Watching Pope Benedict step out of his limousine this morning and wave to the thousands cheering on the White House South Lawn, one thought crossed my mind: What would my grandparents think?
They were immigrants from Austria-Hungary (later known as Czechoslovakia) who settled in the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania, where my grandfather spent most of his life deep under the earth, mining coal. Their English was spotty, and their education slim. I don't think my grandfather ever graduated high school. Together they raised five children in a rickety wooden row house not far from the coal mines. All the Hungarians and Poles and Slovaks clustered in one corner of the town. I don't know that I'd call it a Catholic ghetto – but it was definitely off the beaten path.
Back then, in the early days of the 20th century, Catholics were considered Papists, or pagans, or worse. They were the cooks and housekeepers and bus drivers and janitors. Some became priests or teachers. A few with money and connections would ascend to higher places – think of the Kennedys – but it was rare. (Even today, you will find high-profile Protestant pastors like John Hagee who refer to the Catholic Church as "The Great Whore." Some bigotry dies hard.)
So what I witnessed this morning was, for me, moving – and monumental. Not so very long ago, the idea that a President of the United States would greet the Pope at the White House was unthinkable.
The prospect of a pontiff addressing 12,000 people – and millions more across the country by TV – on the White House lawn was laughable. I suspect my grandparents would have been delighted. (Just as they would have been had they lived to see his predecessor, John Paul II – a man from their corner of the world – celebrate mass on the Mall.) And they would have shared the enthusiasm of so many others who are watching the events this week with curiosity, fascination and joy.
You can include me in that group. As a newly ordained member of the Catholic clergy – I became a deacon last May – I'm following the journey of this pope with particular pride. The personal and spiritual connection is palpable. And it serves as a reminder to me of the faith we share – one that is both Catholic and catholic.
My wife and I were lucky enough to get tickets to the mass at Yankee Stadium Sunday, so I'm looking forward to seeing The Big Guy in the flesh. Along with nearly 60,000 others, I'll be praying with him, and for him, and taking part in what will surely be a memorable celebration of the Eucharist.
My grandparents would be in amazed. But I have no doubt they will be there, praying beside all of us, and maybe wiping away a tear.