This past week, we celebrated the second anniversary of Benedict XVI’s election as pope. There was a great deal of wonderful commentary around the Catholic blogosphere, and I enjoyed recalling that day when, working away at my computer, I’d had the “St Peter’s Chimney Cam” up in the corner of the screen. Once the white smoke appeared, I flipped on EWTN and called for the family to join me. We all screamed with joy and literally jumped up and down with excitement when the name was announced. Once we’d composed ourselves and the news had sunk in, we all gathered around and recited the Te Deum in thanksgiving.
But that week was also tinged with sadness, because my grandfather was approaching death. Just a couple of days after Benedict’s election, I would be climbing on a plane for Seattle to be with my family as we said good-bye. Interestingly, it was an incident from that trip which provided my most poignant memories of the pope’s election.
I got out to Seattle on Thursday night, April 21st, and drove a couple of hours south and west to where my grandfather was. By then, he was not communicative, but the most important thing was that we were all together with him. Things only got worse on Friday and Saturday. As I was scheduled to catch the redeye back to Chicago late Saturday night, I drove the couple of hours to Seattle at lunchtime and then spent the rest of the day in the City.
I wanted to go to Mass that evening, but for a host of reasons the best one (for both schedule and location) turned out to be at 4pm at Holy Martyrs of Vietnam parish. Yes, this is a Vietnamese parish, and Mass was all in Vietnamese. That was actually part of the attraction, as I was writing a novel which included Vietnamese-American Catholic characters. It had been awhile since I’d attended a Vietnamese Mass, and I figured the experience would help me write those characters more realistically.
I could devote several posts to the various things I saw there, but suffice it to say this: I got there early, but the place was already almost full. I was astounded at how young and vibrant the place was, and how many children were there. There were some seats available, but I felt like such an interloper that I felt more comfortable standing in the back than wedging myself into a pew. (There was only one other Caucasian in the building, and he was clearly married to a Vietnamese woman.) By 4pm, it was standing room only. Mass didn’t start until nearly 4:30, and by that time the place was jammed.
And that’s when it got interesting. When the priest processed in, he was led by several altar boys — carrying a large, framed picture of the new pope! When they reached the altar, they put that picture on the floor in front of it, so the whole congregation could see it during Mass. Right then, though I still felt like an interloper, I no longer felt like an outsider. This was my family. We were all children of the same Father God in heaven, and the same Holy Father here on earth. At a time when the patriarch of my own personal family on earth was just hours away from leaving us, this was an incredibly reassuring experience. Here I was, surrounded by people I’d never met and in many cases couldn’t even carry on a conversation with, and yet we were all one family in this truly universal and catholic church — all through our unity in the man in white whose smiling picture gazed out on all of us.
I couldn’t understand a word of the Mass, apart from “amen” and “alleluia,” until the homily. The homily was also in Vietnamese, of course, but with an interesting interjection. The priest began speaking in the sing-song tones of the Vietnamese language, but after a minute or so paused and pronounced slowly, in Latin, “Habamus Papam.” I smiled, as I knew exactly what he was talking about. “We have a pope,” he added, in English. More sing-song Vietnamese followed, and then he paused to pronounce slowly, in English, “Cah-dee-nahl Raht-zing-uh.” I smiled again, and looked with gratitude at the picture under the altar.
I didn’t understand any more words that afternoon, but I didn’t really need to.