An email from the Bishop's office that there might be a few tickets available for priests from the Albany Diocese to attend the papal Mass Sept. 25 at Madison Square Garden was already hours old when Rev. Joseph O'Brien read it.
"I thought, 'There's no way in the world there are any spots left,'" said the pastor of Holy Spirit parish in East Greenbush -- but he called anyway, and he was lucky enough to get one of the remaining tickets.
"I'm getting excited," he said last week. Father O'Brien was planning to take the Megabus into New York City, an express bus service that offers discounted rates and a dropoff in midtown Manhattan. He pointed out that he knows his way around New York: Before he became a priest, he worked in the financial field in the city.
FRANCIS, IGNITE FAITH
Also attending the Madison Square Garden Mass will be Rev. Brian Slezak, ordained just last year and now serving as parochial vicar (associate pastor) of Blessed Sacrament parish in Albany.
Father Slezak said he was the first one to respond to the alert about tickets for priests. "I saw Pope Benedict in New York in 2008, but this is my first contact with Pope Francis," he told The Evangelist.
The young priest couldn't wait to hear the pope speak in person, without translators and commentators parsing his words.
"As a priest, I'd like to know what he would encourage me to be or do: What is his hope for us? He's the chief shepherd; what would my shepherd say to me and my brother priests?" Father Slezak said.
However, Father Slezak is more interested in what Pope Francis has to say to all American Catholics.
"He's coming to see his people -- Catholics here in America. I want him to tell us the beauty the faith holds for us. I want him to encourage us to fall in love with the universal Church. I want him to tell us to be authentic Catholics, to be joyful Catholics who live out their faith. We need to ignite our faith again as Catholics," Father Slezak declared.
"There's no reason we shouldn't," he added: Considering all of the Catholic colleges and universities and abundant resources that exist in the U.S., "everything is at our disposal. Let's ignite our faith!"
'I'M CAPTIVATED BY HIM'
Recruited to help the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) handle the crush of media coverage for all the papal events is Rev. Kenneth Doyle, pastor of Mater Christi parish in Albany and author of the nationally-syndicated "Question Box" column for Catholic News Service, a Q&A about the Catholic Church that appears on page 2 of The Evangelist's print edition each week.
When he spoke to The Evangelist last week, Father Doyle didn't yet know the details of what he'd be doing, although he confirmed that he'd be at every papal stop Sept. 22-27 -- three days in Washington, D.C., two in New York City and two in Philadelphia -- most likely serving as a resource for Vatican journalists.
Father Doyle has more than a little experience: He was chief of Catholic News Service's Rome bureau in the 1980s and later directed media relations for the U.S. bishops. He is also a former editor of The Evangelist. He retired this summer from his position as diocesan chancellor for public information.
Having traveled with St. John Paul II while he worked in Rome, been present at the elections of Popes Benedict XVI and Francis and been a resource for media during papal U.S. visits in 1987, '95 and 2008, Father Doyle was still looking forward to seeing Pope Francis in America.
"I'm captivated by Francis," he said. "I've never met him. I would like to be a witness to what he has to say."
He isn't alone: As of last week, he said, 8,000 journalists had been accredited to cover the papal visit. Father Doyle believes that's the most public interest in any pope's visit to the U.S., ever.
He recalled his previous favorite papal encounter in America: During St. John Paul II's U.S. visit in 1995, Father Doyle oversaw what's called the "tight pool" of photographers and videographers, those nearest the pope at events who supply video feeds and photos to other media outlets. A Secret Service agent was assigned to the group, and Father Doyle was able to be right on the altar with Pope John Paul during Mass in Central Park.
This time, the priest said, "I don't know how much I'll see of Francis." But, as impressive as the sight hundreds of thousands of spectators will be, Father Doyle is more interested in the pope who's taken the world by storm.
It's not more about the people, he said: "It's more the pope."