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Even after two decades, papal visit seems like yesterday for planners

By Jordan McMorrough
Today's Catholic

The planning team, from left, Robert Aguirre, project manager; Father Lawrence Stuebben, statewide coordinator; and Sister Charlene Wedelich, CDP, administrative assistant.
Photo provided

    SAN ANTONIO • No one would doubt that the visit of Pope John Paul II was the biggest event ever to happen in the archdiocese, a time that still impacts lives and ministry in this part of the church in south Texas.
    However, most would probably never guess that this undertaking, and all of the massive planning involved, was headed by a core team that could be counted on one hand.
    This small coterie included then-Father Larry Stuebben, statewide coordinator; Sister Charlene Wedelich, CDP, administrative assistant; and Robert Aguirre, project manager. The following are their stories.

    The seeds were planted for the papal pilgrimage when Archbishop Patrick F. Flores and the bishops of Texas were in Rome in 1982 for their “ad limina” meetings at the Vatican.

    Pope John Paul II had visited the United States in 1978, and let it be known that he wanted to come back and visit different parts of the country.

    More than 60 dioceses submitted invitations to the Holy See, hoping that the Holy Father would grace their own local churches with his presence.
    In the fall of 1985, an advance team came through and looked at facilities in San Antonio in anticipation of a visit by the pontiff, and a few months later, in February of 1986, a group from the Vatican appeared in town for the same purpose.

    Two weeks after their departure, then-Father Stuebben was called into the office of Archbishop Flores. The archbishop told him that the pope was probably going to come here, and the archbishop asked the then-rector of Assumption Seminary to coordinate the visit. On top of these new duties, the rector was still expected to maintain his current job.
    “I practically collapsed,” Msgr. Stuebben exclaimed. He thought the matter over for three weeks, but was concerned about fundraising for the effort. However, when he brought that problematic situation to Archbishop Flores, the prelate replied, “I’ll raise the money.”

    In what Msgr. Stuebben called a “master stroke” by Archbishop Flores, San Antonio was the only location in the United States in which the whole province hosted the visit and not just one diocese. It was a joint invitation that featured joint payment, based on a formula devised by the Texas Catholic Conference. Under that plan, larger sees, such as Dallas and Galveston-Houston, contributed more toward funding the papal pilgrimage. Of a $2.4 million budget established before the trip more than 20 years ago, $200,000 remained in the coffers after the event. “Some dioceses across the country are still paying for their papal visit two decades after the fact,” Msgr. Stuebben said incredulously.
    The monsignor noted that a decision was made early in the process to not pay for the visit by selling souvenirs, as was done in some of the other cities on the U.S. tour.
    He emphasized that at every level of planning, the then-13 different dioceses of Texas were involved, and each diocese had its own event coordinator. As an example, at the papal Mass, the ushers, Eucharistic ministers, and choir members came from all over the Lone Star State.

    After agreeing to lead the effort, Msgr. Stuebben told the archbishop that he needed someone to work with on the massive endeavor. Archbishop Flores suggested Sister Charlene, coordinator for the archdiocesan Office for Religious, and she agreed to join the team. Then Aguirre was hired as project manager. “He was the person who had the overall view,” the monsignor said.

    “Nobody had ever done anything like this before,” said the visit coordinator, “so 12 basic committees were composed of the best, most competent people we could find. There were 18 months of preparation, and everyone had to ramp up at the same time. In the summer, things were put in place, and in the fall, we really got organized.”

    After careful deliberations, a Mass site was chosen in Westover Hills that fit all of the criteria needed for a huge outdoor gathering. The property was owned by developer Marty Wender and attorney Wayne Wright, with a small part of the acreage purchased by Tim Von Dohlen; who were of the Jewish faith, a Baptist and a Catholic, respectively.

    The Mass site was to feature two seven-story towers designed to withstand 40 mile-an-hour winds. However, just as the pontiff was arriving in Miami on the first leg of his American visit, a freak storm with 60 mile-an-hour wind shear hit the location and the towers toppled.
    The disaster avoided becoming a tragedy thanks to Ben Hoffner, the alert volunteer fire chief in Westover Hills. He was watching the storm forecast, drove out to the site in his truck and called workers off the scaffolding from a loudspeaker mere minutes before the storm hit. Through his actions, no one was injured or killed in the accident.

     Msgr. Stuebben praises Archbishop Flores for having a classic line in speaking of the incident two days later at the papal Mass. “Your holiness,” the archbishop said, “we had a little problem in that the towers fell, but the church of Texas is still standing.”

    That liturgy still holds the record for the largest attendance at a single event in Texas, with more than 350,000 turning out for the service. It featured 5,000 ushers and 3,000 Eucharistic ministers.
    And, out of a crowd of a third-of-a-million people, there were surprisingly few health issues. Two people had strokes, two babies were delivered, and eight people needed to be hospitalized.
    “The Mass went well. Smashingly good. The liturgy was very, very good,” said Msgr. Stuebben. The service was also attended by 45 bishops, and the pope had dinner with them later in the day at Assumption Seminary.

    During his 22 hours in South Texas, the pontiff also spoke to a Catholic Charities national meeting and met with 1,000 Polish representatives at a gathering outside of Assumption Seminary.
    However, it was in the cathedral where the Holy Father had perhaps his most dramatic moment in the Alamo city, said the monsignor.

    Just prior to the pope’s visit to San Fernando, while they were at Guadalupe Plaza, Msgr. Stuebben said he received a call from the Secret Service that they were going to cancel the subsequent event at the cathedral because, in their opinion, the crowd was out of control. In actuality, the seminarians and women religious were singing and cheering in anticipation of the pope’s arrival there.
    “As the pontiff started up the aisle at the cathedral, the atmosphere was explosive,” said Msgr. Stuebben. “The crowd stands up and then they start cheering, and the volume doesn’t subside,” he says. The pope gestured for the crowd to quiet down, and finally pleaded, “Please, please, I have to give this talk.”

    “The effect on San Antonio as a whole and the church as a whole in Texas was extremely positive,” said the monsignor. The involvement of the community was total. I never got a ‘no.’ San Antonio said, ‘We are a big town.’ The ecumenical reality flowered beautifully at that time.”

    Msgr. Stuebben commented that there are two moments when everyone in San Antonio of a certain age can tell you where they were: at the death of John Kennedy and the visit of Pope John Paul II.
    “The church of Texas was greatly enhanced. We were greatly involved,” he said.

    The monsignor gave much of the credit for the success of the visit to his boss at that time. “Archbishop Flores was absolutely fabulous. During the entire thing, he was wonderfully supportive, and he never micromanaged,” said Msgr. Stuebben. “When the pope came, Archbishop Flores was relaxed and excited and enjoyed it. It was beautiful to see.”

    The coordinator of the visit by Pope John Paul II summed up his feelings by saying, “He was the most significant leader of the church the last 16 years of his life. He is probably a saint, and he was right here.”


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