By the time the Mass ended Thursday at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament, Benedict XVI was no longer pope.
The first pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church to step down since Pope Gregory XII in 1415, the 85-year-old Benedict announced about two weeks ago that he would resign on Feb. 28, due to his declining health.
In thanksgiving for his pontificate of almost eight years, about 1,200 Catholics of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown gathered for prayer and worship at noon. The packed church included priests, nuns, school children, young and middle-aged adults and seniors.
Mirror photos by Patrick Waksmunski
St. John the Evangelist Catholic School fourth-grader Piper Brunhuber and Northern Cambria Catholic fifth-grader Daniel Nealen present the gifts to Bishop Mark Bartchak during Thursday’s Mass at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament.
Every parish in the eight-county diocese was represented.
Bishop Mark L. Bartchak noted before his homily that Benedict had already left the Vatican by helicopter for the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo near Rome. His official duties ended at 2 p.m.
Bartchak said the Mass was a way for the diocese to come together after hearing about the pope's resignation.
"In special moments, it is what we do. The church is at its best when we come together in prayer. We needed to do that," Bartchak said.
He said he was thrilled to see so many young people engaged in the celebration. Youth from schools throughout the diocese sang, played guitars and read special prayers for Benedict. In the opening procession, students representing each school in the diocese placed prayers and artwork in two baskets at the foot of an easel bearing a picture of a smiling, waving Pope Benedict XVI.
Around his neck, Bartchak wore a cross the pope gave him during his ad limina visit with him in December 2011, when he reported to the pope on the diocese.
"It's a special treasure," he said of the cross.
During his homily, Bartchak told the story of two recitations of Psalm 23 at a party - one by an actor and one by a retired European-born parish priest. The actor's perfect pronunciation and dramatic presentation brought applause, but the recitation by the priest with a soft voice in broken English brought tears to the eyes of those at the party.
Bartchak said when a guest asked the actor what was the difference, the actor said: "I know the words of the Psalm, but he knows the Shepherd."
Bartchak said in the pope's final address to the Catholic Church on Wednesday, "Pope Benedict XVI reflected on his simple but deep conviction that with the Lord God as our Shepherd, we want nothing because God is everything and means everything to us."
Bartchak said that Benedict, like the parish priest at the party, not only knows the Psalm but knows the Shepherd.
"He wants us to know that we should know the Shepherd as well," Bartchak said
Bartchak noted Benedict's grateful attitude to those who have extended prayers and well-wishes to him and his concern for the Church, asking for prayers for it and his successor.
After the Mass, Bartchak added to his thoughts on the pope. He said Benedict is of superior intelligence, a great teacher and a great writer.
In his limited interaction with the pope, Bartchak said he found him to be a very gentle, humble and joyful man.
He said in some ways, Benedict's final day as pope was a bittersweet one. He said it is a loss, but at the same time, he said the pope was upbeat and joyful in his final remarks.
Bartchak said the time until a new pope is chosen is a time of uncertainty, even though the Catholic Church knows all will turn out well.
"It heightens our awareness of the presence of God and our desire to be with him. We don't want to be alone. Gathering together is helpful. People come to Mass to pray. It stirs our hearts and our longing for God," he said.