Posted December 07, 2015:
Two Tickets

by Mary Nadeau.

Wednesday, Sept. 16

"We won!" my husband Gil shouted. "We won two tickets to the papal Mass in Madison Square Garden!"

On a whim, he had entered a free drawing sponsored by our diocesan newspaper, then forgot all about it—until now. We were stunned.

"I can’t believe this," I said. "Do you think you can walk okay?"

"Sure I can walk. This is the chance of a lifetime!"

My husband needs hip replacement surgery. He also needs knee replacement surgery—in both legs. He limped around all summer, steadily worse, despite cortisone shots in both knees.

He needs Tylenol before all three weekend Masses just to get around the sanctuary at our church, where he serves as a permanent deacon. This summer, we ruled out travel and stayed home. How could he possibly consider this?

Yet … our neighbor could watch the dog. We could even afford it, since we hadn’t spent money on a summer vacation. So, there it was—two papal tickets! It seemed like God was telling us to go for it.

Thursday, Sept. 17

We have our train tickets and hotel room booked! I’m starting to get excited. Some folks are thrilled for us, some envious, some give us a blank look. Some casually say, "Oh, that’s nice," as if we’re going to see a Rangers game. But we’re going to see the Vicar of Christ on Earth!

Friday, Sept. 18

Gil got another knee brace and a handicapped car sticker. I’m anxious about the predicted gridlock, traffic, and security problems. But I’m excited about what God has in store for us. This is not a tourist trip, it’s a pilgrimage.

Friday, Sept. 25

We’re ready! We wake up early and drive to catch the train. Only one glitch—all the handicapped parking spaces at the train station are full! I say a quick prayer to Father Eddie Doherty. Almost immediately, Gil finds a spot. Thanks, Fr. Eddie!

Once on board, we enjoy the three-hour ride to Penn Station. The Hudson River appears on our right.

A great blue heron wades in the shallows. I see a red tug boat pushing a rusty barge, a lone sail boat, and a V of Canada geese flying south over the murky water. We nibble sandwiches and fruit, brought from home to save money. Even with senior citizen fares, this trip is still expensive for us.

At Penn Station, we’re enveloped by milling crowds and police. Officers are everywhere! The hotel desk clerks say they’ve never seen this kind of security. Already, we’re tired out—and it’s only 1 p.m. But our room is ready, thank God, so we check in.

We paid ten dollars extra for a room with "a view" and from the ninth floor we can see the new World Trade Center, the Empire State Building and, just a block away, Madison Square Garden. We unpack and relax.

Even though it’s only a block away, we leave an hour early. The streets are jammed. The lines are extremely long—and barely moving. The sun is broiling. There is no breeze.

Gil is sweating profusely, hobbling along with his knee braces and two canes. I’m wiping the sweat off him every couple minutes. I’m afraid he’ll pass out. I pray fervently for help and, just a moment later, we’re allowed into a handicapped line. It’s shady here! There’s a breeze! Thank you, God!

Once inside, we see more NYPD (NY Police Department) officers and Secret Service agents in bullet-proof vests. I hear ferocious barking and turn to see a rangy black German shepherd with its handler. We show our photo IDs and papal Mass tickets, then pass through the metal detector.

Immediately, it picks up Gil’s metal knee braces and pacemaker. He’s pulled aside and patted down. The security officer taps his chest to check where his pacemaker is and feels both his legs for the metal in his braces.

Now, more lines. Lines for restrooms. Lines for papal souvenirs. Lines for concessions. Lines for confessions. Yes, confessions. That’s a new one for Madison Square Garden I bet. Priests wearing stoles are sitting all over on folding chairs. Some have penitents seated opposite them, hearing their confessions. It’s a massive spiritual clean-up operation before Mass.

Water is five bucks a bottle, but we’re so parched that I gladly fork over ten bucks. Cold water never tasted so good! More walking—Gil is hanging in there. Finally, an usher seats us—hooray!

