CNS PHOTO/L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO VIA REUTERS
In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to celebrate Mass at Nationals Park in Washington. About 50,000 people from around the Washington area and from across the United States attended the liturgy, the Holy Father’s first public Mass as pope in this country. Later, Pope Benedict told Cardinal Donald Wuerl, “That liturgy was a true prayer!”
CNS PHOTO/L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO VIA REUTERS In April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI waves as he arrives to celebrate Mass at Nationals Park in Washington. About 50,000 people from around the Washington area and from across the United States attended the liturgy, the Holy Father’s first public Mass as pope in this country. Later, Pope Benedict told Cardinal Donald Wuerl, “That liturgy was a true prayer!”

Ten years ago this week, Pope Benedict XVI made his first and only apostolic visit to the United States, first visiting Washington, D.C., from April 15-17, 2008. The centerpiece of his visit to the nation’s capital was his Papal Mass at the newly opened Nationals Park.

In one of the most unforgettable images from that Mass, the crowd of nearly 50,000 people from across the United States and from throughout the Archdiocese of Washington welcomed him with an enthusiastic ovation, and Pope Benedict, after processing to the altar, smiled and faced the crowd, with his arms outstretched, as if to embrace them. The feeling seemed mutual.

Jane Belford, then the archdiocese’s chancellor and a member of the Papal Visit Planning Committee, has a special keepsake depicting that scene: a copy of the next day’s New York Post, with its front page showing that photo of the pope, with the headline: “Come to Papa!”

“That visit is so memorable in my mind… We were struck by how gentle and pastoral he was,” Belford said in an interview.

She said the visit planners weren’t sure what the reaction would be for the Holy Father’s visit to Washington. 

“We knew the faithful would welcome him… The welcome was beyond my expectation in its warmth, turnout and enthusiasm,” she said. “It was a great shot in the arm for Catholics, his visit. When he came, it was a great boost, to have this welcome for the leader of our Church… It gave us all a renewed appreciation for our Catholic faith. The visit was a resounding success.”

For Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington who offered a personal greeting to Pope Benedict at the Mass and helped host his visit here, another part of the liturgy also remains unforgettable, one decade later.

“When the pope began the Eucharistic prayer, the silence that pervaded the entire Nationals Park” and the crowd of people gathered there “was such that the only noise you could hear was the street noise outside. There was such a sense of reverence and devotion that it impressed everyone,” the cardinal said.

Cardinal Wuerl noted that, “At the conclusion of the Mass when we got into the car with the pope, he turned to me and said, ‘That liturgy was a true prayer.’”

Thomas Stehle – the director of music for the Papal Mass who serves as the pastoral associate for liturgy and director of music ministries at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle – said those words of the pope about the Mass offered “a welcome validation and confirmation that we had achieved what we set out to accomplish.”

As the Papal Mass at Nationals Park was being planned, Stehle said Cardinal Wuerl desired to “have music with a diversity of style, culture, language, and performers” to reflect the diverse group of Catholics at the Mass.

“With an Intercultural choir of 80 singers, a Gospel choir of 80 singers and an Archdiocesan Papal Mass Choir choir of 250 singers from parishes throughout the Washington Archdiocese, a combined choir of 410 adults were joined by an additional choir of 175 children to accomplish that goal,” he said. “More than 600 singers and instrumentalists joined forces to assist the crowd of 47,000 to praise God in many languages from diverse cultures.”

Stehle noted that after months of preparation, “on a crystal-clear spring morning, all of the very hard work of planning and rehearsing came together with a remarkable tour de force.  Many choir members expressed to me that their participation on that day was one of the true highlights of their entire lives.”

The music for the Papal Mass at Nationals Park included a prelude, “We Are One in the Spirit,” sung by opera singer and Washington native Denyce Graves, and “Panis Angelicus” sung after Communion by Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, who after singing knelt before the pope to receive his blessing.  

In addition to the gratitude expressed by Pope Benedict after the Mass, Stehle said he especially appreciated a letter he received afterward, sent by a woman who had attended the Mass at Nationals Park.

“She had emigrated from Central America some years earlier,” Stehle said. “When she entered the stadium during the prelude of the Mass she recognized a song sung at Mass in her native country and turned to her friend and said in astonishment, ‘They know we are here.’”

