A Visit for the Ages
Peter Osgood was ready. He adjusted his tie and wiped the sweat from his palm, shifting the bouquet of white and yellow roses to his other hand. Butterflies flitted about his stomach, as they had from the second he’d woken up in the morning. He rehearsed his brief introduction, like an actor combating stage fright. Your Holiness, my name is Peter Osgood. Your Holiness, my name is Peter Osgood. An hour earlier, the chairman of CUA’s Board of Trustees, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., had even lent his hand — literally — so that Osgood might practice the custom of kissing the ring. No detail was trivial. As the only CUA student to be publicly introduced to Pope Benedict XVI, one could not be overprepared.
Walking toward the Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center, Osgood passed by a partitioned-off area filled with thousands of CUA students waiting to catch a glimpse of the Pope. Somewhere in that crowd, his parents — fresh off a six-hour drive from upstate New York — waited to capture their son’s papal meeting on camera. The student followed a cordoned-off pathway where, an hour earlier, VIPs from across the country had entered the university center. In less than an hour the Pope would arrive, right here on Osgood’s campus, to give an address on Catholic education to these select guests. A few minutes after his arrival, Osgood would be kissing his ring, and then … Well, the nervous student couldn’t really think beyond that encounter.
Osgood had beat out 127 other students in a university-wide essay contest, giving him the opportunity to be standing here. As a baby, he had arrived into the world two months early, weighing just 3 pounds. But his parents never worried about him, even then. “He’ll be strong like a rock,” his father had said of this tiny child, whom they would name Peter. And while the essay submissions had not revealed the writers’ names, it seemed appropriate that the contest winner and the only CUA student to personally greet the Pope upon his arrival to campus should be a young man named after St. Peter, the “rock” upon which Christ would build his church.
Fellow senior Catie Picou tried to calm Osgood’s nerves, reassuring him that everything would go smoothly. As president of CUA’s undergraduate student government, she had been given a significant role to play in the Pope’s visit to Washington, D.C.: presenting one of the offertory gifts to the Holy Father at the Nationals baseball stadium Mass that morning. Many of her fellow students witnessed her moment on the national stage. More than 230 CUA students had been at the Mass; hundreds more had watched it live on a 23-foot-wide JumboTron set up on a CUA lawn and, upon recognizing their classmate, had broken into shouts and cheers.
Now, she would have the added honor of being inside the Pryzbyla Center Great Room when Pope Benedict XVI would give his address there.
As the two seniors walked toward the Pryzbyla Center, students were cheering her name once more — and Osgood’s as well.
When the university received word that Pope Benedict XVI would visit campus, university officials immediately recognized the magnitude of the honor they’d been given. Thanks to the university’s archival records and institutional memory of hosting the previous Pope, John Paul II, in 1979, CUA’s leadership also had a good sense of the preparation that would be required and the impact that such a visit would have on the campus community.
The campus was a beehive of papal activity for most of the spring semester. Four other architecture students collaborated with a furniture-making company in Virginia to build another chair for the Pope to use during his CUA address. Approximately 100 CUA students kicked off their spring break in March by praying the rosary with Pope Benedict XVI, via satellite hookup, in anticipation of his visit. More than 125 students poured out their hearts in an essay meant to capture the life-changing nature of their Catholic education experience — each vying for the chance to meet the Pope. Hundreds of news outlets covered the Washington visit, many shooting their nightly broadcasts in front of the evening silhouette of the National Shrine’s grand dome. CUA students held prayer vigils and poster-making parties in anticipation of Pope Benedict’s arrival. Banners of gold and white emblazoned with the U.S. papal visit logo were hung from lampposts throughout campus and gold and white pansies burst forth from every CUA flower bed.
The university installed more than 9,150 feet — more than 1.75 miles — of metal bike racks inside and around the perimeter of campus to control the flow and reach of crowds, whose numbers on campus exceeded 15,000 over the course of the two days. And it is inside those numbers, those thousands of pilgrims, that the real story of this visit is told: in the students, alumni, faculty and staff who came to witness the Holy Father and to be touched by the experience.
More than 4,000 alumni took advantage of tickets made available to them and their families by the university, allowing them on April 16 to stand on the CUA mall and greet the Pope when he arrived at the east entrance of the National Shrine on April 16. The Pontiff had been in the United States barely 24 hours, and the excitement in the crowd was palpable.
“The atmosphere was electric, and the energy was inspiring,” says Marion Gosney (B.A. 1975), CUA’s director of alumni relations, who spent the afternoon surrounded by thousands of fellow alums. “It was truly a monumental occasion for the Catholic University community.”
April showers were nowhere to be seen, displaced by sunny 70-degree weather. Orange tulips bowed in the breeze as children cartwheeled and played on the lawn, waiting for the main event.
