We know what a thrill it is to be in the presence of the pope. Sunday, April 20, 2008, started out as an ordinary day and ended with an extraordinary experience. As has been our practice for 20 years, my husband and I attended the 7:30 a.m. Catholic Mass at St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Franklin Square and then we went to breakfast.
We were Sunday regulars at six different places, but our preference of late was the Landmark Diner in Port Washington where we could get our waffles with strawberries and yogurt swirl. No menus needed. As soon as Melody saw us, she would place our order and then come to chat.
"Why aren't you at Yankee Stadium?" she asked, referring to the visit of Pope Benedict XVI.
"Because we didn't win the lottery," my husband, Anthony, replied. If you wanted to attend the papal Mass, you had to fill out a request form at your local church and hope for the best. Melody nodded and went to get our coffee.
Seconds later, a friendly Irish face approached our booth. "I couldn't help overhearing your conversation. If you want to go to the papal Mass, I have two extra tickets. My husband works for the archdiocese and is working today and my daughter can't go. They're yours if you are interested."
We were stunned, but Anthony hesitated. "What about our cats? We didn't feed them this morning." I put down my forkful of food and said I would take care of it. Something had come over me, and I found myself wanting to do this more than anything else. I was surprised at the intensity I felt.
But how we would get there? No cars were allowed at the stadium, and the only means of transportation would be by train, and then a subway from Penn Station to the stadium. We had read that the gates at Yankee Stadium would close at noon. How could we do this in time?
As if reading our mind, this lovely woman named Ginny offered to drive us. Her friend, Joann, required a wheelchair and they had an official Papal Handicap Pass. It would be their pleasure to take us, she said. There was no time to reflect on this generous offer. Instead, I asked if they could wait a half-hour while I raced home to take care of the cats. I didn't tell them home was seven miles away and prayed that every police officer was on duty somewhere else.
I went home, fed the cats and with camera, water, hats, jacket and one cut apple, I made it back to the diner just as they were getting into their van. As Anthony and I piled into the backseat, Ginny handed us the beautiful papal tickets. "They're very good seats, they're box seats," she explained.
There was little traffic on the road and the car lane leading into the stadium was empty. With the handicap pass, we parked less than 15 feet from the gate. Ginny explained they would not be sitting with us, as wheelchair participants had to sit in a special area. As Joann alighted from the van, I asked this beautiful Irish lady with a radiant smile and eager laugh how she had come to needing a wheelchair. "I have MS," she said simply. It turned out that with Anthony and me at Gate 12 and Ginny and Joann at Gate 16, we could clearly see each other at the stadium. We agreed to catch up with them after the service.
The entertainment began at noon. The Harlem Gospel Choir lifted people from their seats. Harry Connick Jr. had people laughing as he related a friend's question, "How Catholic are you?" His response: "I'm playing for the pope, aren't I? It doesn't get any more Catholic than that." And Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor and doctor who is a double amputee, brought everyone to tears with his rendition of "God Bless America."
Then it was time for the pope's arrival. Shouts of "We love you, Papa!" began in the center bleachers and radiated outward as people waved their gold and white scarves in greeting. The pope, it seemed, wanted to reach out to all of us. The windows in his popemobile were rolled down, as he waved to us all. He was no longer the pope in Rome, he was our pope. We loved him and he loved us.
I looked around at the 57,000 people in the stadium and realized that as wonderful as it was to be entertained and attend the papal Mass, what impressed me was the love. Love of the pope, love of the people and for this one brief moment, love for each other.
Anthony and I were blessed with a miracle. We were given a special invitation by two angels, Ginny and Joann -- strangers we had met at a diner. It was an experience we will treasure for a lifetime.
Regina T. Gilbert Contrino,
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