By Anna Arco
4 j ohn Paul II, we love you," chanted' a crowd of teenagers standing to my left in a sodden Central Park in October 1995. The chant became a roar. Despite the rain, the atmosphere was full of boisterous high spirits and enthusiasm. There were about 125,000 of us packed on to the Great Lawn. It was the first time I remember seeing the Pope — I was 13 and it made a lasting impression. I remember he quavered as he sang a Polish carol which we cheered loudly and then he made a wry comment asking us why we were cheering when we couldn't understand what he was saying. As New Yorkers prepare for Pope Benedict's visit (first and 'fast; some people say) to the United States in two months, it is tempting to speculate on what it will be like. Much has changed in the American Church in the last 13 years — troubled as it has been with the terrible scandals, a drop-out rate, which, like everywhere else, has been rapidly growing, and the way that religion has become an unprecedented political mover. Pope Benedict's planned visit has much less of the public euphoria and media circus that surrounded Pope John Paul's visit. It will be dignified and it will be big, with 60,000 people expected in the great Bronx landmark of Yankee Stadium, but it is mainly a diplomatic visit. I suspect that his (much-needed) focus on Europe's spiritual crisis and the fact that he has not held his office as long as the previous pope may also contribute to somewhat flagging enthusiasm.
Still, the prospects are not all gloomy, the Faith is still very much alive and there is evidence at least that the Holy Father's visit is likely to be received with joy. The Catholic Church has grown, despite people dropping out of the Church, predominantly because of immigration from Latin America, and the United States bishops' conference estimates that 69.1 million Americans (23 per cent of the population) are Catholics. Pope Benedict is to hold a youth rally at the St Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, not far from the church where the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal started their monthly Catholic Underground evenings. Two years ago. I found myself in the packed basement of St John the Baptist in Yonkers, with 500 other "youngsters" who were quite voluntarily giving up going out on a Saturday night for Adoration, a Catholic ska concert, coffee-house style and Compline. The movement has grown and the Catholic Underground has spread to other cities and other states.
On this side of the Atlantic the Spirit has been moving in a small way as well. At a family affair last week I saw a number of my second cousins (I have around 100 second cousins on my maternal grandfather's side) who have become more involved with the Church. Four of my cousins have taken a year out of their busy lives to spend it either in evangelisation schools or in monasteries in meditation, while it was the first time I saw my cousin Johannes in a habit of sorts — he is becoming a monk in a small community in France. We grew up together but the last time I had a proper chat with him he was working fora bank; so it was a bit of a shock to see him with closely shorn hair and a pectoral cross. The slightly remote, diffident, now quietly spoken besandled Brother who sat in front of me bore little more than a physical resemblance tothe outgoing, humorous but urbane banker I had known. It was the first time most of us, bar his immediate family. had seen him in his new role and it may have made him somewhat shy.
He started telling me about his new life. His community is very young and is still waiting for papal recognition. There are 20 or so members (men and women) in their 20s and early 30s and they are in the process of rebuilding the old farm buildings they have been given as a monastery. Johannes was doing masonry work until he did his back in, and now he is the beekeeper. With a flash of his old humour, he grinned and said: "I'll bet you didn't expect that I'd be talking about the record amount of honey we harvested this year. And I'll bet you didn't think you'd ever hear me tell you that I look after the goats. I guess you could call me a goatherd."
When I asked whether they were selfsufficient, he laughed. "I guess you could say so. Kind people give us the food we eat."
While it is still difficult for us as a family to wholly understand his vocation, as well as to come to tenns with thefact that he has a new family now, his newly found happiness and peace are wonderful to behold. We think him very brave, and he thinks that we are silly for thinking it. The way he sees it, is that it is there was no question of another way of life.
A family member's entry into religious life is never easy for a family to come to terms with. Although we all pray for more vocations, it is sometimes emotionally difficult to relinquish a family member to the service of God. I suspect there is a sort of secret nimbyism, which we cannot help but feel, even if we are happy about the vocation. It may be a selfish emotion, but a human one nevertheless.
In Rome before Christmas for the ordination of yet another cousin who has entered the services of the Church as a priest with the Legionaries of Christ, I could see the conflicting emotions struggling on his mother's usually composed and dignified face. She looked proud of her son and happy for his happiness but this was mixed with the sadness of a mother who has been asked to give up a son.
On another note, the time between now and Christmas has been full of announcements for quite another vocation. Six of my cousins and friends have announced that they are to be married this year, which added to the other five who have become engaged in 2007, make this summer look like it's going to be very busy. I just hope that there'll be more Haydn and Schubert than Mendelssohn and Handel.