Emory Ellis III (B.A. 1991) of Ashburn, Va., had been 10 years old when his father brought him to Catholic University to see Pope John Paul II visit the campus in 1979. Ellis wanted his own sons and daughters to have the same experience. So he and his wife, Katie (Gloninger) Ellis (B.A. 1991), took the day off from work to bring three of their four children to the CUA mall. Perched atop Ellis’ shoulders, his 7-year-old daughter, Annie, was able to catch a clear glimpse of the Pope as her siblings and the surrounding crowds stood on tiptoes, craning for a view.
“It was like a rock concert,” Ellis says of the atmosphere that afternoon. “It was a really neat experience for my kids to see so many people getting so excited about the Pope, as opposed to about a trendy rock star or actor. It’s saying something to our kids that faith is very important, as is the chance to be a part of that spiritual experience.”
Even after the Pope entered the National Shrine to meet with his bishops, the Ellis family — and thousands of others — remained on the mall, not ready to let this moment pass and determined to see him one more time as he left.
David Whalen, a 2000 graduate of CUA’s Columbus School of Law who lives in San Diego, was also on the mall that afternoon. Whalen considers the Pope his favorite writer and had been in Rome on the day he became head of the Church. So it wasn’t a hard decision for Whalen to travel across the country for the chance to see the man he greatly admires from the vantage point of his alma mater.
Alums and friends of CUA had traveled by car, plane and chartered buses to be among the approximately 8,000 spectators on the CUA mall. Drawn by different motivations, they came with a similar goal: the chance to catch a fleeting glimpse of the successor to St. Peter as he arrived in the popemobile and walked up the steps of the National Shrine.
Why travel dozens or hundreds or thousands of miles for the promise of a few seconds? For Anne Garcia, who earned a CUA master’s degree in psychology in 1983, the answer touched upon the profound: “I feel like the beggar in the crowd, who was drawn to Jesus, if only to glimpse the hem of his robe.” For that glimpse of a hem, Garcia returned to her alma mater from Florida, bringing along her 18-year-old son, Grant.
Patrick Fenton (Ph.B. 2001) traveled from Tyler, Texas, where he will be ordained a priest in August. The chance to see the Holy Father before that seminal moment in his life was a blessing, Fenton said. But he also felt called to participate in a show of solidarity by the Catholic faithful at a time when Catholicism is, in his opinion, being wrongly depicted as “decaying.”
The decision to offer CUA alumni ringside seats to greet the Pope on April 16 was an easy one for CUA’s president, Very Rev. David M. O’Connell, C.M. “It gave me special pleasure to extend this opportunity to our alumni,” he says. “All of them chose to pursue their studies at this pontifical university. It’s only fitting that they and their families should be able to participate in this special moment in their alma mater’s history and to celebrate that which makes the university unique.”
If the first day of the Pope’s visit to the area in and around CUA was largely for alums, faculty, staff and their families, then April 17th could be described as the day for current students to bask in the visit. Many gathered as early as 9:30 a.m. on the lawn between the Pryzbyla Center and the law school — more than seven hours before the Pope would arrive. They spread blankets and stretched out on the grass, settling in to watch the Pope’s 10 a.m. Nationals Park Mass on the massive JumboTron. Hours later the student crowd swelled to the thousands. They chatted and ate lunch, and some sang along as the video of the Whoopi Goldberg musical “Sister Act” played on the huge screen, just one of the day’s “Rock the Pope” events leading up to the Pontiff’s 5 p.m. arrival.
And as Peter Osgood stationed himself at the building’s entrance, nervously awaiting his moment with the Pope, another group was preparing for theirs. Inside the Great Room of the Pryzbyla Center a crowd of more than 600 had assembled to hear the Pope’s address. Catholic university presidents and diocesan education superintendents had traveled from across the country for this moment. They had arrived nearly two hours early, per Secret Service guidelines, mingling and taking photos in front of the papal stage. Reporters pored over an embar-goed copy of the Pope’s address, tethered by their laptops to the electrical outlets along the perimeter of the room. Student volunteers, dressed in the business suits normally saved for internships and job interviews, escorted the dignitaries to their chairs.
Anna Zaros, a senior from Huntersville, N.C., was one of the 42 lucky undergraduates to find themselves in the room where the Pope would speak. After several hours of holding open the doors to the building, she was now upstairs in the Great Room escorting university presidents and school superintendents to their seats.
In the weeks and days leading up to the visit, Zaros had had a unique perspective on the excitement — and preparation — involved. She had worked part time in CUA’s Office of the President, sending out invitations, stuffing envelopes and getting the word out to the student community about the visit. As a resident assistant in Unanue Hall, Zaros had not only answered students’ questions about papal visit logistics, but had also served as a one-woman pep squad, getting Unanue residents, classmates and friends energized for this historic event.
