Pleading letters and e-mails are flooding into the offices of parish priests. Requests for tickets are appearing on eBay and Craigslist. Diocese officials are fielding phone calls from desperate Catholics as far away as Australia. All to be one of the 45,000 people who will crowd into the stadium for his celebration of the Eucharist.
Monsignor W. Ronald Jameson, rector of St. Matthew's Cathedral in the District, has received hundreds of letters and e-mails, in English and Spanish, many with a heartrending story of why the sender should be chosen to go to the Mass. A woman who experienced two miscarriages and believes the Mass will help relieve her grief. A man who suffers from HIV and hopes the Mass will produce a miracle. A wife whose husband has just returned from a two-year deployment to Iraq.
"It's going to be a difficult choice," Jameson said.
The Washington Archdiocese, which controls the tickets to the Mass in the District, is still working on how to distribute them. So far, it has announced that it will give 14,000 tickets to 120 other archdioceses. Arlington will receive the most: 6,000.
Today, church officials will announce how many tickets will go to each of the 140 parishes within the Archdiocese of Washington, which includes the District and suburban Maryland.
Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said the office has received enough requests from other dioceses, parish groups, youth groups and individuals to fill Nationals Park twice. "It's been amazing," she said.
More than a religious ritual
Demand has also been strong for tickets to the pope's appearances in New York, where he will celebrate Mass at Yankee Stadium on April 20, but not in all parishes. At the 7,200-family St. Clare's parish on Staten Island, the youth minister had 83 takers for 96 tickets to an April 19 youth rally, despite putting out two calls for interested young people and parents active in youth programs.
But for many Catholics, a Mass celebrated by the pope, even with tens of thousands of other people on hand, is more than a religious ritual. They might think that Benedict lacks the charisma of his predecessor, John Paul II, but the 80-year-old pontiff still represents the spiritual and moral authority of the Roman Catholic Church.
The distribution of tickets for services in New York and Washington is largely limited to Catholics, who must request them through their parishes or other Catholic organizations to which they belong.
The Arlington Diocese, which stretches from Northern Virginia south to Lancaster and west to the Shenandoah, is dividing up its 6,000-ticket allotment among groups of recipients: parishes, students at Catholic high schools, members of college ministries, people considering becoming priests and nuns. Top priority is given to "youth and people devoting their lives to God," said Mark Herrmann, chancellor of the diocese.
Herrmann said it has been left to chaplains, principals and pastors to create a distribution system. "They can do random drawings, essays. Whatever they come up with, frankly, is fine," he said. "The only hard and fast rule is these will be free."
To guard against security threats and protests and to prevent the exploitation of a sacrament for profit, the Washington and New York archdioceses are working to make the tickets non-transferable.
From eBay to raffles
The hunt for tickets has spread to eBay and Craigslist, where a photo of a beaming man in a silvery tie was attached to a plea for tickets to either the Washington or New York Mass.
"If I can get tickets to this event, I will be proposing to my girlfriend there or shortly after," the posting said. "Please understand that my girlfriend has brought Christ into my life . . . and I can see us walking with the Lord together forever."
In the interest of fairness, some parishes are opting to raffle off their tickets.
"Oh my gosh, going to the papal Mass is absolutely perfect," said Lori Brown, 48, a Justice Department worker who recently won a ticket to the Mass at a raffle sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington. "To actually be that close to the Holy Father and to hear his message is going to be magnificent."
At St. Peter's in Washington, Va., the Rev. Robert DeMartino said the sign-up sheet on the wall of the tiny rural church "is jammed. Half the parish wants to go."
DeMartino plans to put all the names into a hat and have an altar server pick out the winners during Mass.
Catholics going to the New York events were told a few weeks ago about how many tickets each parish would get for the Mass and for the youth rally, said Joseph Zwilling, spokesman for the New York archdiocese.
The archdiocese is keeping about a quarter of the 57,000 tickets to the Mass at Yankee Stadium for its parishioners. Another bunch is going to nearby dioceses in New Jersey and New York. Four dioceses celebrating bicentennials this year -- Boston, Philadelphia, Louisville and Baltimore -- are also getting tickets. Others tickets are going to dioceses across the country.
"One wrote for 10,000. Another wrote for 8,000. We did the best we could," Zwilling said. Most dioceses are receiving a few hundred tickets at most. "We made a real effort to include the whole country as best we could," he said.
The Rev. Horace "Tuck" Grinnell, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua parish in Falls Church, said he wants to give tickets to some of the poorest parishioners, including recent immigrants. St. Anthony is 70 percent immigrant, largely Spanish-speaking.
"Something like this," he said, "they see as a way of expressing their faith."