(Watch for complete and colorful coverage of the Field of Faith in the next issue of The Catholic New World.)

Field of Faith

By Michael D. Wamble

“Receiving Communion, in our stadium, in our parish, is a public act, as the church is a public body,” said Cardinal George June 24 to the nearly 30,000 Catholics who weathered showers and heavy downpours to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi in one of the largest outdoor ceremonies in Chicago archdiocesan history.

While the wet weather may have lowered the expected attendance, it couldn’t dampen Cardinal George’s spirit, as he looked out at the soaked faithful that mirrored the diversity of the city and surrounding counties.

“This has been the most effective sprinkling rite in the history of the Catholic Church,” said Cardinal George, jokingly retelling a conversation at the start of the Mass held at Soldier Field, home of pro football’s Chicago Bears.

Music from archdiocesan choirs, a Korean orchestra, the William Ferris Chorale and various Hispanic, African-American and Polish ensembles, filled the open-air space prior to the vigil Mass.

As a troupe of Mexican liturgical dancers led a banner procession of parishes and Catholic organizations onto the field to begin the Mass, so started the rain in earnest.

Some in the congregation settled in beneath umbrellas for the afternoon, while others headed for the stadium’s wrap-around concrete hallways creating gatherings space of a different kind before indoor monitors.

Watching the Mass from inside, many bridged societal gaps found in some parishes bringing together people—young Latinos, middle-aged African-Americans, older Lithuanians and Poles—across ethnic and racial boundaries, who exchanged hugs and handshakes as signs of peace.

The Mass also managed to pull in those more accustomed to seeing fans than worshippers.

Food service rep Peggy Flood followed along with her program behind a bottled water vending booth.

“Maybe he (God) wants us to suffer a little bit, to be uncomfortable to appreciate what it means to be here together,” said Flood, normally on-hand for football and pro soccer games.

“The people here are certainly hungrier than the Promise Keepers were,” said Mary O’Brien, in comparison to the faith-based men’s group that rallied at the field a few summers ago.

Food sales, of course, were cut off an hour before the Mass.

While O’Brien worked the event, her cousin, sat in the soggy stands with other members of Mary, Queen of Heaven in Cicero.

While sporadic cloudbursts sent several hundreds scurrying inside for temporary shelter, others reached for umbrellas, plastic slickers or programs to shield their head from the rain, as the cardinal and an archdiocesan choir sang the traditional “Angus Dei.”

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor gray of sky, would keep Catholics from what they hungered for most at this communal ceremony: the Eucharist.

“In this sacrament, bread and wine are truly and substantially changed and become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, the bread of angels, the bread of pilgrims,” said Cardinal George in his homily.

Pilgrims from as far away as Los Angeles and the Bahamas joined Catholics from Chicago and other nearby diocese in public worship at the “Field of Faith,” scheduled to coincide with the week-long 47th International Eucharistic Congress Pope John Paul II opened June 18, said Sheila McLaughlin, director of the Office for Divine Worship in Chicago, who helped choreograph the event.

“We too gather with a particular focus on our sense of gratitude for the gift of the Eucharist.”

It wasn’t the first time all eyes were focused on public worship at this Chicago stadium.

In 1926, June 20-24, the archdiocese was the site of the 28 th International Eucharistic Congress, the first event of its kind held in the United States at Soldier Field.

Over 500,000 faithful assembled in the stadium for a public display of adoration.

In 1954, a Marian Year, over 250,000 Chicago Catholics returned to the stadium to hail dear Mary. Over 100,000 had to be turned away from ceremonies.

Much has changed since Chicago hosted the congress, said McLaughlin in an interview with The Catholic New World, conducted prior to the Mass.

“Especially at a time when so many national parishes were established, the parish community was the center of the lives of many Catholic people,” said McLaughlin. “For most active Catholics, their parish is important to them, but I don’t think they have the same relationship that perhaps Catholics had in those years.”

That 1926 congress closed with a procession of 750,000 following the Blessed Sacrament along Lake Michigan to an archdiocesan seminary in Mundelein.That occasion also will be commemorated later this year when visitors are invited to return to the seminary at Mundelein to walk the “Way of Faith,” another event that will mark Chicago’s celebration of the Jubilee year.

Welcoming attendees at the main gate of Soldier Field was Our Lady of the New Millennium, a 33-foot stainless steel statue of Mary, that helped to draw many out on the rainy day.

While rain clouds hovered over the field, the cardinal reminded those gathered that these storms were temporary, like others in the lives of God’s people.

“What we do now in this great stadium, we will do for all eternity,” said Cardinal George.