Why was it a little boy that came forward offering to help instead of an adult?
Pope John Paul II visited California in late summer of 1987. On September 17th he was going to celebrate Mass at the Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey with 50,000 people in attendance.
My sister lived in Sacramento at the time and was able to get tickets for us to attend the Mass, along with her year old daughter and our mother. So we drove from Sacramento to San Jose and stayed overnight at a motel. We had to be up by 6 AM to park the car at a military base parking lot and catch a bus that would take us to Monterey, since the access to the raceway was narrow and winding and parking was extremely limited.
Not all of the people on the bus were Catholic, but most were Californians, excited to see the celebrity Pope everyone was talking about and compare him to other celebrities they had seen. The girls next to me brought their latest fan magazines to read and discuss.
A heavy coastal fog covered the venue when we arrived. We saw a chain link fence and a row of those aqua colored portables that serve as sanitation with large crowds at outdoor events. Someone checked our passes and handed us a booklet of prayers and readings for the Mass, about half in English and half in Spanish, with the Creed in the old Latin chant we had learned growing up. We carried some juice and snacks for my niece and a blanket to sit on. That was all we brought. Nothing for ourselves, just for the baby.
The lower hillside and stage were invisible. All we could see were the patches of dirt and bits of grass on the part we were on. It was not an inviting sight. We found a place to put our blanket on the ground about halfway down the hill and not too far from the exit. Nearby was a small white and yellow striped tent with a wooden sign out in front that had a cross on it and the words Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Running back and forth, and in and out of the Chapel, were religious priests of different orders in their habits of brown, white or black.
After about an hour, the fog started to lift, and we could see pots of flowers lining walkways down the hillsides toward the racetrack which was filled with chairs for special guests. Larger pots of flowers surrounded the edge of the stage and a runway stretched out from the stage toward the middle of the track. That was the spot the Holy Father would preach from. A choir was on risers to one side of the stage, and a simple altar was placed directly in the middle. Behind it was a large white banner with words and symbols welcoming the Pope.
Soon we heard the whirring blades of a helicopter, coming from a speck high in the sky. The sound grew louder as it descended to the ground behind the stage. A few minutes later the crowd began to cheer as a small white popemobile came around a track that circled the stage, with John Paul II waving to the people. It stopped near the stage and he walked up the steps. Mass was about to begin.
As we prayed and listened to the Word of God, in alternating English and Spanish, the sun was directly above us, illuminating the whole scene, now striking in its simple beauty. There were several tent Chapels placed at intervals around the hillside.
I don't remember which Gospel was read that day, or details of the Holy Father's homily. But his spirit of hope and courage permeated the atmosphere and all of the people seemed to be mesmerized by his presence. They could feel his love for them and reflected it back.
At Communion time we didn’t have to walk to the altar, or wait for the sacrament to be brought to us from the stage area. One of the priests emerged from the Chapel nearest to us and simply walked through the crowd, giving out Communion as he went. After we had all received the Body of Christ, the Hosts that were left were taken back into the tent. I thought of the 12 baskets of fragments of barley bread that had been gathered up by the apostles after 5,000 were fed in the gospel of John 6:1-15.
With the final Blessing and Dismissal, it was time to go. Everyone stood cheering and waving to the Holy Father who walked out on the runway for a last farewell. All eyes were on Pope John Paul as he disappeared behind the stage, and we watched the helicopter ascend into the sky and disappear. It was time to come back down to earth.
At 1 PM we followed directions from the loud speaker and joined the crowd moving toward the exit. We moved slowly at first, and then the line stopped moving. After a half hour or so, people were grumbling that something was wrong. When we cleared the first gate, we learned that the buses that brought us here were not coming back for us.
There were several wildfires burning out of control in northern California that day. The commandant at the Presidio had made an executive decision to commandeer the buses to take firefighters up north right after they had dropped us off in the morning. Only a few city buses were available to evacuate 50,000 people from the site.
The crowd grew restless, crushing in around us. The temperature soared to 86 degrees. People fainted in the heat and were passed above our heads to the front of the line to a more open area for first aid. Some of the men were furious when they learned what was going on and threatened to push through the fences to get to the few buses waiting for passengers. Security guards backed up by local police were trying to maintain order. After the beauty of the Mass and the inspiring presence of the Holy Father, this was a nightmare.
Then I saw them. A young couple with three children, one preschooler and one about five, and one a little older. All of them stood in a row holding out their hands. They were not dressed for an outdoor event. They were all dressed up for Sunday Mass. The man was wearing a light brown suit and tie. His wife had on a black dress with a white lace collar, and polished shoes. The little girls wore flowered dresses and black patent Mary Janes. No sunsuits or sandals. I thought they must be so uncomfortable in the heat.
Next to the family was a small blue and white cooler that was opened. And then I saw what was in their hands. They were offering sandwiches and water to the people around them. It must have been the lunch they had packed for themselves and their children.
Of course, no parent would ever leave for the day with their small children in tow without food and drink for the little ones. Only a family with small children would come prepared to an event like this. And even though they couldn't possibly feed all the people there that day, they were holding out their hands and offering what they had to help whomever they could.
The guards were taking families with infants and/or the elderly first. So my niece and my mother turned out to be good insurance for us. We were put on a bus at 5:00 pm and picked up our car at 6:30 pm relieved, but tired, thirsty and hungry. After stopping for dinner on the way, we arrived home in Sacramento at 10:30 PM. The late evening news reported that people were still stranded at the raceway. The next morning we learned that it took until 1 AM to get all the people out.
Why was It a little boy who offered bread and fish to Jesus to feed the crowd? It was because all the adults came to Jesus empty handed. But a family with small children would never leave home without something to give their children to eat. So they were prepared to share.
To this day I remember that young family offering their food to others, just as they offered their hearts to God at the Mass, dressed in their Sunday best. I think they were probably the only ones who really knew why they were there that day.