Several fortunate priests and deacons from dioceses in New York State got the chance to assist the Holy Father at his Mass in Madison Square Garden on Friday, September 25. Reporting on behalf of Aleteia.org, I interviewed two men about their experiences there — Fr. Michael Duffy, a 30-year-old Associate Pastor of St. Kilian Parish in Farmingdale, N.Y., and Deacon Peter Haight, a 75-year-old married permanent deacon at Sacred Heart Parish in Newburgh, N .Y..
What was your role in the Mass?
Fr. Duffy: My role was quite insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and yet for me was tremendously grace-filled and important. I was one of the hundreds of concelebrants sitting behind the Holy Father. I had no public role, other than joining the Holy Father as he celebrated the Mass. As I stood there, participating with the Holy Father in the Eucharistic prayer, I couldn’t help but feel as though we priests formed a huge living wall, a living backdrop to the sanctuary. Anyone that looked at the Holy Father saw us. In a real sense I felt like we were there to silently say, Holy Father, we have your back — not just here and now, but always. We priests are your faithful sons. After the end of the Mass I heard one priest remark quite sincerely “after that Mass I would follow that man (Pope Francis) into battle.” I couldn’t help but think that we do that every day of our lives. We follow him into battle, the battle that is waged every day between good and evil, between light and dark. Thank God, we already know that we’ve won the war.
Dcn. Haight: My role was to distribute Holy Communion to over 200 people seated in section 210 of the Garden. In my white alb and diaconal stole, I gave the Bread of Christ to communicants of all ages, some wheel chair bound, parents holding tiny babies, religious sisters…. A true microcosm of the Church.
Have you attended any previous papal events? If so, how did they compare to the Mass with Pope Francis?
Fr. Duffy: Last year I was in Rome in October for the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops. I wasn’t able to concelebrate that Mass as I was this one. It was moving and solemn. The feeling at Madison Square Garden was completely different. I was sitting with well over a dozen brother priests. The camaraderie and fraternity was palpable. The joy of being in our own city and in the presence of the Successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ was simple overwhelming. Every other time I’ve prayed with the Holy Father I’ve gone to him. This time he came to us.
Dcn. Haight: I’ve attended several other papal events, both in the United States and in Rome. In 1995 when John Paul II came to Central Park, I was supposed to serve in the papal Mass but the bus for clergy never came to the parking lot, so they tried to fit everybody on only two buses. There was a feeble, elderly priest who couldn’t see or hear well. He said he would give his last dying breath to see the pope and serve concelebrate mass with him. When he was told there was no room on the bus, he cried. I gave my spot on the bus to him, but then I cried all the way home! I loved John Paul II, and I love Pope Francis because he is a people Pope and so aware of the needs of the poor. But it’s important to remember that every priest has the power to satisfy our spiritual hunger at every Mass.
What will you remember most about this event at Madison Square Garden?
Fr. Duffy: I think I’ll remember the prayerfulness and the silence most of all. This was the most well behaved, prayerful congregation I’ve ever been a part of. Real prayer was happening there. Serious prayer.
The second thing I’ll remember most occurred after the final blessing. After the Holy Father kissed the altar he turned around and waved to us priests. We all went nuts and waved back. A few of us shouted “Viva Il Papa”. Then the Holy Father simply blessed us. That simple sign of affection and love made the entire day.
Dcn. Haight: I will most remember the fact that I was able to share the Mass with my daughter Kristen who took the place of my wife, who stayed home due to health reasons. It brought back memories of how I held up Kristen’s older sister in the air so she could see JP2 in Yankee Stadium decades ago.
Has Pope Francis shaped your understanding of what it means to be a priest or deacon? And how has he done that?
Fr. Duffy: The Holy Father leads us by his own example. He teaches us what kind of pastors we should be by his own way of life. Even during his visit here to our country, in his attention to those on the margins he teaches and challenges us. He has helped me to remember the poor in our midst. Additionally, Pope Francis has reminded us continually of the importance of Joy. A joyful priest attracts others to his own vocation and to the one from whom Joy comes. The last thing this church needs is a curmudgeon. Pope Francis challenges me to be joyful every day.
Dcn. Haight: Agreed. Pope Francis reinforces what it means to be a minister/deacon by being a servant of God himself.
How do you think Pope Francis’ visit has impacted the local Church and all American Catholics?
Fr. Duffy: I pray for a new springtime in the American Church. I pray for a renewal among young people who yearn for fulfillment and completion, which ultimately can only be found in the person of Jesus Christ. So many non-Catholics, or fallen away Catholics were fascinated by this visit and the message of Pope Francis. I pray that his words may attract them and encourage them to return to the faith. I think our local church will benefit from this visit for some time. Peter has come, Peter has encouraged and blessed us.
Dcn. Haight: A young girl Anna was serving me breakfast at a local restaurant, and I offered her my daughter’s extra ticket for the Mass. She yelled, “I got a ticket! I got a ticket!” and the entire place started cheering for her. She sat next to my daughter during the pre-Mass show and started crying when Harry Connick, Jr. sang “How Great Thou Art.” This 24-year-old girl said that it was her mother’s favorite song, and her mother died not too long ago. After speaking with my daughter and experiencing the papal Mass, she was convinced to try to go back to Mass regularly. I’m sure that there are many more stories like this one.
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