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Nats' New Cathedral to Baseball Prepares for Pontiff

By Daniel LeDuc and Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The transformation of Nationals Park into an open-air church for a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI began yesterday, with workers installing hundreds of thousands of square feet of flooring over the Kentucky bluegrass outfield.

The carpenters, electricians and other workers, 500 in all, weren't able to begin sooner because of the Nationals' game Sunday. On Thursday, the Mass is expected to draw as many as 46,000 worshipers with tickets to assigned seats in the stands and on the field. Tomorrow will be spent in dress rehearsals for the two-hour Mass, and security is being tightened around the ballpark as the week wears on.

Yesterday, tarps were draped over advertising marquees. Thirty semis of equipment were being unloaded. Additional television cameras were being installed. And construction began on the 75-foot-tall altar, which will sit in centerfield with a ceiling and a backdrop of a gold curtain and crucifix.

It was the most visible preparation for the visit of the pope, who arrives today at Andrews Air Force Base. Other plans include deploying about 1,000 D.C. police officers and 300 from Maryland and Virginia during Benedict's four-day stay, his first here as pope.

"I think you're going to see that Nationals Park became a church, if only for one day," Archbishop of Washington Donald W. Wuerl said.

The Secret Service is directing security for the trip, with special emphasis on the pope's visit to the White House tomorrow, his 81st birthday, which will be followed by a drive in the bulletproof Popemobile to the Vatican Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW. Thousands are expected to line the route, which will mean several road closures.

There will be other events, not open to the public, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Catholic University and the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center.

The FBI has been investigating possible threats to the pope during his visit. He has been denounced by al-Qaeda and its supporters several times in recent years, with Osama bin Laden saying in an audiotape last month that Benedict was involved in a "new crusade" against Muslims. But Joseph Persichini Jr., director of the FBI's Washington field office, said, "At the present time, we have no viable threat to the pontiff" or the places he will visit.

Security for Thursday's papal Mass, the single-largest gathering of Benedict's visit, will include shutting down the Frederick Douglass Bridge and South Capitol Street, which runs along the west side of Nationals Park, from 2 a.m. until 2 p.m. Bomb teams will sweep the ballpark, and everyone attending will have to pass through metal detectors.

No backpacks, video cameras, food or metal, plastic or glass containers will be allowed. "Our recommendation there is to get there early," said Assistant Police Chief Patrick A. Burke, head of the Homeland Security and Special Operations Division for the D.C. police.

At the Nationals' home opener March 30 -- when President Bush threw out the first pitch, the gates were open longer and fewer people came -- some fans waited an hour to get through metal detectors.

The Navy Yard Station is the closest Metro stop to the ballpark. Drivers can park at RFK Stadium for $13 or at the old convention center at Ninth and H streets for $25. Parking passes must be bought online at http://dcpapalvisit.clickandpark.com. More than 160 buses will shuttle people from the lots to the ballpark.

Planning for the Mass began months ago. The day will begin at 5:30 a.m. with a video program of messages sent from Catholic churches throughout the country that will be broadcast on the high-definition LED scoreboard screen.

A program anchored by Andrea Roane of WUSA (Channel 9) will begin at 6 a.m., with interviews and features broadcast on the scoreboard screen. "It's to entertain, evangelize and educate," archdiocese spokeswoman Susan Gibbs said.

Concession stands with coffee, juice and muffins will be open from 6 to 9 a.m. After the Mass, which is to start at 10 a.m., the stands will reopen and serve regular ballgame fare. No alcohol will be sold.

Two of the three plush private clubs will be used Thursday. Concessions will be sold at the Stars and Stripes Club, but the elite Presidents Club will be a dressing room for 400 priests co-celebrating the Mass.

Fourteen cardinals and members of the papal entourage will use the Nationals' oval-shaped clubhouse to dress. Bishops will dress in the visitors' clubhouse. And the pope will use the office of the team's manager, Manny Acta, said Heather Westrom, director of ballpark enterprises for the Nationals.

From 6 to 8 a.m., 100 priests will hear confessions on the concourse under the scoreboard. Also, dozens of priests will gather at 8 a.m. for a private Mass to consecrate thousands of hosts, believed by Catholics to become the body of Christ. They will be held by priests and lay Eucharistic ministers throughout the ballpark and distributed during the papal Mass to save time.

Four choirs, totaling 570 voices, and an orchestra will be in the stands in left field. Opera stars Placido Domingo and Denyce Graves will perform before the Mass. They will also sing during the service, with Domingo performing "Panis Angelicus" as a post-Communion meditation.

The outfield will be covered by 150,000 square feet of plastic flooring. There will be no seating in the infield or on the pitcher's mound, which will be covered with a tarp. All of the Mass furnishings must be removed in time for the turf to be repaired for the Nationals' next home game, April 23.

The planners are trying to make the event as spiritually uplifting as possible amid the baseball surroundings, said Blayne Candy, whose company, Showcall, is preparing the ballpark.

"It's a Mass. The people are here to worship and to pray with the pope," he said. His company has produced major concerts and other events in the Washington area, but this is his first time working with the Church. "Being Catholic, there's special events, and then there are special, special events. To be part of a papal visit is surreal."

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