The program has started. A gospel choir sings, then Broadway singers do a praise number. Decades of the Rosary are prayed between the music. Martin Sheen is the announcer, bringing on Gloria Estefan, then Jennifer Hudson who sings "Hallelujah."

On the overhead Jumbotron screen, Cardinal Timothy Dolan welcomes us with his easy, folksy way of relating. "I like this guy!" says a man in the next seat. So do we.

Finally, Harry Connick, Jr. gives a rousing rendition of "How Great Thou Art," getting all of us to join in. "Come on, you know the words!" he shouts. We all sing along.

Gil points out three large sections of seats directly behind the altar, filled with priests. There must be six or eight hundred of them, all dressed in black. Suddenly they rise, these men in black, and together, they blossom into white, as they don albs and white chasubles to concelebrate Mass.

The word "supermen" comes to mind. Maybe that’s why they’re milling around, grinning, and taking selfies.

Excitement is building. We’re all waiting on the Holy Father. It’s almost time! Things are at fever pitch. Suddenly, someone yells, "There he is!" Cheers and applause ripple over the crowd.

Where? Where? Finally, I look down and there, about two stories below us on the arena floor, is Pope Francis, standing up in his little golf cart as it rolls down the aisle. The spotlights pick up the Pope’s pure white cassock and white zucchetto. The atmosphere is electric. I feel a prickle of excitement and pure joy.

He is waving to us! We thunder applause and cheer. It all seems surreal. Yet, this is real. It’s great to look down and see with my own eyes our Holy Father, Pope Francis!

His midget vehicle circles below us, he stops to kiss a baby, then disappears to vest for Mass.

This pope loves simplicity and his humble little golf cart makes a statement, a bit like a modern-day donkey entering Jerusalem.

When the procession for Mass begins, thousands of cell phones flash, taking photos. Music swells as the cardinals arrive, followed by 30-plus bishops, followed by the deacons, followed, at last, by Pope Francis himself, looking humble and somewhat small.

Then, like any priest beginning Mass, the Holy Father opens with the familiar words, "In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit." And, just like that, we ease into the comfortable familiarity of the liturgy.

How amazing, to be part of this crowd of 20,000 Catholics who respond to the Pope’s "Dominus vobiscum" with "Et cum spiritu tuo." The liturgy moves along, flowing seamlessly from English to Latin to Spanish.

Distributing Holy Communion to 20,000 people is a logistical marvel. I glance around and notice deacons and seminarians, strategically placed, holding large ciboriums. For Communion, people walk up a steep flight of stairs. I pray Gil can manage.

Seconds later, a young seminarian appears, carefully picking his way down the steps, reverently distributing Hosts. Thank You, Lord, for coming to us.

After Communion, Madison Square Garden is quiet as a pin! For this one space in time, the presence of the Lord and his people make it a sacred place. It is a profound experience.

After Mass there’s a festive atmosphere. Everyone mingles. Priests and deacons smile as they’re told, "Thank you, Father," and "Good job, Deacon." It’s beautiful to hear this, and I think to myself, we need to do this at home too.

On the street outside, people are an ant hill of activity: TV reporters interview folks. Vendors hawk, "Pope t-shirt—ten bucks!" Nuns surround a life-size cut-out picture of Pope Francis for group photos.

Several NYPD busses are parked at the curb, with hundreds of men in dark suits lined up, waiting to board. Plainclothes police. They look worn out, but smile when people tell them, "Thanks for keeping our Pope safe."

At last, back in our room, we snack on cookies and turn on the TV—it’s all about the pope!

Finally, just before bed, I take one last look out our window at the lights of Manhattan. Looking up through a thick, cotton-like haze, I can just make out a full moon, and remember the Holy Father’s words: "Amid the smog of our cities, God lives with us."

Mary Nadeau and her husband, Deacon Gil Nadeau, friends of Madonna House, live near Utica, NY, in the Diocese of Syracuse.


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