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Priest recounts papal visit of John Paul II 25 years ago

Oct. 4 brings back memories of a quarter century ago because it marks the 25th anniversary of the Papal Visit of Pope John Paul II to New Jersey and to Newark’s Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart – a once-in-a-lifetime event and probably the most memorable experience in my 54 years of priestly service. Although I actually met the Holy Father in 1976 two years before he became pontiff, nothing could prepare me for the unforgettable meeting we would have in 1995. This is that story and more.

The Papal Visit was originally scheduled for Oct. 21-22, 1994. The Holy Father’s sudden indisposition (he broke his right leg in a fall in April) forced a rescheduling. The extra year turned out to be a blessing for the planning process. I was part of the local planning committee for His Holiness’ visit and was the local master of ceremonies and chaired the committee responsible for preparing the liturgy for the evening prayer service at the Cathedral and the Mass at Giants Stadium.

The very thought of the pope in Newark and the celebration of Mass with the Vicar of Peter was a thrill beyond description. At a press conference before the event I was asked about the significance of the Mass and was delighted to reply that it is what Catholics do every Sunday, but the pope’s presence makes it extra special.

I can recall a meeting with the Vatican Team at which the papal master of ceremonies was asked if the pope is obedient to his directions to which he replied, “Yes, …but so is the master of ceremonies to the pope.”

On Oct. 4, 1995, following a reception at the airport, the Papal Party arrived at Newark’s cathedral. The Holy Father went directly to the Residence of the Archbishops of Newark — the cathedral rectory — where he met in private audience with President Bill Clinton. The church of Newark now boasts in being the only such place in the country where the pope and president met.  A modest plaque in the hallway commemorates the occasion.

It was awesome to be in the sacristy as the president and first lady nodded and smiled as they passed by me and were escorted to their places in a front pew in the cathedral for the evening prayer service.

Following the meeting of Pope John Paul II and President Clinton, the pontiff was driven in the popemobile to the front of the cathedral. Given the Pope’s indisposition, the vehicle drove over the plaza and pulled right up to the front doors.

A liturgical entrance procession had been planned, but when the master of ceremonies invited him to vest, the pope waved the vestments off and indicated his preference for a less formal entrance. And so, he entered dressed in his house cassock. As soon as he became visible within the cathedral the assembly broke into thunderous applause and shouts of welcome which drowned out the organ music.

It was at that point that the thought of the Vicar of Peter in our cathedral became overwhelming. Pope John Paul II slowly walked up the aisle reaching out both arms to members of the congregation. It was not easy for many to maintain their composure, I among them. The faithful stretched out their arms in an attempt to shake the pontiff’s hand and Pope John Paul II took a moment to speak with some of them. Finally, the Holy Father and his staff made their way to the head of the aisle. He greeted the Clintons and ascended the steps of the sanctuary. At this point the organ rumbled all the more loudly and the continuous roar of the crowd grew.

For years it had been the custom in the Archdiocese to burn incense in a brazier during the singing of the first psalm of evening prayer, the classic Psalm 141 — “My prayers rise like incense….”. When the Holy Father passed by the brazier in the sanctuary he asked the papal master of ceremonies, Msgr. (now Archbishop) Pierro Marini, what that was and the pope, who was reported to like incense, nodded in approval. It was quite a sight to see the smoke rise from the brazier and slowly waft through the nave of the cathedral. Since that experience the smoking brazier has appeared at papal ceremonies in the Vatican, the most recent being the Urbi et Orbi papal blessing during the time of pandemic. This is Newark’s little contribution to the liturgy of the Universal Church!

When the Holy Father arrived at the cathedra, the master of ceremonies again sought to vest him in the liturgical vestments for evening prayer, but the pope declined, and put a simple stole over his cassock. The stage was set for evening prayer. 

It was so inspiring to witness the president of the United States and Mrs. Clinton participating in the service so wholeheartedly, especially in the singing of Saint Francis’ Canticle of the Sun, the evening prayer hymn chosen for the occasion, the Memorial of Saint Francis of Assisi. Its strains still ring in my ears after all these years. The evening prayer was a powerfully moving experience!

