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The Family Room by Michelle Martin

April 27, 2008

No, I wasn't there

Itraveled more than 700 miles and did not go to the papal Mass at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., April 17.

Catholic New World photographer Karen Callaway and I drove from Chicago to Washington to cover the pope, and she got some great photos, both at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and at Nationals Park.

I spent most of the visit at the hotel that was serving as the media headquarters, listening to the papal events on TV. Most of the rest of the time, I was learning my way around the George Washington University Medical Center emergency room and ophthalmology clinic.

I managed to damage my eyes — bilateral corneal abrasions was the official diagnosis — Tuesday afternoon, shortly after watching Pope Benedict XVI arrive at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Apparently, bad contact lens solution was to blame, making my lenses progressively more uncomfortable during the day and creating spectacular levels of pain when I removed them — and, apparently, some of the surface of my corneas.

The injuries left me in pain, and also unable to see more than blurs for nearly two days. But the doctors assured me that corneal tissue, while among the most sensitive in the body (thus the intense pain), is among the fastest to heal. As I write this, six days later, the pain is gone, as is most of the blurriness, but I’m not quite back to normal yet.

So I didn’t make it to the Mass, because I thought that I would likely be a danger to myself and others. Too many people, too many stairs, not enough vision to properly navigate. Instead, I sat with my eyes closed and listened to the Mass and wallowed in self-pity.

In his homily, Pope Benedict spoke of hope, of evangelization, of mission. He spoke of unity — “I ask you to set aside all division” — and fidelity, and of unceasing work to spread the Gospel.

He hit all the right notes, I thought. He touched on the clerical sexual abuse scandal, acknowledging the damage it has done to victims and to the church; he spoke of the need for the faithful to avail themselves of the sacraments, especially reconciliation; he spoke with appreciation about Americans’ sense of hope — and about the ways we as a nation have fallen short of our ideals.

But he didn’t come across as angry, or mean, or bitter. If anything, he spoke with affection and love. Chances are, I heard the homily more clearly in my hotel room than I would have in the stadium; in any case, I’ve had ample opportunity to read it since that day.

When I returned home and went to Mass on Sunday with my family, the thought struck me that no matter how big the papal Mass was, no matter how many hundred bishops or thousands of worshippers were there, the central mystery of Mass was no different than in a parish church in Chicago. The Eucharist — the Body and Blood of Christ — is not more sacred when consecrated by a pope.

So yes, I missed an experience I wish I could have had. But the big gifts offered by my faith, well, those were here already.

Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at mmartin@archchicago.org.