The theme of Pope Benedict’s visit to the United States was “Christ Our Hope,” a message that he underscored in the closing words of his homily at Nationals Park:

“Those who have hope must live different lives!” the pope said. “By your prayers, by the witness of your faith, by the fruitfulness of your charity, may you point the way towards that vast horizon of hope which God is even now opening up to his Church, and indeed to all humanity: the vision of a world reconciled and renewed in Christ Jesus, our Savior. To him be all honor and glory, now and forever. Amen!”

Belford said that spirit of hope, and one of joy, permeated Pope Benedict XVI’s entire visit. “I remember it was such a joyful time that these great crowds turned out, these enthusiastic crowds,” she said.

That April 15, Pope Benedict XVI arrived at Andrews Air Force Base, where he was greeted by then-President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush – the first time that an arriving head of state had been greeted there by the president. The wind ensemble of nearby Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville played as the cheering crowd there welcomed the pope.

Excited groups of schoolchildren and local Catholics greeted the pope upon his arrivals and departures at the Apostolic Nunciature and as his popemobile wound through the streets of Washington, including right past the entrance of St. Stephen Martyr Church on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Students from Annunciation School in Washington serenaded Pope Benedict XVI as he emerged from the nunciature on the morning of April 16, singing “Happy Birthday” to him in German and English to honor him on his 81stbirthday.

Later that morning, “there was this wonderful, incredible welcome at the White House, with the president and first lady welcoming the pope,” Belford said, noting that on that sunny morning with a blue sky overhead, the formality of the welcoming ceremony also included the large crowd of people on the south lawn singing happy birthday to him.

At that White House welcome, Pope Benedict said, “I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel.”

Later that day, Pope Benedict celebrated vespers with U.S. bishops in the Crypt Church of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Pope Benedict – noted as a teacher of the faith – also demonstrated his pastoral side during the visit. At the Nationals Park Mass, his voice seemed to express true sorrow as he decried the tragedy of clergy sexual abuse of minors, an issue he had also discussed in his talk with the bishops, where he encouraged child protection efforts and outreach to victims. After the Papal Mass, the pope returned to the nunciature and quietly met with a group of abuse survivors, listened to their stories and prayed with them.

His papal visit to Washington also included a meeting with Catholic educational leaders from across the country who gathered at The Catholic University of America, where Pope Benedict XVI said, “Education is integral to the mission of the Church to proclaim the Good News. First and foremost, every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God, who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”

Bishop David O’Connell of Trenton, New Jersey, who was then Catholic University’s president, said that Pope Benedict, formerly a college professor, “was very much at home” meeting with the Catholic educators.

Also during his visit to Washington, Pope Benedict met with representatives of other religions at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, where he emphasized the importance of interfaith prayer and cooperative charitable efforts aimed at building the common good.

To commemorate the papal visit, Catholics at parishes and schools collected 112 tons of food in Catholic Charities’ Hunger to Hope drive honoring the pope.

For many who witnessed and participated in Pope Benedict’s visit to Washington, that experience was something they will never forget. James Oppido, a young man with Down syndrome, was among the gift bearers at the Nationals Park Mass. Later remembering how the pope smiled and gave him a blessing, Oppido put his hand over his heart and said, “My friend, the pope!”

Five years later in 2013, Pope Benedict retired to a life of prayer and study and was succeeded by Pope Francis. When the Blessed (now Saint) John Paul II Seminary was established by the Archdiocese of Washington in 2011, the altar from Pope Benedict’s Papal Mass at Nationals Park was moved to the seminary’s chapel. Just as the altar was the centerpiece of the pope’s visit to Washington, it remains the focal point in the lives of the seminarians there, who gather before it for daily prayer, Mass and Eucharistic adoration.

Reflecting on Pope Benedict’s visit to Washington one decade later, Jane Belford said she has another favorite memento – the ticket to the Papal Mass, and its envelope, which on its back includes words from Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on Christian hope, Spe Salvi: “The  one who has hope lives differently; the one who hopes has been granted the gift of a new life.”

The papal visit, she said, was marked by “such a wonderful spirit of working together and really being proud to be Catholic. I think back to the theme of his visit, which was hope, ‘Christ Our Hope.’ I think people felt that. It was good to hear and be reminded that Christ was our hope.”

Cardinal Wuerl said the message of hope that Pope Benedict offered is one that endures. “He came, he said, as a messenger of hope, and one of the things I remember was his repeating to us (that) the person who has hope lives differently,” the cardinal said. “I continue to this day to remember that, as a reminder of how one should face each day, aware of our hope in Christ’s return and our life forever with him.”