On Sept. 25, Pope Francis gave his first ever Mass in the Big Apple before an audience of 20,000 people in Madison Square Garden. Immediately following the much-anticipated event, three Western New Yorkers who traveled to New York City for the Mass gave their thoughts on the experience, as well as what it meant to them to be able to hear and see the pope during his inaugural trip to the United States.
Meghan Dandrea, associate director of youth faith formation at Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Elma, and Penny and Patricia Emery, parishioners of St. Amelia's in Tonawanda who are granddaughter and grandmother, all said the experience of being present for the papal Mass was one they will never forget, and one that spoke uniquely to them in their individual circumstances.
Dandrea, who called the Mass "extraordinarily beautiful in its simplicity," said the fact that there were hundreds of priests, bishops, cardinals, an orchestra, a choir and Pope Francis as celebrant made this special event more extravagant than an ordinary parish Mass. However, the "heart of the event - the proclamation of the Scriptures and the Eucharist - was highlighted in striking simplicity."
"Pope Francis, beyond the labels and the myths foisted upon him by the world, is a priest of Jesus Christ," Dandrea said. "In that moment, I heard more than his words, but also the whisper of St. Peter, 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.' It was so evident, as I watched him consecrate the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, that at the very center of his being is a man totally in love with Jesus Christ."
Being able to hear Pope Francis also had a very special significance for Dandrea, since earlier this year, she went completely deaf after an illness and had cochlear implants put into her ears in August to restore her hearing. The implants were turned on two weeks before the Mass at MSG. Dandrea, a parishioner of St. Bernadette Parish in Orchard Park, said the fact that she regained the ability to hear just in time to be able to hear the pope in New York City was a "moment of grace-filled triumph."
"In the midst of my own personal journey of suffering, one complete with its share of tears, I was able to understand and, perhaps even for the first time, see so clearly how this trial in my life has led me closer to Jesus," Dandrea said. "Deafness, despite the pain, has opened my heart, my mind and soul, and dare I say, my ears, to His call in ways that would not have been possible without its presence in my life."
For the Emerys, the trip was a fortunate twist of fate, as they won two of 50 pairs of tickets via a lottery the Diocese of Buffalo held to distribute the limited number of tickets to see the papal Mass.
"I said to my boyfriend, 'What are the chances that we could win this for Grandma?' He was like, 'Eh, what do you have to lose?'" Penny Emery said of her decision to enter this lottery.
Emery said she and her grandmother had some expectations going in, having read about the Mass online beforehand. They knew there would be a pre-Mass show to get into the reflective, prayerful spirit of the celebration. While they were not sure exactly what to expect, this included speeches and videos the Archdiocese of New York put together, which Emery said "blew away any expectations."
"I'm at a loss for words, because it really was spectacular," she added. "One of the things that made it really special for me was the sheer number of priests and bishops that were in attendance."
During the Mass, the arena was set up in a similar way to MSG's normal footprint for a concert, with the stage toward the back. At the back of the stage, where seats are usually empty for a concert, was where the concelebrants were sitting. During Holy Communion, these clergy members dispersed to assist the deacons in attendance with the distribution of the Eucharist for thousands of people in attendance.
"What I read was that there would be 250 deacons called from the local communities. Plus, there were probably another 100 or so priests that were there celebrating the Mass," Emery explained. "They came right to you, right to your row. On the floor, they did it the way that you would see normally at Church, where the priests stood at the front. People made their way out of their rows like you would make your way out of a pew. Where we were sitting, the priest came right into our row to give us Communion."
In keeping with Pope Francis' message on immigration, the first reading the lector read was in Spanish. Additionally, during the Prayers of the Faithful, the prayers were read in Gaelic, Mandarin, French, Italian, English and Portuguese, which Emery also said was moving because it honored the diversity of the country and the Catholic Church. Patricia Emery called the experience "overwhelming."
"The main thing was that you felt his joy. You could hear him speak, see his beautiful smile. It was just very inspiring," Patricia Emery commented. "This was a very nice ending to my life."
For Dandrea, the message of Pope Francis is a simple one of being like Christ. In his life, Pope Francis has spread his important message much as Jesus Christ did in His time, she said.
"He is meeting people where they are, affirming who they are and then loving them to a better existence. He is sharing our story as children of God, a story of love and mercy - the love and mercy that we, as a Church, is founded on," Dandrea said. "It is genius, really; he is in touch with his audience and uses images and examples that resonate with all people. However, that doesn't dull his message or undermine his call to be like Christ in the world. I think his methods are intriguing people and calling them to listen and notice."