Mass Appeal
When 46,000 Gather to Celebrate, God Is in the Details

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

"S o do not worry and say, 'What are we to eat? or 'What are we to drink? What are we to wear?' . . . "

-- Matthew 6:31

But what are we to eat? What are we to drink?

Doughnuts and coffee, of course. It's the loaves and fishes of church life, and not at typical Nationals Park price points: A mere two bucks for two fresh cinnamon-powdered doughnuts and a lo-ooo-ng line of Catholics seeking coffee in the ethereal pre-dawn light before Pope Benedict XVI's arrival for Mass at the stadium yesterday. You can get Nutri-Grain bars or muffins, too, but go easy. Remember the days of fasting before Mass? Offer it up.

And what are we to wear?

The pope is all for layering, as usual, in his sharp, Holy Spirit-red vestments of satin -- handmade in the Netherlands and gifted to him by the Archdiocese of Washington just for the occasion. (That's what you do when the pope visits; the usual swag for the clotheshorse pontiff who has everything is more clothes. In turn, he gifted Archbishop Donald Wuerl, after opening prayers at Mass, with a red chasuble embroidered with the Vatican's insignia. Stop it, you two.)

But what are the rest of us to wear? Something sensible, of course. All Catholics know this. It's the ultimate wear-your-good-jeans-to-Mass event, but bring a windbreaker, or a cardigan. Is it really so wrong to consider the lilies of the field and decide that 46,000 Catholics just look Catholic? Talking about you, Kathleen: denim jumper, tights, loafers, headband, cute bob, as if you'd just stepped off a page from that old "Growing Up Catholic" book. And you, Tom -- get the $32 Vatican-yellow Benedict polo shirt, and wear it to Queen of Heaven next Sunday, and get the $20 "Property of Benedict XVI" athletic tee, for the gym.

And the schoolgirl look. Let's just say this now: If you have a "thing" for that, you probably just ought to walk over to a D.C. police officer and ask him to escort you away from the stadium. This is not the "pretend" teenage Catholic schoolgirl look of Gwen Stefani videos and last Halloween. We mean the genuine creature. They are everywhere, in short skirts and knee socks and rolling their sleepy eyes at everything -- and then alertly erupting into a giggle fit when a bunch of rosy-cheeked Gonzaga boys stroll by.

Which reminds us: Confession! Yes! Forgive us, fathers, all 100 or so of you hearing confessions before Mass, has it really been the 10th grade since our last confession? Past the ground-level concessionaires, on the Nationals Park plaza, there's a big white tent, under which priests are on call to unburden you of your sins.

The periwinkle-habited sisters of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matará, an Argentina-based missionary order, have volunteered to direct confession traffic, making sure the arriving busloads of faithful are in the fastest lines for penance -- "Only about a 15-minute wait at this point," one of the sisters promises, beckoning us, handing us a brochure from the archdiocese on "How to Make a Good Confession." Under an "examination of conscience" checklist, it doesn't look good for your correspondent. Did I take the name of God in vain? Did I miss Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation? Did I hate or quarrel with anyone, or desire revenge? Did I get drunk? Did I take illicit drugs? Did I willfully look at por--

Sister, we are going to have to come back later, after another cinnamon doughnut.

* * *

Problem, for all the media here, for the few lapsed cynics assigned to follow the pope, and a problem even for the event itself: For all its revelry and evident joy, the mega-Mass is just a little bit bizarre. It's Beatlemania without the screaming. It's sport without the betting. It is a historic, deeply spiritual moment to every person who chose to be here, and yet it's a very long walk on a very fine line for all involved, including Benedict. We are all shopping for metaphors in the souvenirs, trolling for double meanings in the sacrosanct, making constant decisions about reverence. It involves a Popemobile, for crying out loud. The carbon footprint may as well be God's own.

You can't resist the juxtaposition of the secular world against a moment of such faith and contemplation. Camera crews keep shooting pictures of nuns with baseball caps atop their wimples. The confession tent, with sinners sitting face to face with priests in deck chairs, whispering their act of contrition, has been photographed this way and that. (The visual cliche will be people waiting to receive the Eucharist in lines next to the Ben's Chili Bowl on the stadium concourse.)

It's intercessions and professions and confessions and concessions. There's a sort of morning talk show occurring on the Jumbotron: The smiling hosts toss to interviews with parishioners just off a bus from Ohio, then toss to an interview with the college kid who won the contest to design the altar in the outfield, then toss to Denyce Graves performing "Ave Maria." It's religion, only with a "Live With Regis and Kelly" sheen, which makes it surreal.

What is it about Catholicism that brings out the humor, the pope jokes? What is it, so deep in our popular culture, that doesn't know what to do with a nun unless she's tyrannically wielding a ruler or teaching the Von Trapp children their do-re-mi? What if she's just in line for a Diet Coke, or checking her cellphone? Which is another way of asking: What if she's real, and more unsettling, what if she's really onto something-- something we've missed or run away from? How can a Mass for the masses, all this devotion, be separated from the funny, from the intrusive trivia of its pop-Americana-fast-food setting?

It can't, unless you believe. Lost in our long-lapsed thoughts, we peek through an open door on the second level of the stadium and discover a big room full of priests in creamy-white wool cassocks, getting ready for Mass.

* * *

At a quarter of 9, we head downstairs again to see who's still waiting to confess. Sister Trinité, in her red volunteer windbreaker, admonishes those who are just showing up, expecting to get penance. "It's getting too late," she says. "You can try. But I wouldn't, unless it's an emergency. He's coming. The Holy Father gets here soon and everyone has to be in their seats. Everybody is supposed to be in their seats by 8:30. The priests have to be in their places," and Sister Trinité has to be in hers. She runs over to see if the last two remaining priests will hear confessions for the 50 or so people left in line. Another sister is pulling her away, saying, "We have to go."

"There's time," says a man in line. "There are 10,000 people still walking around this stadium."

Sister Trinité shrugs. She's done what she can; she hustles off. It's in God's hands.

Soon enough, the Popemobile is making a lap around the field, only a little faster than the Teddy Roosevelt bighead routinely runs it. The ecstasy begins. Bad Catholics, we scurry around, late like Sister said we would be, all the way up to our assigned seat on the vertiginous fourth level, the very last row, as far away from the pope as you can possibly be but seeing him bigger than life on the screen.

* * *

Lovelier than the 95-minute Mass itself is the lowercase-m mass, watching 46,000 people listen as deeply as they can to the pontiff give his homily, even though his accent is way too Col. Klink to make out each word, and no one thought of subtitles. The flock hears the shepherd anyhow, or they do that very Catholic thing that Catholics do during homilies and appear to be hearing him. At one point, it is so quiet in the stadium that the only noise is coming from out there, the noise of the secular world interfering with itself, losing itself in its narcissism, as Benedict always warns us: planes taking off, jackhammers jackhammering, trucks backing up, faraway traffic going by.

We've been handed little sheets of paper explaining how 46,000 people will get Communion, with happy faces denoting the recipients, shuffling up stairs in orderly rows by rows by rows. A half-hour later, some other Catholics are doing what other Catholics do and bugging out early, trying to beat the laws of exiting en masse. "That was really nice," says an elderly woman in a pink hat, being dragged along by her son, just as she's about to miss Placido Domingo singing "Panis Angelicus."

We are all then blessed by the pontiff, and there's a lengthy recessional. And then an even longer concessional, as everyone lines up for a fuller complement of Nationals Park fare. This is a changed world, already. The spirit is willing but the prices are up. You see it in the wide eyes of a nun behind you in line, and then a voice from somewhere further back: Nine dollars for chicken tenders?

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