The first time was in 1993, when the Archdiocese of Denver hosted World Youth Day at Cherry Creek State Park. For that, thanks to the advocacy of my newly-appointed Director of Campus Ministry, Dick Warner, c.s.c., the entire Folk Choir traveled out to join in the choir – we were one of six ensembles that had been invited.
John Paul II was at the zenith of his papacy: robust, energetic, able to pull the young people of the world together like a rock star (his arrival by helicopter is one I won't soon forget). He came right up on the staging before the Mass, belting out "The music! The music! Thank God for the music!"
This time, of course, was very different. Benedict is aging quickly, is a quieter man with his own style. And this time, my witnessing of the Holy Father was at one of the regular Wednesday audiences, held in the great hall specifically constructed for these kind of occasions.
Yet I couldn't help but draw strong similarities between the two gatherings. For despite the differences in men and age and personality and actual venue, there was one common denominator that rooted the two assemblages in undeniable unity.
That common denominator was the People of God.
On both occasions, I was privileged to see what happens when the faithful gather around the "Pater Familias". It is one of the great gifts of the Catholic community that we have such a servant, the "Pontifex Maximus," (which is one of his official titles, my favorite, which translates "the greatest builder of bridges").
When I consider the expression of this thing we call Catholicism, it has often occurred to me that the papacy is a unique gift. In that assembly hall, there we all were, divided by language, cultural expressions, color of skin – a panoply of differences, all with their unique power to divide and cause dissension. Yet there we were, all united, tangibly, surrounding the leadership and service of this one human being. It is an awesome responsibility, a huge cross. But it is a tremendous gift to our family of faith.
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Location:Assembly Hall, Vatican City, Italy