was an ecumenical prayer service. Those attending included Vice President Al Gore and much of Saint Louis’s political and business elite. An overflow crowd watched as the pope walked down the center aisle to seal a pair of heavy oak doors at the cathedral’s entrance. During a Jubilee Year, certain cathedrals throughout the world are permitted to have Holy Doors like those at Saint Peters in Rome. The Saint Louis Holy Doors will remain sealed until December 24th, 1999, when Archbishop Justin Rigali will open them to welcome pilgrims for the Jubilee Year 2000.
The Vespers service was attended by Buddhist monks, Orthodox priests and Protestant clergy of many denominations. Rabbi Robert P. Jacobs read a selection from Isaiah — reportedly the first time that a rabbi has read at a Catholic service since ancient times. Although the media stressed the ecumenical nature of the service, it was wholly Christian a celebration of solemn Vespers, parts of which are similar to Orthodox and Episcopalian evening prayer services. Traditional Christian choral and organ music resounded throughout the mosaic-embellished cathedral.
Although the celebration of the Papal Mass was the centerpiece of John Paul II’s latest visit to the United States, perhaps the most sensational episode was the pope’s request, honored by Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan, to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, awaiting execution for murder. Carnahan, who is militantly pro-abortion and supports the death penalty, made it clear that this was an exceptional decision not likely to be repeated.
Information from the St. Louis Review, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Catholic World Report was used in this story.
A CD recording of the music performed at the Papal Mass, including selections from the Main Choir, Children’s Choir, and Gospel Choir, was recorded at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis before the visit. For information about the CD, call 314-533-7662.