My conservative Catholic friends (I don't have any liberal Catholic friends) will probably disagree with me, but I found Pope Benedict XVI's Mass on April 17 at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., to be one of the most moving experiences of my life. I've read many of the Internet criticisms of this two-hour mass Mass that filled all 46,000 seats in the brand-new baseball stadium (plus hundreds of outfield chairs for priests, nuns, and VIPs): the music was lousy (worst offender: a Spanish-language hymn to the Holy Spirit that sounded like the rumba that got Priscilla Presley dumped from "Dancing With the Stars" ); the many-tongued prayers, in Spanish, Tagalog, Korean, Vietnamese, and Igbo as well as English, tended to turn the Mass into a celebration of trendy multiculturalism rather than a sacred ritual; and the congregation insisted on clapping and cheering at solemn moments, such as after communion.

The critics were right in many ways. Much, although not all, of the music at the pope's Mass was mediocre at best, selected by the well-meaning but tin-eared liturgical bureaucrats of the Archdiocese of Washington. I caught Benedict's slight eye-roll on the Jumbotron as he tried to sit politely through an instrumental interlude that consisted entirely of drum rolls and atonal brass. Even genuinely lovely offerings, such as world-class tenor Placido Domingo's world-class rendering of "Panis Angelicus" toward the end of the Mass, got submerged in the general bloat. It was also true that the multiplicity of languages in the liturgy was confusing rather than exhilarating, and that applause and shrieks of "woo-hoo!," accompanied by the waving of miniature Vatican flags from our goody bags, appropriately displayed our enthusiasm for the pontiff—but maybe not at communion time.

All this, however, is to miss the point, which is that the Catholics of Washington and its environs were trying their best to give something beautiful and valuable back to a pope whose arrival in Washington and willingness to preside, the day after his 81st birthday, over a gruelingly long liturgy in an athletic stadium were a gift to us. I had never seen a pope in the flesh in my life, and neither, I think, had many others in the stands, who had come by car, bus, and Metro train from all over Washington, southern Maryland, and as far away as Richmond, Va., winners of parish lotteries or given tickets by their pastors as rewards for volunteer service.

They started arriving as early as 5 in the morning, and by the time I got to Nationals Park, at 6:30 a.m., there was already a swelling crowd. It was a crowd that matched James Joyce's description of the Catholic Church as Here Comes Everybody: representatives of every ethnic and every age group, too, from the baby getting its diapers changed by its mother on a plaza to elderly ladies helping themselves along with walkers. Some of those folks were attired as if for an audience in the Vatican, wearing suits and ties or dark dresses; others had come in Crocs and clam-diggers. Catholic schoolgirls wore their uniforms of tiny plaid skirts and knee-socks; some college-age youths sported Goth-black T-shirts reading "Property of Benedict XVI." There were hundreds of priests in cassocks, nuns in old-fashioned habits with graceful veils and rosaries. It was a cheerful crowd, uncomplaining when the concession stands ran out of coffee by 7 a.m., patiently waiting in long lines to have confessions heard by a bevy of priests under a large pavilion set up just outside the stadium.

It was clear to me that most of those 46,000 people were neither saints nor liturgical aesthetes; many of them (including me) probably weren't even outstandingly pious. What they were was thrilled to be at there, thrilled to be Catholics, and thrilled to be anticipating their first-ever glimpse of a pope. A few days before, I had helped host an online chatroom in a webcast produced by our local Fox affiliate. I had expected hostile questions from disaffected chatters along the lines of "Why won't the Church ordain women?" and "What's wrong with gay marriage?" Instead, most of the questions were: "Is it too late for me to get a ticket to the Mass?" Some 100,000 people are reported to have tried.

So it was no wonder that a roar of joy from the stands greeted Benedict's Popemobile as it circled the outfield to signal his arrival. Plus hoots and hollers and Vatican flag-waving after Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington issued his formal welcome to the pope. Plus clapping at moments that would be too solemn at another time in another place. Notwithstanding, the general mood was one of utmost dignity and reverence, among both the priests and other ministers who participated in the Mass and the lay people who attended, with all attention focused on the simple but beautiful candle-bedecked altar and the 14-foot crucifix borrowed from a parish church in Hyattsville, Md., behind the pope's chair. Some of the musical choices wouldn't have been my own, but the four choirs and instrumentalists in attendance performed them to perfection. Nor did the crowd in the stands seem to mind. The row of people in front of me, clearly from an African-American parish, sang exultantly as an African-American priest-cantor led us in an adaptation of the "Kyrie Eleison" by the African-American composer Leon Roberts. The women who recited prayers in Vietnamese and Igbo proudly wore the costumes of their native lands.

Yes, Benedict has in writings has called for more "verticality" in the liturgy—more focus on its transcendent meaning as a reenactment of Christ's sacrifice—rather than the "horizontality" of a celebration of community. But there was in fact verticality aplenty at this Mass, supplied not least by Benedict himself, resplendent in flame-red vestments, awe-striking in his recitation of the sacred words of consecration, ineffably moving in his delivery of the sermon he had written just for us: "I have come to America to confirm you, my brothers and sisters, in the faith of the apostles."

When Benedict, preceded by a procession of priests and bishops, walked across the field to the altar to begin the Mass, the Jumbotron flashed close-ups of choir members weeping as they sang the opening hymns. My eyes filled with tears, too, when I heard him begin the liturgy, in his German-accented English, with the very first words I had ever heard said live by a pope: "Peace be with you." The vicar of Christ was speaking the words of Christ. After it was all over, the mood of the tens of thousands strolling out of the stadium into the brilliant spring sun was pure, if exhausted happiness. Every single one of us was a Catholic, baptized in our faith, and every single one of us had made a pilgrimage. What we brought wasn't perfect, and I'm the first to admit that American Catholics could use more of the liturgical sophistication that, as my conservative friends point out, we sorely lack, but this disparate group of imperfect people had given Benedict a gift that was whole-hearted if not always in the best of taste.

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