Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Pope Comes to Washington

Pope Benedict XVI arrives today in Washington, marking his first trip to the United States since he was elected as the 264th successor to St. Peter almost exactly three years ago. I have twice written about Pope Benedict -- most recently just over a year ago, in reference to his old-fashioned view of economics, and previously just after his election, when I looked into his choice of a papal name.

Today's arrival also marks the first time in nearly 30 years since a reigning Catholic pope has visited the U.S. capital. Pope John Paul II (often designated "the Great") came to D.C. rather early in his papacy, in October 1979. He met at the White House with President Jimmy Carter (the first pope to do so) and presided over an open-air mass on the National Mall. Fourteen years earlier, Pope Paul VI offered Mass at Yankee Stadium, an event memorialized in the play The House of Blue Leaves, by Georgetown alumnus John Guare.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the singers in the massed choir that sang at that October 1979 Mass. The musical selections that Sunday included familiar hymns like "All Creatures of Our God and King," with original lyrics by St. Francis of Assisi and Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus," but also the premiere public performance of contemporary composer Tom Parker's "Praise the Lord, My Soul." (We were singing that one off photocopies of the manuscript.)

The "Gloria" and "Agnus Dei" were sung in Latin and drawn from Anton Bruckner's Mass in E Minor, which was written in the mid-19th century with a woodwind accompaniment designed specifically for performance outdoors, where stringed instruments tend not to carry well and pipe organs are unavailable.

The song for the preparation of the gifts was Randall Thompson's haunting "Alleluia." Harvard Magazine, in a 2001 biographical sketch of the composer (who taught at the University of Virginia but was also a Harvard alumnus), noted the origins of that piece:

To many music lovers, the name Randall Thompson '20 brings first to mind the lofty sounds of his most famous anthem, based on the single word "alleluia"--whether heard in church service, choral concert, or academic ceremony such as Harvard Commencement.

The work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitsky and the trustees of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the spring of 1940 for the opening exercises of the new Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. The head of the center's choral department was Thompson's future Harvard colleague G. Wallace Woodworth '24. Koussevitsky wanted "Woody" to lead the entire student body in the new anthem to symbolize the center's mission: the performance of music.

The date for the opening was July 8. Thompson had been preoccupied with another commission, but from July 1 to July 5 he was able to turn to Koussevitsky's request. Woody had his large chorus ready to rehearse, but opening day approached and no music arrived. On July 8, with 45 minutes to go, it appeared. Woody got his first look at the score and reassured his charges, "Well, text at least is one thing we won't have to worry about." The performance successfully launched a tradition: to this day Alleluia is performed each summer at the center's opening.

The anthem's tempo mark of lento was very important to the composer. France had just fallen to the Nazis, and Thompson later explained, "The music in my particular Alleluia cannot be made to sound joyous...here it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, 'The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.'"

Other songs included "Gift of Finest Wheat," which had been composed for the Eucharistic Congress held in Philadelphia during the U.S. Bicentennial of 1976, and the traditional German hymn, "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name." Other parts of the Mass included Clarence Joseph Rivers memorial acclamation ("Christ Has Died"), representing the African-American gospel tradition, and Alexander Peloquin's "Great Amen" from his oft-heard Mass of the Bells.

I have not yet seen the programs for Pope Benedict's masses at Nationals Park in Washington and Yankee Stadium in New York, but I suspect they will include hymns, anthems, and responses from a wider range of ethnic traditions, especially recognizing the greater number of Hispanic-American Catholics who make up the fastest-growing segment of the Church in the United States. (If one looks at the program of the October 1979 papal Mass on the Mall -- see images below -- the most striking thing about it is the absence of music from the Spanish-speaking Catholic communities, or any acknowledgment of their presence at all.)

Robert Thomson, who writes the "Dr. Gridlock" column for the Washington Post, noted some other changes in the scene in an article on Sunday, in this case in the area of transportation:

Back then, transportation planners were worried about whether there would be enough gas for the spectators and worshipers driving to see Pope John Paul II.

That was October 1979. The region was smaller, and so was its transit system.

The gas shortage had passed its crisis level, but, in that auto-dependent environment, the planners made sure 35 service stations on major routes received extra fuel.

Metrorail had opened in 1976 but was a scrawny version of today's robust 106-mile, 86-station system. For a Sunday afternoon papal Mass on the Mall, Metro stayed open from 6 a.m. until midnight and suspended the Farecard system, asking instead that riders throw 50 cents into barrels.

Passengers heading for Pope Benedict XVI's Mass at the new Nationals Park on Thursday will be riding to a station that didn't exist in 1979. Many will pay their fare with a $9 commemorative Metrorail Mass Pass.

So is our bigger, more sophisticated transportation system ready for the new pope? I think so, but it will require the public as well as the planners to pay attention.

The 1979 visit was on a holiday weekend. This time, the pope will be in the capital on four weekdays.

That weekend -- Columbus Day weekend, as it happened -- was exciting. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the Mall to see the Pope (perhaps fewer than were anticipated, as the weather turned overcast and chilly in the afternoon, despite a gloriously sunny morning); a week later, the Mall would host tens of thousands of gay-rights activists in the first-ever national march for gay and lesbian rights. No doubt the papal gathering gave the Park Police and other law-enforcement agencies practice for crowd control seven days later -- not that either crowd caused much trouble. (Ironically, given my later history, I attended the October 7 event but not the one on October 14 -- but what happened the weekend of the march is a story for another day.)

I had a primitive camera with me that day. Because of the location of the choir, the angle of the shots I took is rather odd, but I was able to snap one photo that actually includes Pope John Paul in it. Most of the others are pictures of large groups of priests and musicians.

Here you can see part of the crowd gathered along the street for a glimpse of the Pope, pre-Popemobile.

You can see how the wind had picked up in the mid-afternoon in this sole photo I took of the Pope himself; he is wearing green vestments (the Mass was in Ordinary Time) and has an elliptical line drawn around him. (Click to embiggen.)

Hundreds of priests concelebrated the Mass, and many dozens of seminarians (or more) participated as acolytes.

Here you can see some of the priests who were on the stage, which had a specially-constructed altar built just for this occasion.

It was easier for me to photograph the orchestra than other members of the choir, given the way we were perched off to the right of the stage.

Thousands of programs for the Mass on the Mall were produced. How many of them survived? At least one, the one I have kept for nearly three decades, and which I scanned a couple of hours ago in order to make this documentary artifact available for examination by my dear readers. Call me a pack rat, but here it is:

Sadly, in this post-9/11 era, the chances of there ever being another papal Mass on the Mall are increasingly slim. The logistics of searching and x-raying every person in attendance are just too daunting.

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