Sunday in the park with the pope

Pope Benedict XVI’s visit this week is a positive and inspiring moment for the Catholic Church in America. On Sunday, April 20, the Holy Father will be celebrating the bicentennial anniversaries of four dioceses, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Louisville (Bardstown), with a Mass in New York’s Yankee Stadium. I will have the privilege of concelebrating at this Mass along with hundreds of other priests. We will be joined by 3,000 pilgrims from Boston. This will be a time to look back over the past 200 years, celebrating the heritage of our faith while looking forward with hope, committing to a future that realizes our vast potential.

I have been blessed to participate in papal Masses in the United States twice, when Pope John Paul II came to the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1987 and then to the Aqueduct Race Track in Newark, N.J., in 1995. What struck me each time was how these large sporting facilities became sacred places with the presence of the Holy Father and a stadium filled with Catholics focused on Christ and the Eucharist. We were thousands of pilgrims from various places and various walks of life united in the celebration of our faith.

In a stadium full of Catholics, although we are all united in our faith, our diversity is also clear. We see many races and colors, hear different accents, sit next to a person using a wheelchair or accompanied by a guide dog. Teachers and students, rich and poor, native-born and immigrants receive the Eucharist alongside one another. At such a moment we know more than ever that we are truly one in Christ.

I pray that Pope Benedict’s visit will strengthen our sense of unity. Whether we have the opportunity to attend one of the papal Masses in New York or Washington, watch the Masses on CatholicTV or read news coverage of these sacred events, we are part of a national celebration of our faith. Through this celebration, I hope our love for one another will grow. As we experience the power of faith sharing, I hope our spirit of cooperation in continuing Christ’s ministry here in Boston will be nourished.

In the early days of our country, we would not have had the freedom to openly live our faith. It was illegal to practice Catholicism in Massachusetts, and the penalty for a Catholic priest simply living here was life imprisonment. It was not until the Massachusetts Constitution took effect in 1780 that Catholics were free to worship in public. The milestone we celebrate this month, Boston’s elevation to diocesan status, came only 28 years later in 1808.

Sometimes it takes an event that brings us together to remind us of who we are as a community of faith. Let this papal visit at the time of our bicentennial be such an event. Let us celebrate our blessed heritage while looking with great hope toward the future. Because, as Pope Benedict tells us in the theme of his visit to the United States, Christ is our hope.

Father Erikson is vicar general and moderator of the curia of the Archdiocese of Boston.