Saturday, October 27, 2007

PopeTrip '08: The Plans, v.2.0

Even behind the scenes, the good souls of Ecclesiastical Officialdom have taken a warming of late to the line that "Nothing is confirmed until the Holy Father signs off on it."

And who could blame 'em?

Especially in this pontificate of detail and deliberation, no one would, of course, ever deny that. Yet, as with everything across the Tiber, plans for a papal visit don't just drop out of the sky -- Papa Ratzi having bigger things to do than book flights and all.

And so, earlier this week the head of Benedict XVI's travel advance team, Alberto Gasparri, was in Washington and New York to firm up arrangements for the Pope's mid-April trek to the East Coast, whose first extensive "rough sketch" was presented on these pages six weeks ago.

Since that first report, the foreseen itinerary for the first apostolic journey to the States in nearly a decade has evolved in notable ways.

Most significant of all, multiple indications are that, for a second time, plans for a Boston leg of the trip -- which had been placed on the schedule as of the first key meeting on the visit in late August -- have been scuttled amid a previously-reported push from the upper rungs of the pontiff's inner circle.

While Cardinal Sean O'Malley is understood to be fighting on to keep his archdiocese, the epicenter of the sexual abuse crisis that has rocked American Catholicism from 2002, in the mix, at a recent meeting of his provincial bishops (which featured the trip as part of its agenda) the Capuchin cardinal was said to have made no mention of a Popestop in New England. Furthermore, the papal advance team hadn't been spotted in Boston, which had once been placed as the voyage's climactic final destination.

As things presently stand, the plan now looks to give B16 three days in New York, including a culminating Mass on the final day in Yankee Stadium, as opposed to the previously-proffered option of Central Park.

First reported yesterday by Spero News, the Big Apple leg was hammered out at a Thursday meeting in Cardinal Edward Egan's Madison Avenue residence. Alongside the cardinal and Gasparri, those present included Archbishops Celestino Migliore and Pietro Sambi, the respective nuncios to the United Nations and the US, Msgrs David Malloy and Anthony Sherman, the general secretary and incoming Liturgy Czar of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Msgr Robert Ritchie, the rector of St Patrick's Cathedral.

While the chief item of the visit -- a papal address at the UN -- is the only commitment currently foreseen for Friday, 18 April, the following morning has been given to a liturgy for priests and religious in the cathedral. The Saturday coincides with the third anniversary of Benedict's election to the papacy.

That afternoon, another newly-planned event reportedly has the pontiff heading north to Yonkers and the campus of St Joseph's Seminary, Dunwoodie, for an encounter with seminarians and young people. The meeting's exact setting on the property remains undecided, but odds are that it'll be an outdoor venue in order to accommodate the expected number of attendees.

The next morning, Benedict is slated to head north again, this time to the Bronx and the House That Ruth Built. The choice of Yankee Stadium would mark a historic return to the site of the first papal Mass on the American continent (celebrated by Paul VI on his whirlwind visit to the New York in 1965), but would also likely be the last significant non-baseball event the hallowed turf would see; a new stadium is currently being built adjacent to the current ballpark, and is expected to open in 2009. Though Yankee's game-day capacity currently stands in the high 50,000s, a configuration of seats to hold 65,000 has been foreseen.

Especially when combined with the seeming lack of a Boston stop, the move to a venue unable to fit the hundreds of thousands who could, and did, throng Central Park for John Paul II's celebrations there in 1979 and 1995 would spike demand for tickets from the dioceses of the Northeast and beyond. Considering Benedict's relative aversion to lengthy travel, along with the widespread belief that the spring trek could well be the only US journey of his pontificate, and the frenzy to see the Pope looks set to become even more intense.

As currently planned, the trip's first full day will see the pontiff's 81st birthday. As reported in mid-September, the plans continue to point toward the visit's start in Washington. While most of the previously-noted itinerary of the Catholic University of America and diplomatic courtesies at the White House appear to remain in place, one reported change has the venue for Benedict's DC Mass pegged not for the expanse of the National Mall, but -- as with New York -- the new stadium of the Washington Nationals, currently projected to open barely a week before the visit takes place. (On a related note, Major League Baseball's scheduling for 2008 is still in its tentative stages and has not been publicly released.) Built to house a game capacity of 41,000, Nationals Park would likely seat closer to 50,000 for a papal liturgy.

A final word of caution -- to reiterate the standard protocol, papal trips are not formally announced by the Vatican until three months prior to a visit's taking place, and the detailed final itineraries are held until weeks before the journey.

Bottom line: everything can, and very well might, change. But this is where things are heading as of the present... even if "Nothing is confirmed until the Holy Father signs off on it."

As always, stay tuned.