It was almost 29 years ago, yet in some ways feels like yesterday. Pope John Paul II was visiting New York City, and my mother and I — along with our friends and neighbors, the Maloneys — had tickets to see him at Shea Stadium. Although I was only 11 years old at the time, small details from the day are etched in my memory — the rattle of rain on the roof of the #7 train, the endless crowd of faithful New Yorkers, and the good natured elbowing Anne Maloney and I gave to each other while sharing (and battling over) a big black umbrella, our excitement almost making us forget the damp and chill.
We found our seats high in the mezzanine, my mother reminding me to say a prayer for our pastor Father Callahan in thanksgiving for those precious tickets. Although it was only the middle of the afternoon, the sky was dark and dreary, hardly a day for an outdoor Mass. Anne waited in her seat, still huddled under the umbrella, her head so completely covered to keep out the rain that I felt sure she would miss seeing the Holy Father altogether.
Fans cheer and celebrate the exploits of the “Miracle Mets,” but no moment in Shea Stadium history could rival what would happen next. Just as our pope entered the stadium, the dark clouds parted and the sun beamed its warming rays upon the people so suddenly that I half expected to hear a chorus of angels singing “Alleluia” or an impromptu peal of the bells. Instead, there came a message no less uplifting or heaven sent, a phrase that was to be the theme of our young pope’s pontificate:
“Be not afraid!”
Anne and I are two representatives of a generation particularly touched by Pope John Paul the Great. When he ascended to the papacy, we were 10 and 11 years old. By the time he left us, exactly three years ago on April 2, 2005, Anne’s eldest daughter was 10, and mine was 11. The world loved our “Papa” and mourned his passing, but somehow I have always thought that the loss was felt even more keenly by the “John Paul II generation.” He shepherded us from childhood into adulthood with the warmth of his smile, a twinkling fatherly eye, and his strong, unwavering faith, inviting us to cross the threshold of hope by his side.
Men who follow the call to vocation sacrifice the opportunity for earthly fatherhood, yet God is not to be outdone in generosity. Never let it be said that young Father Karol Wojtyla from Poland was not a spiritual father to millions, and he shares this privilege with every priest who has ever raised a chalice, absolved a sinner, or marked the sign of the cross on the brow of the dying. We may never grasp the enormity of this form of true fatherhood until we leave this world for the next, yet somehow we always felt it during the lifetime of Servant of God John Paul II.
Toward the end of his life, we knew we would need to bid our Holy Father farewell. I remember dreading the news and feeling wrung out and hollow inside when he finally passed. Still, even in times of grief, the Lord has promised we will never be left orphans. Through the working of the Holy Spirit, the Church was given a new father and shepherd, Pope Benedict XVI. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, he soon will be in New York to bless us with his presence, embracing all God’s people, most especially the children of the John Paul II generation, sons and daughters who will grow up loving the Church, learning her teachings, and answering the call to vocation of the future.
Live coverage of “Christ our Hope, Pope Benedict XVI’s Apostolic Journey to the United States 2008” begins on Telecare Tuesday, April 15, the day before Pope Benedict’s 81st birthday. You may be sure my children will be watching much of it, awaiting the pope’s arrival as eagerly as Anne Maloney and Alice O’Brien waited so many years ago. They may not stand in line or huddle beneath an umbrella to see our new “Papa,” but the sun will shine through the darkness just the same.
[Long Island Catholic, April 2, 2008]
Letters to the Editor
Let the celebration begin
Editor: Alice O’Brien Gunther’s testimony about a visit to Shea Stadium on a day when “a rain-out” was not an option (The shepherd at Shea, TLIC 4/2/08), was an inspiring, heartwarming preview of how God will make a way for us to honor our pope come April 15. The devil may think this world is his playground, but we know that our Creator with a spoken word can part the clouds “and the sun beamed its warming rays upon the people.”
We know our redeemer lives. Let the celebration begin.
(ALICE O'BRIEN GUNTHER) Dear Alice: 040808
I read with interest your column re: The Shepherd at Shea, in TLIC April
2-08 pg19. It is hard to believe that was 29 years ago. I was there
also. I was an undercover cop assigned to guard the Pope.
From my vantage point, I saw an incident happen that others could have
seen if they had the same view as I had and realized what they were
looking at. You mentioned you were high in the mezzanine but you don't
say if you were down the right field line or the left. If you were down
the left field line, anywhere from third base to the bleachers, you might
have seen the incident that I am talking about.
On the field in deep center where the Pope would eventually speak were two
groups of people sitting in chairs on the turf facing the speaker's
platform. There was a center aisle separating the two groups. I was in
one of the end chairs next to the aisle. Both sides of the aisle were
protected. In the end chairs of the entire length of the aisle sat a
priest, a cop, a priest, a cop, etc, etc. The Pope was going to use the
aisle to go to and come from the speaker's platform.
From my vantage point, I could see just behind the right field stands out
into Queens. There came a time that a pencil thin ray of sunlight came
down from the sky. There was no little patch of blue sky that it came
down through. Trust me on this. The ray of light came right through the
dark clouds. As it descended towards the ground it spread out a bit. I
estimated it spread to no more than the width of a city block. I was a
Nassau Cop not that familiar with Queens, but I found out later, the ray
hit the ground in the vicinity of the Polish School, which was the last
stop before Shea the Pope was going to make, if the entourage had time.
On the TV that night they were talking about how the sun came out just on
that block and only when the Pope arrived to greet the Polish children.
The sun left as the Pope left. All I could think of was the Bible passage
of God the Father praising Christ with the words of, "This is my beloved
son in whom I am well pleased." Apparently as I sat in Shea Stadium
looking at a ray of light out in the Queens darkness, I was witnessing God
saying the same words about the vicar!
Alice, you described so beautifully the arrival of the Pope at Shea as the
sun began to blaze again as he circled the bases. I'm sure you remember
how the rains came back with his departure from Shea also. This celestial
event was apparently happening all day wherever the Pope went. One of the
cops who was stationed at the airport for the Pope's departure said; as
the plane left the ground, the rain suddenly stopped and a ray of sunlight
lit up the plane as it climbed out of sight. Knowing of all the other
events of the day, this was awe inspiring, he said!
Alice, I am 71 years old now and retired but I too remember that visit of
John Paul the Great like it was yesterday. Thanks for bringing it all
back into focus.