The Papal Visit : Dodger Stadium Mass Gives Immigrants a Night of Joy

Times Staff Writer

A jubilant sea of captivated immigrants embraced Pope John Paul II with thunderous acclaim Wednesday as the red-robed pontiff crowned his pastoral visit to Los Angeles with the festive pageantry of a Dodger Stadium Mass.

It was resplendent in church tradition--and more than a little Hollywood glitz--but the papal Mass most strongly celebrated newcomers, from the migrants who marched up the spine of California to found its missions two centuries ago to those who more recently have been drawn to its shores.

The largest crowd in stadium history--at 63,000 it easily eclipsed the previous record of 56,242 at a 1981 Dodgers-Yankees World Series game--gave face to the words the Polish Pope noted in his sermon, voiced in both Spanish and English.

“Today, in the church in Los Angeles, Christ is Anglo and Hispanic,” the pontiff said from the white and yellow center-field stage. “Christ is Chinese and black, Christ is Vietnamese and Irish, Christ is Korean and Italian, Christ is Japanese and Filipino, Christ is Native American, Croatian, Samoan. . . .”

There were all those, and more. And what they had in common, for this one warm night, was a high-spirited reverence for the celebrity Pope.


Yellow gladioli and mauve lilies formed a backdrop for the altar, and hand-made banners hung along the stadium tiers proclaimed greetings to John Paul. One group apparently got the message in the Pope’s stern warnings to dissenting Catholics: “We pledge our obedience,” one banner read.

Still, the overriding emotion of the night was not deference but joy. Before the Pope’s arrival, a few white-robed priests seated near the altar lurched upward in a trendy, if ultimately unsuccessful, attempt at “the wave.”

Ethnic dance and singing groups took the stage, prompting ever-increasing rounds of applause from the audience. A gospel trio stood and sang “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” and the crowd spontaneously shouted and clapped its approval. A sky writer sprayed the image of a cross overhead. And the Pope, when he saw it, grinned.

“Oh, I love it! Thank God for letting me be here,” shouted Lucy Salcedo of West Covina.

The Tuesday night Coliseum Mass, more somber than its Dodger Stadium counterpart, was marred by enormous delays as 100,000 of the faithful tried to squeeze through turnstiles and security metal detectors.

But on Wednesday, many worshipers who took heed of the previous night’s problems showed up early, and crowds moved comparatively swiftly into the stadium.

The pageantry began when the largest gathering ever of U.S. bishops, clad in their ceremonial red chasubles and white miters, strolled into the stadium, some of them waving and stopping to greet acquaintances. The Pope himself made his first appearance at 6:01 p.m., and the sight of his white Popemobile brought the crowd to its feet. Cheers followed the vehicle on its six-minute turn around the warning track as sobbing worshipers waved anything they held--caps, handkerchiefs, even the napkins that had held their Dodger-dogs.

Gerardo Prieto, 61, born in Cuba and living in San Fernando, waved his handkerchief as the Pope passed 10 feet in front of his seat. He hollered “Viva el Papa!” and then, sweating with excitement, clapped his hands together and declared: “It was beautiful! I feel new life.”

Interrupted by Applause

The Pope’s sermon, a declaration of the strength of unity among diverse peoples, was interrupted more than two dozen times by applause, particularly when he shifted from English to Spanish.

One of the loudest ovations came when the Pope commended Catholic officials for their activism in assisting undocumented aliens to become citizens.

“This pastoral care of the immigrant in our own day reflects the love of Christ in the Gospels and the legitimate work of the church in carrying on the challenge of the Lord: ‘I was a stranger, and you welcomed me,’ ” John Paul said.

He voiced a call for unity among the differing segments of the church--saying it “does not erase diversity"--and referred to the often deep divisions between the American church and its leaders in Rome.

Wednesday’s service, he noted, came on the feast day of St. Cornelius and St. Cyprian, two Third-Century church leaders who faced “painful dissension” within their church.

“How appropriate that we should observe their feast on the day when the present successor of Peter is meeting with the bishops of the United States,” he said in an apparent reference to the strains between church leaders.

There was no strain visible among the gathered Mass-goers, who appeared fully entranced by the visiting Pope.

One boy did what everyone seemed to wish they could. As Justin McCowan, about 8, and his father, Don, clad in matching suits and ties, approached the Pope with symbolic gifts during the offertory, the little boy threw his arms around the pontiff. The Pope, momentarily surprised, returned the embrace. The crowd, watching on the immense stadium television screens, sighed its approval.

Especially Important

Tom Arroyo and his wife, Fatima, both from the Philippines, missed the Pope when he traveled to their native land in 1981, so Wednesday’s appearance had special significance.

“It was the greatest disappointment of my life and I never thought I’d get to see him again,” said Arroyo, decked out in a parrot-print Hawaiian shirt and cowboy hat, a cigar in his mouth. “This cancels all of that.”

Tom Delaney, 47, a Granada Hills man wearing a blue “Highway to Heaven” hat that commemorated the television show, not the papal visit, arrived with his Italian wife, Maria, 36.

“If I had a choice between winning the California Lottery and this, I’d pick this one,” he crowed.

Jesus Mena and his wife Josefina drove all the way from Mexicali, Mex., to Dodger Stadium to take their seats on the left field line. A laborer and a housewife, they left their six children behind for a day to make the pilgrimage.

“This may be the most important moment of my life,” Jesus Mena said.

“It is the most important of my life,” Josefina Mena interjected.