Happiness is around the bend

My daughter pointed it out first. Next to the highway, a large yellow sign advertised a breakfast drink by picturing a furry cartoon character sipping on a huge bent straw, the kind with the elbow joint, and emblazoned at the top was the caption “Happiness Is Around the Bend.”

We were in a tour bus just outside of the Bronx, the home of the New York Yankees and, for the day, the location of the world’s largest gathering of Catholics. The pope was in town, and so were my wife, daughter and I, to celebrate Mass with him at Yankee Stadium. For my family, for the 3,000 other Boston pilgrims about to join with Yankee fans, and for all the other 60,000 pilgrims--happiness was just around the bend.

Once before, I had the privilege of attending a Papal Mass. During a tour of European museums in May of 1983, our college group of art students and professors happened to be in Paris at the same time that Pope John Paul II was making a pastoral visit. We gathered outside the walls in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Unable to get inside the plaza where the outdoor service was held, we and other non-French-speaking tourists participated in the Mass vicariously.

The difference between seeing John Paul the Great then and Benedict now is instructive. The former radiated energy and drama, while the latter exudes serenity and calm. During the Mass in Paris, there was a constant hum from the crowd; during the Mass in the Bronx, there were profound moments of silence. Not the dead silence that comes when someone switches off the volume, but the meaningful silence of hushed, attentive reverence. I remember thinking during one such moment, how can so many lungs be so quiet?

Three parts of Pope Benedict’s homily struck me when I first heard them. First, he said “the Church’s unity has no other basis than the Word of God, made flesh in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

I had worn my Boston Red Sox cap for the day, prompting numerous Yankee fans to give me a little bit of a good-natured hard time. I replied that the cap was on my head because “today, the ‘B’ stands for Benedict.” Smiles signified the deeper unity among rivals. That unity is not of our own doing, though we have to be willing listeners (or obedient to God’s love, as the pope put it), and open to its prompting. Because unity’s source lies not in our own capacities, but in the One who made us, and who sent His own Son to free us, there is and always will be hope.

Then there were the pope’s words about the “Our Father”: “Each day, throughout this land, you and so many of your neighbors pray to the Father in the Lord’s own words: ‘Thy Kingdom come.’ This prayer needs to shape the mind and heart of every Christian in this nation.”

In the last several years, Massachusetts residents have been the “first responders” to many of the cataclysms that have marked both the Church’s inner life and our country’s social life. It seems that God’s Kingdom has not been coming any closer, but instead has been forced into retreat. This makes the “Our Father” prayer even more meaningful, and essential.

But how can we go forward with any conviction in the face of such challenges? Here, the third part that moved me offered great encouragement: “Follow faithfully in the footsteps of those who have gone before you! . . . Past generations have left you an impressive legacy. . . . On these solid foundations, the future of the Church in America must even now begin to rise!”

“On these solid foundations.” I thought of my parents, grandparents, and many others before me who, through their own often heroic witness, brought to me such powerful evidence of God’s love and dominion. Yes, if they, as human as they were, could live faithfully, then I too, once again, can hope and dare to do the same.

The pilgrimage to New York came a week after our daughter Miriam was confirmed by Bishop Robert Hennessey at Our Lady of Grace Church in Chelsea-Everett. His words then anticipated the ones heard a week later at Yankee Stadium. He told us parents that, when it comes to exercising the daunting responsibility of nurturing the spiritual well-being of our children, we cannot guarantee success, for that is out of our control, but instead we should strive to be faithful.

If we take to heart these messages of hope, only then can the bend to happiness not seem so impassable. For a short slide-show of our family’s journey with other pilgrims to celebrate Mass with the Pope at Yankee Stadium, go online to http://www.photoshow.com/watch/CA5fX9Cb.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.

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