Rally was the right word for what took place in Yonkers, N.Y., April 19. The occasion, of course, was Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to pray with and inspire young people, seminarians and disabled children at an outdoor event.
An exuberant crowd of about 25,000 danced to Christian pop music until the Holy Father arrived at sundown — at which point they rallied indeed around his message of hope, truth and salvation.
“Ultimately, truth is a person: Jesus Christ,” he said.
Pointing to his firsthand experience with the “clenched fist of repression” in Nazi Germany, the Pope urged young people to reject relativism and embrace a life of prayer and contemplation.
“Do not be afraid of silence or stillness,” he said. “Listen to God.”
“As young Americans, you are offered many opportunities for personal development, and you are brought up with a sense of generosity, service and freedom,” he said. “Yet you do not need me to tell you that there are also difficulties.”
“The power to destroy does remain,” he added. “Yet it never triumphs; it is defeated.”
As it happened, the rally fell on the third anniversary of Benedict’s election as the 265th successor to St. Peter. Nostalgia was high; many participants recalled the exhilaration they felt three years ago during the papal transition and related to the Register how Benedict has influenced their lives.
Eric Wagner, 26, is in his third year of studies for the priesthood at Aquinas Institute in St. Louis. He said he and some classmates drove 17 hours to get to New York. “It’s worth it,” he said. Like many young men at the foot of the stage, Wagner was wearing a cassock and a bandana the color of the papal flag around his head.
“This event has been very significant for me,” Wagner said while taking a break from dancing. “How often do you get a chance to see the Pope?”
Wagner said he is not disheartened when he hears people talking about the dearth of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. “That hasn’t been my experience,” he said. “The Spirit seems to be at work and a gathering like this helps encourage [vocations].”
Inside the seminary, the Pope blessed disabled children and their families, and watched a performance of the Archdiocesan Deaf Choir. He walked backand forth from side to side of the chapel aisle, blessing the children and caressing their faces. Many of the children hugged him.
Sandra and Mark Wrightington came to see the Pope from Palisades Park, N.J. Their son Harold, 12, has a brain tumor.
“We’re looking for any and all divine intervention,” Mark said. “I guess you can’t get any better than a blessing from the Pope.”
Outside, while the wait was on, the energy level occasionally bordered on the frenetic. Friars played hacky-sack with seminarians in cassocks and cowboy hats while waiting for the shuttles to take them to the seminary. Food was free but people had to wait in line for hours to get anything to eat or drink.
Those gathered in the field were entertained by half a dozen rock and rap artists, including Father Stan Fortuna, the Franciscan friar who’s also a rap artist, and pop star Kelly Clarkson, winner of the first “American Idol” TV talent show.
Mae Knowles, 15, of Boylston, Mass., said she is a “major” Clarkson fan but came to New York to see the Pope.
“I didn’t even know she was going to be here,” she said. “I can’t wait to see the Pope. He’s amazing. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Asked what she’d say if she had a moment to speak with the Holy Father, Knowles replied that she would ask him to pray for her and her family. “And I’d tell him that I’d pray for him, too.”
Cardinal Edward Egan, archbishop of New York, acknowledged the challenges young people face.
“This is not an easy time to be young,” Cardinal Egan said. “Attractions of much that is unworthy of brothers and sisters of Jesus abound — movies, Internet, TV are constantly calling young people away from what is holy. They need to hear another voice, the voice of the Vicar of Christ.”
As this event came at the end of the Pope’s fourth day in the United States, the crowd was quick to forgive him for sounding a little weary as he read a prepared speech while seated on the stage.
“Pray for me,” he said during his address, “because I have just had a birthday.”
The young people responded with a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” in German.
As the schedule wound to a close, camera bulbs sparkled. People waved white and yellow bandanas. And the ecstatic cries went up: “We love you!”
Judging by the Pope’s joy, I’d say he heard every voice.
Tucker Cordani is studying for the priesthood at Blessed John XXIII National Seminary
in Weston, Massachusetts.