Columbia College ’07 alumna Courtney Banks was lucky enough to get tickets to Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the Youth Rally at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers
. Bwog was lucky enough that Banks volunteered to write about the experience.

Yesterday, I joined some 25,000 seminarians, priests, nuns, elementary and high-school students, and volunteers at the Youth Rally for Pope Benedict XVI.  My official capacity was chaperone for two elementary school students from my parish (Notre Dame Church here in Morningside Heights).   

A complicated choreography of buses departing from Yonkers Raceway to St. Joseph’s seminary transported all 25,000 participants to the festival grounds.  We got there early, but it took two hours before we were through the gates, past the metal detectors and ticket takers, and loosed on the seminary grounds. 

At 12:30 PM, the Pope’s arrival was some four hours away, so my co-chaperone and the eighth-grader decided to scope out food options.  I wouldn’t see them again for three and half hours; they ended up trapped in “an angry mass of humanity,” as thousands tried to get their allotment of hamburgers and chicken fingers from, apparently, two concessions-workers.   

Meanwhile, I sat on the grass with the fifth-grade girl.  We were about 100 yards back from the stage, which currently belonged to the line-up of performers who filled the afternoon before the pope’s scheduled 4:30 pm arrival.  Mo Rocca was emcee, and the acts included the nondescript contemporary Christian band “Third Day;” the energetic and earnest Christian hip-hop artist Toby Mac; and Fr. Stan Fortuna, a Franciscan friar who performed in his grey habit and played electric guitar.  

The students around me alternated between enthusiastic and self-deprecating dancing and laughter.  Troupes of young nuns picked their way through the crowd, stepping lightly over napping teens.  The nuns, priests, and seminarians commanded the prime real estate directly in front of the stage, which became a sea of black frocks and flapping veils.  A group of sisters, spotting themselves on the JumboTron, laughed and waved, jumping up and down excitedly.  

The day wore on, the sun rose high.  At one point, Mo Rocca gave a deadpan announcement:  

“The water in your bags is for drinking.  It has not been blessed.  No, really, they just wanted us to announce that.” 

The concert highlight, Kelly Clarkson took the stage around 3:30.  She gave us “Walk Away,” Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain,” and “Since You’ve Been Gone;” the performance was quick and flawless, but we were really all just waiting for Act II.   

Around 4:40 PM, a low cheer erupted from the crowd: the pope’s motorcade was visible on the JumboTron.  First was a private meeting inside the seminary with disabled children.  His address and blessing were broadcast live to the crowd; when he intoned “Peace be with you,” the outdoor crowd responded en masse “And also with you!” to his image and voice on the massive screens. 

Around 5:20 PM, more cheering broke out.  We all craned and turned: no one knew where the popemobile would pop up.  Only catching a few glimpses, we turned back to the stage where Benedict now stood, greeting the crowd.  Being far in the back,  for the first time I considered the practical value of Benedict’s all-white ensemble: his cassock, skull-cap, and even his snowy hair seemed to glow.  The silver cross that he wears at chest-level glinted brightly in the afternoon sun. 

Benedict greeted the screaming mass with arms outstretched over the crowd, giving what’s been called his “air piano” wave.   John Paul II was beloved for his charisma and affection when greeting throngs of faithful; what I observed of Benedict was his natural dynamism.     

The official papal program commenced with an address by Cardinal Egan, who sounded out of his element in such an ebullient environment.  The crowd was led in a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” (sung in both English and German), in recognition of Benedict’s 81st birthday three days prior.   

About a dozen representative students spoke briefly and presented the pope with a host of gifts, which included portraits of six saints, blesseds, and venerables who had each served or lived in New York, and an assortment of grains, meant to represent the diversity of heritage in the American Catholic Church.   

Around 6:10 PM, Benedict addressed the crowd.  He commented on the diversity of the six holy men and women (Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was a Catholic Algonquin; Venerable Pierre Toussaint was born a slave in Haiti), saying “there is no stereotype to this group, no single mold.”  Touching on drugs, degradation, and even his own experience growing up in Nazi Germany, he urged the examples of the saints as remedy for the “callousness of heart” that “ignores, then ridicules, the God-given dignity of every human being.” 

Benedict then reiterated a common theme on his US trip: the condemnation of moral relativism.  Here, Benedict couched this call to truth and goodness within a meditation on freedom of thought and discourse.  He commented that “in some circles to speak of truth is seen as controversial or divisive” and that accordingly such discussions were relegated to the private sphere.  This leads to indiscriminate assignation of value.  Truly in his element as scholar and teacher, Benedict told the crowd: “This we call relativism.” 

Benedict concluded with a heartfelt outreach to the seminarians and religious gathered before him.  He urged commitment to vocations and prayer, and did not conceal his excitement in saying he’d heard the numbers of seminarians in the United States is increasing. He then gave a short message in Spanish, and blessed the crowd.   

All in all, Pope Benedict addressed the crowd for a solid twenty minutes.  His speech was complicated, fluid, and carefully thought-out, at once academic and accessible.  His English, which is fluent but heavily accented, has a gentle and melodic quality that makes him very easy to listen to with sustained attention.  And he smiled throughout.   

Kelly Clarkson retook the stage to sing “Ave Maria,” humbly off to one side of the pope, and modestly re-attired in a blue frock.  We waved our white and gold scarves as the popemobile wound back through the crowd, disappearing from sight.