Up Front and Personal

Remembering My Papal Experience

When Pope Benedict XVI visited New York in 2008, it was the job of Brooklyn and Queens Catholics to both welcome the pontiff when he arrived and then to see him off as he returned to the Eternal City after his Journey of Hope to America. 

His entry at Kennedy Airport in Queens was a low-key event. But the departure ceremony was both a religious and social experience worthy of the diocese’s reputation as a great multi-ethnic host. 

Only a handful of reporters and photographers, including myself, were chosen to be present for the landing of Shepherd One on Friday, April 18. Since the pope was landing in the Diocese of Brooklyn, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio led the official diocesan greeting delegation. He was joined by Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Gov. David Paterson. 

A small group of invited guests, which included officials of the Knights of Columbus, made up the contingent that was privileged to watch the Holy Father step off his Alitalia aircraft that had flown up from Washington, D.C. 

We actually were unaware that the pope had landed when all of a sudden, the nose of his plane came around the side of Hangar 19 and into full view of the suddenly roaring crowd. Hands with papal flags in the colors of white and gold waved in the air. When the white-clad pontiff appeared at the open door of the plane and descended the steps, the crowd went wild with excitement. 

After the official greetings at the foot of the stairs leading off the plane, Pope Benedict waved in front of the cheering audience to show his appreciation and then was escorted by the bishops to a waiting dark olive green helicopter with the words “United States of America” emblazoned on the side. 

The whole event took less than 10 minutes, but no one seemed to mind the hours they had waited. Everyone expressed what an exhilarating moment it had been. One veteran press person said to me, “Now, that was exciting!” 

But the diocese’s real moment to shine came two days later, on Sunday, when the Holy Father returned to Kennedy Airport for his flight home to Rome. 

Almost 4,000 people, most of whom were Brooklyn and Queens Catholics lucky enough to have gotten tickets, participated. Each had to arrive at the airport at least three hours prior to the scheduled 8 p.m. ceremony. 

Months had gone into the planning of this event, with Auxiliary Bishop Frank Caggiano heading up the committee with an able assist from then-Father Anthony Hernandez, pastor of Transfiguration parish, Williamsburg. Diocesan employees volunteered to serve as ushers. 

A two-hour program of sacred music and prayer was conducted to help prepare those in attendance for the arrival of the Church’s chief shepherd. The St. Francis Prep String Ensemble and the Cathedral Brass and Organ supplied the music. The Diocesan Vicariate Choir, the Diocesan Youth Choir, and the Diocesan High School Choir provided the voices that lifted up the prayers. 

A multilingual rosary followed, led by Bishop Caggiano and members of the various ethnic apostolates of the Diocesan Migration Office, each clad in native dress and praying the Glorious Mysteries in their native tongues. 

At 7:30 p.m., a plane carrying Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife, Lynne, landed as the crowd watched on two jumbo screens that had been erected for the evening. About 15 minutes later, the Holy Father’s helicopter appeared on the screen, and the hangar broke out into hoots and hollers. 

At exactly 8 p.m., Pope Benedict XVI and the vice president and his wife entered the stage. A military band from Fort Hamilton, Bay Ridge, played the national anthems of the United States and Vatican City prior to the official remarks. 

The vice president summed it up nicely. “It has been a memorable week, and Pope Benedict XVI has stepped into the history of our country in a very special way,” he explained. “Some 60 million Americans belong to his fold, and all of America respects this messenger of peace and justice and freedom.” 

For his part, Pope Benedict appreciated all the work that had gone into making his visit a success. 

“To all my brother bishops, to Bishop DiMarzio of this Diocese of Brooklyn, and to the officers and staff of the episcopal conference who have contributed in so many ways to the preparation of this visit, I extend my renewed gratitude for their hard work and dedication,” he said. “With these words, I take my leave, I ask you to remember me in your prayers, and I assure you of my affection and friendship in the Lord. May God bless America.” 

All that was left was to wave goodbye. For another half hour, security demanded that we all stay in our places as the papal jet departed. A boisterous hangar was alive as folks exclaimed how good it had been to be there. The big screen showed the door on the plane close, and Shepherd One began to taxi away. A final burst of applause rang out. The Holy Father probably couldn’t hear those cheers, but after his Brooklyn send-off, he certainly knew that he had been well received and had won over the hearts of Americans. 

Ed Wilkinson was the Editor of The Tablet from 1985 to 2018, when he assumed the title of Editor Emeritus.