Zaros now took a seat herself — she had secured a spot just two seats in from the aisle where the Pope would enter. The Holy Father’s motorcade, she overheard, was close to campus and would arrive any minute.
Downstairs on the lawn, the crowd erupted as the first motorcycles appeared around the bend on the path from John McCormack Road, followed by limousines with American and papal flags flapping from their windshields. Students crowded the restraining bike racks for a front-row view, waving signs they had made that proclaimed “We love our German Shepherd!” and “Welcome Pope Benedict!” Soon, the Pope himself was in view, waving jubilantly to those gathered on the lawn from inside his limousine.
Two floors up, tucked in a front corner of the Great Room, 17 CUA students stood at rigid attention waiting for the Pope to enter. Clad in tuxedos and formal dresses, they were the only ones in the crowd not observing the arrival unfold on two large projection screens at the front of the room. Their gazes were fixed instead on one man: Leo Nestor, CUA’s Justine Bayard Ward Professor of Music. Handpicked by Nestor to perform for the Pope as he entered the Great Room, this “Choir of 17” had practiced day and night in the days leading up to this visit. Their first hymn, the 8th-century chant “Laudes regiae: Christus vincit,” would begin at any moment, and so the disciplined singers kept their eyes squarely on Nestor’s hands, waiting for the signal.
At the entrance to the Pryzbyla Center, it was finally Osgood’s turn. As Father O’Connell led Pope Benedict XVI toward Osgood, the student felt those rehearsed words draining from his mind. It was all he could do to concentrate on bowing and kissing the Pope’s ring at the same time. Hands trembling slightly, Osgood handed the Pontiff the bouquet of roses and a bound copy of his winning essay entitled “How Catholic Education Has Changed My Life.”
“Your Holiness,” Father O’Connell filled the space left empty by Osgood’s sheer awe. “This is Peter Osgood. He’s going to be a medical doctor. Perhaps you could bless his hands?”
The Pope’s stated reason for coming to Catholic University’s campus was to address U.S. leaders of Catholic education. True to that purpose, the Holy Father spoke to those gathered in the Great Room, stressing education’s integral role in the Church’s mission to proclaim the Good News and the critical link between reason and faith. Speaking of the high expectations society places on Catholic educators, Pope Benedict XVI told the audience that such expectation “places upon you a responsibility and offers an opportunity.”
Of course, expectations were high for the Holy Father’s pastoral visit to the United States and a momentous opportunity was associated with it: the chance for U.S. Catholics to connect with the Holy Father, to see and hear and understand him as he is, unfettered by someone else’s filters, caricatures and stereotypes. For millions of Americans, that meant seeing him on television addressing the issues facing U.S. Catholics; for several thousand, it meant observing the vicar of Christ from a close distance; and for a few hundred, it meant touching his hand, looking into his eyes or exchanging a sentence or two. For some among all three groups, it meant renewing their faith.
As the Pope spoke of the vital importance of education to the Church’s mission and of the responsibility “to evoke among the young the desire for the act of faith” and the pursuit of reason, Zaros couldn’t help thinking that he had just described CUA, her university. “It was an affirmation of my choosing to come here,” Zaros later reflected, adding that the entire papal experience provided a tremendous boost to her faith life.
Craig Ingrisano, a graduating senior, had also been rapt with attention as the Pope spoke to the Pryzbyla Center audience. He had a closer view than most of his friends: His job had been to remove Father O’Connell’s podium following the latter’s welcoming remarks to the Holy Father. Ingrisano, a Des Moines, Iowa, native, had also been invited to the Pope’s speech on the White House lawn the previous morning. There the crowd had launched into an impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday” to the Pontiff, who turned 81 that day. Watching him address the audience now in the Great Room, Ingrisano noted a similarity to what he’d witnessed on the White House lawn. He had seen more than just a holy figure — he had seen a man.
“Whenever he’d speak, it felt like he was coming to you rather than us coming to him, like he had come to strengthen our faith,” says Ingrisano. “You think, as a follower, you’re the one who is supposed to be in awe, but he made me feel like he was in awe of us.”
Perhaps that was what lay behind the smile that greeted Peter Osgood with such warmth on the steps outside the Pryzbyla Center. Even as the student staggered to process what was happening, he was struck by the way Pope Benedict XVI was smiling so genuinely, his eyes focused on Osgood’s own. As the Pope took the young man’s trembling hands in his, he made the sign of the cross over them. These were the hands dedicated to a future of Christian service and physical healing.
In the crowd below, a chant rose above the cacophony of cries and voices. Osgood’s classmates had begun shouting his name in unison: “Peter! Peter! Peter!” The Pope took Osgood’s hands in his own once more and, locking eyes with the student, gave his palms a little squeeze. And with that, amidst a flurry of handlers and escorts, the Pope was led inside.
The Papal Visit, in Living Color
Revised: August 2008
All contents copyright © 2008.