By Mary Peter
“I’m going to see the Pope!” Yes, that was true, however, it was really a pilgrimage to see the pope.
Traveling with a group from St. Pius X Church in White Bear Lake, MN (and representatives from 11 other churches), we took a circuitous route planned by Deacon Jack Betzal of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, as well as two parishioners from St. Pius X and their pastor, Fr. Joe Bambeneck.
The itinerary included visits to a basilica, a cathedral and four shrines, and the highlight—seeing Pope Francis at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia. We were a group of all ages, sizes, shapes, and abilities. We were single, married, divorced and widowed.
Our first stop at the St. Stanislaus Basilica in Winona, MN brought a most unexpected event: a pilgrim dislocated her shoulder. She was an important member of our group, the mother of Fr. Joe. Both of his parents were along on the trip, and seeing the three of them care for each other reminded me of the Holy Family. How troubling it was when one of them was hurting, and the thought of carrying on without her was difficult to imagine. Thankfully, she was cleared to travel, but this set our travel schedule back considerably. We arrived at our hotel in Cleveland, OH at 5:30 a.m. We had barely begun, and we were exhausted. After the required hours of sleep for our bus driver, we were back on the road to Philadelphia.
The next day was packed with visits to three shrines. First, the National Shine of St. Rita, the saint of impossible causes. I learned that St. Rita had remarkable experiences in almost every walk of life, and she lived the heartache of many of our pilgrims.
Next, we traveled to the National Shrine of St. John Neumann, the founder of the first US parish for Italians, the Catholic school system, and the sisters of St. Francis. St. John Neumann’s incorrupt remains are in a glass encasement below the altar in the lower church.
Fr. Joe was able to celebrate Mass in the shrine of St. John Neumann. Being in the presence of the miraculously incorrupt body of a saint, as we celebrated the holy sacrifice of the Mass was a remarkable experience. At this Mass, I experienced the true gift of the Eucharist in an unexplainable, spiritual way. Fr. Joe shined with an awesome joy when he celebrated Mass. In particular, he rejoiced when he said, “Lift up your hearts.” It is as if I could feel my soul looking up into the eyes of God and rejoicing with the angels. Our prayer intentions were brought to each shrine and each Mass, but this one was particularly moving for me.
Our final tour stop for the day was the National Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel, the first American-born saint, who was an heiress, philanthropist, religious sister, educator, and foundress of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. She was particularly devoted to teaching and serving the Black and Native American people.
That evening, Deacon Jack’s home parish in Philadelphia hosted us with a home-cooked meal, made by the women’s guild and served by their sports teams. Deacon Jack was a key reason why we were in Philadelphia, and he helped to secure our hotel rooms and schedule our tours at the shines. He was a gracious host and inspired us with his enthusiasm for the Catholic faith.
At dinner, we learned that passes for all 55 of us to enter the closest restricted “red zone” area for the Festival of Families on Saturday were secured. We would be even closer to the Holy Father than we expected! What an incredible gift! Again, our plans were adjusted; we were physically tired but spiritually elated.
The next morning, we toured Daylesford Abbey of the Norbertine Order, which was established by St. Norbert in 1121. St. Norbert’s charism was one of common life, prayer, and ministry marked by fostering peace, healing and reconciliation. We celebrated Mass there.
Then the height of the trip had arrived: the Festival of Families with Pope Francis! The only way into the city was to take the subway and walk over a mile to the security checkpoint. We moved with excitement. The subway was clean, and the people of Philadelphia were prepared and delightful.
After waiting in line for two hours, we arrived in the restricted “red zone” area, the closest standing area to the stage where Pope Francis would be sitting. Our plan was to leave at 4:30 p.m. (now only 2 hours away), return to the hotel and watch the papal parade at the hotel, saving our energy for the Papal Mass on Sunday. We were elated, excited, and amazed by the wafting of the Holy Spirit. The crowd began to buzz as the police prepared for the papal parade. We did not want to leave; we wanted to stay and see the Pope. We were so close and had come so far!
After exchanging a few messages with our group leader, it was decided that we would stay for the parade. Wow, we were like children on Christmas morning! Instead of being excited to open presents, we were excited to be in the presence of our representative of Christ on earth, the Holy Father.
It was delightful to see the children, waiting to see the Holy Father. Babies in strollers, toddlers being held, and families having picnics on the grass of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Evening fell, and the anticipation grew. Squeals were heard when the lights of police cars and motorcycles traveled the route ahead of the Pope. