Hitting the lottery

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. 

After having heard the news that my parish in Washington was going to conduct a lottery for tickets to Pope Francis’ Mass outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — but having been out of town for the two weeks after the announcement was made — I was afraid I had missed my chance.

Not to worry. Not only were parishioners able to sign up for a chance the weekend I got back, but the weekend after as well. I wrote my name, address and phone on the back of a red raffle ticket.

My D.C. parish got 40 tickets, but every parish in the Washington Archdiocese was getting 40 tickets. So members of my parish, which has only hundreds of households, have better odds of winning a ticket than someone in a suburban parish with thousands of households.

Cover of 'Unity in the Work of Service
‘Unity in the Work of Service” by Pope John Paul II about 1987 U.S. visit.

I’ve had decent luck, for both myself and for others when St. John Paul II visited Detroit in 1987, so I kept my fingers crossed. Ah, but no such luck. Forty other parishioners won tickets.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops also conducted a lottery — and I won! I won a chance to be on the West Front of the Capitol with thousands of other people who are hoping for a glimpse of the pope after his address to Congress. However, I’ll be on assignment somewhere else for CNS.

In 1987, when I was a reporter at The Michigan Catholic, the Archdiocese of Detroit’s newspaper, it seemed that every employee of the archdiocese was given a chance to get a pair of tickets to one of the papal events planned for his stop in the Motor City, which spanned two days. Given the nature of the events and the potential turnout for them, all of the journalists on The Michigan Catholic’s staff opted to seek tickets for the event with the fewest seats: the welcoming ceremony at Blessed Sacrament Cathedral.

And, as luck would have it, we all got what we had hoped for!

The final event of any size on Pope John Paul’s itinerary was the Mass at the Pontiac Silverdome. My Detroit parish, where I served as music director, got 47 tickets to the Mass. The ticket distribution was made according to each parish’s size. Even though my Detroit parish was smaller than my D.C. parish, the Silverdome accommodated some 90,000 people once you fill most of the football field with folding chairs; the pope celebrated Mass at the 20-yard line.

Even with 47 tickets, there were more people who wanted ducats than were available. Still, I had another way in. As parish music director, I could pick myself as one of the four people sought from each parish to sing in the papal Mass choir.

But I came upon the horns of a dilemma. Do I choose one soprano, one alto, one tenor, one bass? What if the best singers were in the same vocal range? Would it be OK to shift one to another voice part to get the best singers in the papal choir?

People line Hamtramck, Mich., street during pope's 1987 trip. (Photo: Arturo Mari/L

People line Hamtramck, Mich., street during pope’s 1987 trip. (Photo: Arturo Mari/L’Osservatore Romano)

Not sure of what to do, I called the archdiocesan director of music ministries. He solved the problem for me: “They can all come,” he said. So, instead of four singers, my parish contributed 15. Nobody had to change voice parts, and I could put the full choir through its paces before regional rehearsals began.

The only ethical chicanery took place without my knowledge. Three of the sopranos lied about their height. They correctly guessed that the shortest would be seated in front, and the tallest in back, but they wanted the chance to sit together in the Silverdome. Not only did they sit together, a Detroit Free Press photographer took a great picture of them singing that was published in the next day’s paper!

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