Denver pilgrims recall pope’s message of hope during 2008 visit to NYC
By Julie Filby
Photo by Roxanne King/DCR
On Pope Benedict XVI’s last day as pontiff, Father Sam Morehead spent his day off similar to how he envisions the pope emeritus will spend his coming days: in quiet prayer.
“I feel the irony: Pope Benedict retires tomorrow,” he told the Denver Catholic Register Feb. 27 in a phone conversation from the Abbey of St. Walburga in rural northern Colorado. “He’s going to ‘disappear’ in a life of prayer. Well, it’s perfect that I’m at a Benedictine abbey. … I’m following his example.”
Father Morehead, 29, parochial vicar at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Loveland, has long been influenced by Pope Benedict’s ministry and messages, and when the pontiff visited the United States in April 2008, Father Morehead—then in his third year at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary—organized a group of about 20 seminarians to pilgrimage to New York City to see the Holy Father.
Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States took place from April 15-20 and was his first, and only, visit to the U.S. It included meetings with then President George W. Bush, an address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, a visit to Ground Zero, and Masses at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., and Yankee Stadium in New York City.
The group organized by Father Morehead had two opportunities to be with the pope: a gathering for seminarians and youth April 19 at St. Joseph’s Seminary Dunwoodie in Yonkers; and the Sunday Mass April 20 at Yankee Stadium.
“It was an experience of excitement and intensity,” said Father Morehead who described the first event as something of a small World Youth Day experience. “Especially as we waited for the pope.”
He recalled concerts were put on for them while they waited, including pop singer Kelly Clarkson.
“As we were waiting, I remember seeing some of our seminarians crowd surfing,” he said, but not because they were big fans of Clarkson. “It represented the pure joy and intensity of being Catholic and anticipating being in the presence of the pope.”
Once the Holy Father arrived, he encouraged the crowd of 20,000.
“He provided strong encouragement that I’ve never forgotten, it’s become a personal motto for me,” Father Morehead relayed. “(He said) ‘become icons of Christ the High Priest by your life of humility, charity and chastity.’
“That deeply resonated with me and my experience of prayer.”
It was powerful when the pontiff told the seminarians that he was praying for them every day.
“That probably meant the most for us,” he said.
At the papal Mass the next day, the seminarians were united with several hundred Denver-area pilgrims.
“We had our own Denver section,” he said. “Unfortunately we couldn’t see, we were behind the stage, but just to be there…”
The crowd of 60,000 came together as Americans to celebrate the Catholic faith.
“That (faith) transcends all cultures, ethnicities, races,” he said. “It was powerful. Christ was with us, and the successor of St. Peter was with us.”
Gina Lanz, a parishioner of Our Lady of Fatima in Lakewood—who at the time was working for Endow—attended the Mass as well and recalled seeing Father Morehead’s group.
“We were sitting with the pilgrims from St. Mary’s of Littleton, and just in front of us were the seminarians,” she said. “I specifically remember the large group of young seminarians from Colorado from both seminaries and the rector of Redemptoris Mater (seminary).”
It was a joy to be with the Colorado contingency, she said.
“The beautiful, prayerful, joyful vibe of the crowd celebrating love for Christ and his Church was unforgettable,” she said. “A little taste of heaven on earth.”
One of her favorite moments was the staged show on the field that preceded Pope Benedict’s entrance: winged white doves symbolizing hope.
“Then the live doves were released!” she conveyed. “Gorgeous!”
Christ Our Hope was the theme of Benedict XVI’s visit: a theme that left Father Morehead with a feeling of confirmation.
“It was consoling to know the Holy Father was coming with that theme,” he said. “(Hope) had been my personal academic theme in every assignment in philosophy and theology. … It was if it had been set up just for me.”