From the moment “Shepherd One” landed at Andrews Air Force Base on April 15 I was glued to my television in my room at Mundelein Seminary. As I surfed through the channels, all had the same images; the 265th successor of St. Peter making his way down the stairs from the papal plane with zucchetto in hand and in a very unlikely stride for an octogenarian.
I followed his steps in Washington, D.C. through the wonders of television and Internet, and on April 17, I took a plane from O’Hare International Airport headed to New York. Among the things that I packed in my carry-on bag were all the remarks the pontiff had made up to that time. I read carefully each one, as deep down I was getting ready to experience first hand the unity of the supreme shepherd together with his flock.
As I walked down Seventh Avenue in New York heading to my hotel room, the passage in Matthew 16 resounded in my mind “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.” I was only a few hours away from being in close proximity to the man who carried on this Petrine ministry. My heart was inflamed with excitement.
Seeing the man
The time finally arrived. I made my way to St. Joseph’s Church in Yorkville where the Holy Father was scheduled to meet with 250 representatives of national and local Protestant and Orthodox churches.
As I sat in my pew, some of the ecclesiological theology I had learned from Father Thomas Baima at the seminary flashed through my mind; the importance of the Petrine ministry for the unity of the church, the desire of our Lord Jesus in the Gospel of John “that all may be one” and the recognition that all who filled the small church awaiting the Holy Father had been baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (with the exception of the Mormons who do not use this formula).
Then Pope Benedict XVI entered. Everyone rose to their feet and clapped as he made his way through the nave of the church. Many of them reached for their cameras to capture the moment, while those closest to the pope extended their hands towards him. The prayer service began, and the successor of Peter presided.
It was very moving for me to be witnessing this moment, where the visible head of the Catholic Church led us in prayer and later challenged us to unity.
Meeting the children
Another event that touched me deeply occurred during the Holy Father’s meeting with 50 disabled children at the Chapel of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. As we had to be in our place at least three hours before the Holy Father arrived many of the children had become impatient and loud, but one of them had fallen asleep. Then cheers could be heard outside, the music began inside, the Holy Father entered the small chapel and this one child was deeply asleep.
The pontiff began to bless each child and when he came up to the one who had fallen asleep, he smiled. He then rubbed the child’s face tenderly and lovingly. The circular motion of the pope’s hand on the Child’s face reminded me of the way Cardinal George anointed the heads of Bishops Kane, Paprocki and Garcia-Siller five years ago at their consecration.
With the pope’s touch, the child woke up. And before him was the loving smile and loving touch of Benedict. This brought many of us to tears.
At a different moment, two little girls presented the Holy Father with a gift, and one of them could not contain herself so she ran to the man in white, opened her little arms and wrapped them around his knees. Pope Benedict reached down to embrace her. Another tender memory that I will treasure for ever.
The following day, I had my closest encounter with the Holy Father. I was seated in the field waiting for him when all of a sudden the popemobile appeared. The crowds rejoiced and exploded into applause and cheers of “Viva il Papa!”
Then his window was lowered. As he passed in front of me, he looked towards the massive crowd in the stadium. I tried to get his attention. The only thing that separated us was a barrier set in place for security purposes by the Secret Service.
I screamed as loud as I could “Su Santidad” (“Your Holiness”). yet no result. So I tried again “ Su Santidad” and then he looked at me, our eyes met, he nodded his head towards me as if acknowledging me and all I could say was “ lo queremos!,” (“We love you”).
As he looked at me I felt an incredible sense of peace, joy and gratitude. As I reflected on this encounter, I realized that if this is what I felt when I encountered the vicar of Christ, I cannot imagine the incalculable peace and joy that I will experience when I encounter God himself.
These past days have been a great time of spiritual renewal for me, they have inspired me to continue courageously on my journey towards ordination to the priesthood and have fed my soul in ways that I can only begin to describe. I came back to Chicago full of joy and on fire with God’s love ready to engage the world and to proclaim to it that the only Hope we have is Christ. To not be afraid to give ourselves completely to Christ, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, may the Lord bless Pope Benedict XVI for renewing my faith and hope.
Deacon Manuel Dorantes, 24, is a transitional deacon at Mundelein Seminary. He completed his M.Div. and S.T.B. last year and is currently seeking a licentiate in sacred theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake. He will be ordained to the priesthood in May 2009 and is presently assigned to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Ill. He graduted from Loyola University Chicago with a bachelor’s in broadcast communication and philosophy. His home parish is Holy Family in Waukegan.