Father Christopher Seibt, parochial vicar of St. Rose of Lima Church in North Syracuse, sent dispatches from Washington, DC, Sept. 21 to 24 as he he helped to MC the papal Mass there Sept. 23. Father Seibt gave us an inside look at the preparations and what it’s like to participate in a Mass with Pope Francis. Below are his reflections from the experience.
Sept. 21, Day 1: I’m on my way!
After witnessing the marriage of my sister Jackie to her new husband Kevin on Saturday and celebrating with them on Saturday night; after a full day of ministry on Sunday (Mass, reflection with Confirmation candidates on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, vigil for the late Father Willian Esposito, youth ministry training); and after a board meeting this morning at Bishop Grimes, I am finally sitting down! I am in the airport waiting to board my flight to Washington, DC, to serve as a master of ceremonies for the Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra, over which our Holy Father, Pope Francis will preside.
As always, I am wearing clerical attire, which is something that I do not only when I am functioning as a priest ministerially, but also when I participate in normal activities, such as flying. For me, this is who I am. And, I always “dress the part” simply to give witness to the fact that the Church is alive and continues to hand on the faith that it has received from Jesus Christ and his apostles. In fact, as I begin my pilgrimage to be in the presence of the Holy Father, today is the feast of St. Matthew the Apostles and Evangelist. Coincidence? Perhaps not!
So far, the people whom I have encountered at this morning’s board meeting and in the airport (because I am dressed as a priest) have approached me and asked if I am going to see the Holy Father. After I tell them that I am, I find that they are filled with excitement. They begin to tell me how much and why they like him. They ask me all sorts of questions about him. They also ask how I will be involved with his visit and I tell them that I have been told that I am going to serve as the MC to the gift bearers who will bring the gifts to the Holy Father during the Mass of Canonization on Wednesday. They immediately ask, “Are you going to meet him?” I reply, “I don’t think so,” as there are so many people involved in helping with this Mass.
Last time I helped with a papal visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception when Pope Benedict XVI visited in 2008, I did not think I would get to meet him either. But to my surprise, I did! So, who knows? Either way, it is exciting simply to be in the Holy Father’s presence because he is, after all, the successor to St. Peter, the one to whom Christ has entrusted his saving mission, in a particular way, as the pastor of the whole Church. Wow!
As I sit here in the airport and begin to reflect on this extraordinary moment that is about to take place in our history, I am aware that so many people like Pope Francis for a variety of reasons, some of which are, unfortunately, the wrong ones. They understand him to be someone who is helping the Church to “get with it” by changing what we believe, what is in the Scriptures and the living Tradition of the Church. They do not know that the Church has always “been with it.”
Nevertheless, whether their views of the Holy Father match up with reality or not, Pope Francis is certainly touching the hearts of many and it is my prayer and hope that his visit to us in the United States will help people to encounter God, be concerned with the poor (broadly understood), and remember that God is merciful, that the Church is our mother and that we all have the potential to be saints and to spend eternity with God forever in heaven!
Sept. 22, Day 2: Preparations are still underway, the calm before the storm
Today has the feel of one of those calm days before a storm (or something big) happens. This morning began with the 8 a.m. shrine Mass, which I concelebrated with the rector, Msgr. Walter Rossi. After Mass, I walked around the campus of the Catholic University of America, my old stomping grounds. People are getting excited and final preparations to the outdoor venue are taking place. Tonight the second rehearsal for the Papal Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra will occur at 6 p.m. with the head Papal MC, Msgr. Guido Marini. I remember serving under him for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when he came to the Shrine in 2008. From my experience of him, he is a nice and gentle man who always remains calm and stays focused on the Lord during the celebration of the liturgy.
Soon, I will have lunch with three of the seminarians of the Diocese of Syracuse who are studying at CUA and being formed at Theological College Seminary: Rev. Mr. Peter Tassini Jr., Matthew Lyons, and Tyler Santy. Deacon Tassini will help distribute Holy Communion during the Mass of Canonization and both Matthew and Tyler will attend with their seminary.
There are always a number of things around the campus of the shrine and the university with which to fill one’s time. However, this morning I made it a point to spend some time before the Blessed Sacrament (as I try to do every day). Praying before the Lord in the crypt church of the shrine reminded me that during the ups and downs of our lives, the Lord is always there, waiting for us to come to him. Very often, he is the calm before, during and after the storms of our lives. In fact, this is one of the central themes that Pope Francis has been preaching about. Since the beginning of his papacy he has called all Christians to a renewed encounter with Jesus Christ, to simply letting the Lord encounter us.
In the midst of all of the preparations and today’s “calm before the storm,” I am reminded of this very basic, simple, yet important fact: God is always with us, God is always near! Do we notice this? Do we try to encounter him? Do we let him encounter us?
We are ready!
The outdoor sanctuary was completed just before tonight’s rehearsal began. The rehearsal itself went very well. Msgr. Marini and the other papal MCs did a fine job directing the many servers, MCs, and other ministers who will take part in tomorrow’s liturgy. Each person was attentive to his or her particular role in the Mass tomorrow.
Tomorrow, I will be assisting the sisters who serve as sacristans at the National Shrine as they set up for the Mass. At this point, everything is ready to go. But, many people — servers, MCs, lectors, gift bearers, musicians, media and sound staff, security, etc. — are asking themselves, “Are we ready for the Holy Father to come and celebrate Mass with us?” The more important questions are: “Are our hearts ready to listen to God’s Word, and the message of the Pope, Christ’s representative on earth?” “Is our whole being ready to participate in the one saving sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, which is re-presented for us whenever we celebrate the Eucharist?” And, “Are we really ready to be transformed by Christ in the same way that Junipero Serra was, leading us to be saints too?!”
