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A special visit for Boston

By Father Robert M. O'Grady
Posted: 4/8/2005

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When the surprising news of the election of a new pope who was so vigorous, young and enthusiastic was announced few could have imagined the length, breadth and depth of the man who was chosen as the successor of Peter.

One of his first trips was to the United States and the first stop was in Boston on Oct. 1-2, 1979.

The visit was the first of a pope to Boston and strictly speaking it was the first papal visit to the United States as its primary purpose. Paul VI’s visit was primarily to the United Nations and then to the archdiocese of New York.

When the Holy Father arrived in Boston he deplaned from and Aer Lingus aircraft that had specially outfitted for him and brought him from Ireland the ancestral land of so many of the Catholics of the Archdiocese of Boston. Greeted by Boston’s archbishop, Humberto Cardinal Medeiros, the Holy Father began his pastoral visit by a signature gesture that marked so many visits across the world — he knelt and kissed the American soil at Logan International Airport.

The motorcade took the Holy Father from his landing in East Boston through Boston’s predominantly Italian neighborhood, the North End and then through downtown and through other sections of the Hub and then to be greeted by the Boston College band at the Cardinal’s Residence, where he dined with local archdiocesan figures among them Cardinal Medeiros and his auxiliary bishops.

Among the stops on the way to Brighton was a prayer service for the priests of the archdiocese and many from other dioceses cross New England celebrated at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

The focal point of the visit was the Papal Mass celebrated on the historic Boston Common. Not a few historians were smiling as they recalled that this same Common was the site of many meetings, planned and impromptu, some of which denounced “Romish practices,” papal plots to take over the United States and the growing problems created by the huge influx of “foreigners.”

Thousands braved the torrential downpour that greeted the gathered assembly spilling over onto bordering Tremont, Boylston, Park and Beacon Streets. While nature poured rain, the Holy Father led the throng in prayer and liturgical song. Nothing could dampen the spirit and enthusiasm of either the pope or people.

The monumental tasks, the attention to the smallest details and measures for crowd control were just some of the tasks to be faced. It is hard to recall that a quarter of a century ago security more likely meant “crowd control” than protection from those wishing to harm, injure or even kill.

Supporting the assembly on the Common and leading the liturgy’s music was the Archdiocesan Papal Choir. Currently the pastor of St. Bridget parish in Framingham, Msgr. Francis V. Strahan was the motivating force. His own evident commitment in terms of time and energy naturally energized the hundreds of members of the choir who came from all sections of the archdiocese and included also seminarians from the St. John and Pope John XXIII seminaries as well as a few priest alumni of both institutions.

The music in the program incorporated tried and true, “old favorites” and an entire new Mass setting “Redemptor Hominis” composed by Father Strahan for this most special of Masses in Boston.

In spite of the deluge, the Mass was a memorable and sacred event for all present. Those who were teenagers at the time and participated recall the night and always speak of the crowds, seeing the Holy Father and the electricity they felt from one another. Only later in recollecting do they speak of the dismal weather.

The Holy Father’s homily given in Boston “beautiful, even in the rain” took us back to our Catholic and Christian roots and our American ones as well. As with so many of the Holy Father’s texts they reveal a man who was understanding of people and yet knew that there was more that could be asked. He never shied away from challenges himself and so he could readily issue challenges to us. That memorable homily brought us back to our sources and he urged us to forge ahead with his characteristic hope-filled vision.

Father James McCune, now director of the office for senior priests was one of the organizers and masters of ceremony for the Mass. Father Gilbert Phinn, the recently deceased pastor of St. Elizabeth parish, Milton, was among the masters of ceremony at the Cathedral prayer service.

Father Thomas Maguire, pastor of St. Helen parish, Norwell was one of the several assistants to Father Phinn and he recalls the historic occasion as “moving and not to be forgotten.”

The Holy Father spent the evening at the Cardinal’s Residence and then in the morning of Oct. 2 he made a visit to the archdiocesan seminary just down the hill. There he met the faculty, administration, staff and students. After a prayer service with them he boarded a waiting helicopter that took him back to Logan for his flight departing for the next leg of his trip — New York City.

The joy of the memories of that spectacular fall day is somewhat shadowed by the occasion that brings this special Pilot issue into being — the death of that most special visitor. Yet he invites us in his last words to emphasize the joy of the Christian life.

There is a quote that in spite of searching widely the source is still underdetermined. It goes something like this: “When I was born, I alone cried, but many rejoiced. Now that I have lived and I hope been faithful, when I die I hope that many will cry. But I want you to know that I will rejoice.”

Most Holy Father: May you rejoice with endless Easter joy!