‘Body surfing’ to see the pope

One in a series.

Catholic News Service Rome bureau staffers always get to cover papal trips, yet, as Pope Francis’ visit approached, we in Washington began thinking about our favorite moments of when we got to cover popes. No one in our newsroom is a papal rookie, so we agreed to share some of our stories.

Back in 1979, Thomas Lorsung, CNS’ retired director and editor-in chief, was managing editor of the news service — then known as NC News —  when Pope John Paul II visited the U.S. in 1979. As Lorsung writes, there was a break in editing stories the last day of that papal trip, allowing him to get out of the newsroom and wander down to the National Mall where the pope was celebrating Mass. Here’s his account:

By Thomas N. Lorsung

WASHINGTON (NC) — I thought of it as “body surfing.”

There was a lull in the action of editing stories on the last day of Pope John Paul II’s visit to the United States and I decided to walk to the city’s Mall and look for myself at the papal Mass concluding the visit.

The 20-minute walk took me down deserted streets and, as the Mass site approached, past vendors selling all manner of buttons, calendars, pennants and papal flags. There was even a “special graphic” — a modern original poster — commemorating the visit of the pope to the nation’s capital.

It was not a cold day by my Milwaukee-bred resistance, but with temperatures in the 60s and a steady breeze blowing, there was a wind-chill factor operating.

At 12th and Madison, I was at the edge of a crowd and from there could hear the pope reading the creed in his now-familiar, solid, deliberate baritone.

Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass Oct. 7, 1979, on National Mall. (Photo credit: Mitchell, Smithsonian Institution)

Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass Oct. 7, 1979, on the National Mall. (Photo credit: Mike Mitchell, Smithsonian Institution)

But seeing him was another matter. From that distance, half a block away, he was just a speck on a white stage. I wanted to closer to put some of the crowd and at least some possibly identifiable image on some Instamatic film left in my children’s camera, which I stuffed in my briefcase at the last minute when I left for work a week before.

At the crowd’s edge the “body surfing” began. It did not involve surfing with the body as much as it meant surfing through bodies to edge closer to the action.

A James Taylor song says he would “ride with the tide and go with the flow.” It was the way toward the front of the crowd. When someone came out, from up front, the most successful “body surfers” would seize the moment and slip up to fill the gap. There was a certain ebb and flow to the process, all right.

As the crowd ebbed, we surfers flowed — past the couple in their 20s praying aloud the parts of the Mass, past the two women wrapped in a quilt to keep off the wind as they sat in lawn chairs, past the short woman carrying a baby who was more intrigued by my striped tie than by the crowd towering above, past the young men who climbed 20 feet or more up into trees like Zacchaeus trying to see the Lord.

But the family history scrapbook will probably be a little light in pictures of the pope. After surfing through about two dozen rows, I lifted the lens toward the action only to see a pontifical figure in green on the white stage in front of the Smithsonian castle. The viewfinder showed a view of the altar and castle, anyway, I thought. The only problem was that the red warning light on the camera told me that it was probably futile to shoot in the fading daytime, as dusk was accelerated by a new cloud cover. But I shot anyway. That’s how surfers are. One wipeout can’t stop us.

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Also noted: Just a few days before Lorsung’s story ran, the news service reported that a federal judge had rebuffed an attempt by Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a well-known atheist in those years, to block the papal Mass on the National Mall.

U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Gasch ruled that Pope John Paul II’s right to free speech entitled him to celebrate Mass on public property. Gasch said he had to strike a balance between the First Amendment’s provision for separation of church and statement with the same amendment’s free speech clause — and in this case free speech should prevail.

“Here the Department of the Interior is extending to the (Washington) Archdiocese no greater access, uses, facilities, privilege or support that would be extended to any other group, religious or nonreligious,” the judge said in his opinion.

“Mrs. O’Hair was unable to cite any authority for the proposition that certain religious faith should be excluded from privileges extended by the government (for) the use of the park, particularly when the practice is to permit any religious faith to exercise that privilege.”

Gasch said the federal government “has completely avoided any connections with or sponsorship of the Mass on the Mall.”

The Archdiocese of Washington took care of all the details for the public Mass, he noted, from the platform to sound equipment to temporary fencing to seating to portable toilets to cleanup.

O’Hair had vowed to appeal if she lost the case, but the historic Mass took place in what was a 33-hour whirlwind trip for the pontiff to the nation’s capital. His visit included an afternoon at the White House with President Jimmy Carter and Mass for 1,500 priests at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and the public Mass on the Mall. Before arriving in Washington, Pope John Paul visited Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Des Moines, Iowa, and Chicago.

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