I’m ready and, if — like me — you are someone who simply desires something more in your life, which you know only God can give, then so are you!
Sept. 23, Day 3:The Holy Father declares Junipero Serra to be a saint and celebrates Mass
Wow! What a day! It all began when I arrived at the shrine in the morning to get through security. The streets were empty and there were not many people around. This certainly changed as the day went on and 25,000 people slowly began to make their way to the shrine.
I spent the majority of the day helping the sisters at the shrine to set up for the papal Mass. We set up areas for cardinals, bishops, and priests to vest for Mass. We set up numerous chalices and ciboria for Holy Communion. And we set up all of the vestments and vessels that Pope Francis would need to celebrate Mass.
Throughout the day, I ran into many old friends who came back for this historic event – a Mass of Canonization on American soil, celebrated by the Holy Father himself. I do not think this reality has sunk in yet.
When Pope Francis arrived at the shrine, the bells rang, the choir sang and people cheered as he passed through the crowd and made his way into the Basilica. After he himself vested, the Mass began with the canonization of Junipero Serra. The celebration was a solemn one with a sacred tone. It celebrated the fact that today the Church “declared and defined Blessed Junipero Serra to be a Saint and enrolled him among the Saints.”
The relic of St. Junipero Serra rested on a table a few feet away from me before it was carried up in procession and placed in the sanctuary for Mass. I had a chance to venerate it and said a special prayer for my family, friends, parishioners and all the people of the Diocese of Syracuse. In a particular way, I prayed for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life in our diocese. We need young men and women to follow in the footsteps of holy people like St. Junipero Serra, who was filled with a missionary zeal that led him to live and spread the Gospel.
During the Mass, my duties were to bring the gift bearers up to the Holy Father and to lead the torch bearers out for the consecration. As I approached Pope Francis with the first group of people, I found myself standing just a few feet in front of him. His concentration on the Mass and prayerful demeanor were inspiring. Just to be in his presence, in the presence of the successor to St. Peter, was a beautiful thing. It filled my heart with joy and reminded me that our faith is for real! It is alive! And, it includes the fullness of truth that God has revealed to us. Wow again!
I could go on forever about the events of today, but I want to end my reflections with two things. First, I encourage all of us to find Pope Francis’ homily from today’s Mass and prayerfully read it. [Editor’s note: The full text is available here.] It was a great encouragement to all of us not to let our hearts become anesthetized or lifeless, but to let our faith and our mission as disciples fill them with the type of joy that sustains us so that we, like St. Junipero Serra, will give our very lives for the sake of the Gospel. Second, I would like to end with the beautiful words of today’s collect (opening prayer at Mass) for your reflection, which was said for the first time today after Junipero Serra was made a saint: “O God, who by your ineffable mercy have been please through the labors of your priest St. Junipero Serra to count many American peoples within your Church, grant by his intercession that WE MAY SO JOIN OUR HEARTS TO YOU IN LOVE, AS TO CARRY ALWAYS AND EVERYWHERE BEFORE ALL PEOPLE THE IMAGE OF YOUR ONLY BEGOTTEN SON.”
My friends, that’s the task that lays before us. That’s what all this is about – we are all called to holiness, to be saints, like Junipero Serra. And we can only do so if our hearts are fixed on heaven and on the Lord who leads us there! Amen.
Sept. 24, Day 4: Cleaning up, heading home, and moving forward!
After some much needed sleep, I have been reflecting on the historic events which took place yesterday in Washington D.C. The Holy Father was welcomed at the White House, he prayed midday prayer with the Bishops of the United States at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and he celebrated a Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
As I witness the cleaning up that is taking place today and prepare to head back to my parish, St. Rose of Lima, to teach the children in our parish school on Friday (one of my favorite parts of being a parish priest!), I am inspired by the end of Pope Francis’ homily yesterday. After encouraging us to rejoice with St. Paul in order to prevent our hearts from growing numb and after reminding us that Jesus has commanded us to go and proclaim the Gospel with joy, the Holy Father said that for St. Junipero Serra his motto was “siempre adelante!” or “keep moving forward!”
Isn’t that half the battle? On our journey through this life to God so often we get disoriented and discourage. So often we are tempted to settle or to stop trying to live as God’s children. And this leaves us with a feeling of emptiness inside, because — where God should be in our life, where the life of the Church should be in the living out of our faith — we put other things that we think and hope will make us happy. But, they don’t. Instead, we fall into the things that Pope Francis has been addressing during his apostolic visit: individualism, consumerism, a throwaway culture and a lack of joy.
Amidst all of this, we have to keep moving forward like St. Junipero Serra. As the Holy Father said yesterday, “He kept moving forward because the Lord was waiting. He kept going, because his brothers and sisters were waiting. He kept going forward to the end of his life.” So, my friends, lets do the same thing. Let’s clean up our lives, head back home to the Church where we encounter God, and keep moving forward!
Thanks for joining me these past few days. It has been a great privilege to share my reflections with you. As we continue to follow Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to the United States, let us pray for him and take what he says to heart.
P.S. The photos with “FlatFrancis” are a shout-out to my students at St. Rose of Lima School. They are also taking pictures with him as their way of welcoming, following, and supporting the Holy Father.