Following the service, the Holy Father circled the edifice in the popemobile on his way to the helicopter pad in nearby Branch Brook Park. In passing he blessed the recently completed Archdiocesan Center. The pope was on his way to New York City where he would address the United Nations the following day.

Mass at Giants Stadium

All this was preliminary to a Mass in Giants Stadium in East Rutherford the following day, Oct. 5, 1995. The stadium was filled with 90,000 rain-drenched people. A torrential downpour continued all through the day into the evening. People were required to arrive hours in advance of the late afternoon Mass. By the time the Papal Mass began everyone was soaked through and through. No one seemed to mind (very much). A choir of several hundred choristers was in a sheltered position behind the island-like sanctuary. A pre-Mass musical program occupied some of the waiting time.

The local committee was alerted to the pope’s immanent arrival as his motorcade entered the Lincoln Tunnel. Because of the inclement weather the altar was hurriedly dressed at the very last minute. Luckily, anticipating a breezy day, weighted palls were on hand to cover the patens and chalices.

A major issue was planning how to minister Communion to such a large assembly in a reasonable amount of time. Fr. (now Bishop) Michael Saporito was in charge of that detail and figured it all out spectacularly well. A question regarding the use of flagons for the precious blood to accommodate the extraordinary number of concelebrants became an issue with the Vatican team. Flagons were unheard of in Rome! Having raised the subject several times, the papal master of ceremonies responded in slightly accented English and some exasperation, “No, when Pope goes to Rome you put the flagon!” I understood. End of discussion!

The placement of the presidential chair had to be addressed. It was located outside the altar canopy in the heavy rain. Not good! It was too large and heavy with its enclosed iron protective shield to put near the altar. The use of one of the cardinal’s chairs was more suitable but was too low for the pope to sit comfortably given his recent indisposition. It was decided to raise it to ‘papal height’ by nailing 2x4s beneath. It looked awful, but it worked, and given the circumstances I doubt if anyone noticed.

Cardinal Keeler’s rain-soaked mitre collapsed when he tried to put it on after Communion. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. We both smiled.

The New York Giants’ locker room, emptied of the lockers, was set up as a sacristy for the cardinals, bishops and papal party. An adjoining office became Pope John Paul II’s private sacristy. Its furnishings and decorations, including refreshments, were specified by guidelines from Rome.

The pope retired there after the Mass. He took his time. We all waited anxiously. When he finally emerged, I was at the far end of the room. He hesitated in the doorway and then began to move slowly across the room. It took me a while to realize that the pope was moving in my direction. (The magenta choir cassock must have caught his eye.) I froze and was numb (and teary eyed) to think that the pope is coming to me.

He thanked me and then kept repeating to my embarrassment, “You are a good master of ceremonies. Yes; very, very good!” It was humbling, but I thanked him and thought he must say that to everyone.

A friend asked, “Do you realize what a compliment that was from the Holy Father himself?” Now I do!    

The next day was Saturday and there was Papal Mass in Brooklyn. On Sunday the papal party was leaving from Newark Airport for a final Mass in Oriol Stadium, Baltimore. Invitees assembled at the airport for an informal farewell. The pope was very gracious and took his time going from one person to another engaging each in conversation.

When it was my turn to speak with the pontiff, I had a surprise for him. You see, I had met the pope in 1976 at the Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia when he was the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow. I had a couple of pictures, which I had kept in my breviary ever since, taken with him. Bishop Joseph A. Costello, my pastor at the time, told me to “treasure those pictures because some day he will be Pope.” I thought to myself maybe I’ll be able to show them to the Holy Father.  When he came to me, I pulled them out and the Holy Father looked and looked and finally said, “Philadelphia, 1976!” I was amazed and now every time I pull them out, I say, “Saint John Paul II, pray for the church in Newark!”

Msgr. Richard F. Groncki is Rector Emeritus of the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark and currently lives in Paramus, N.J.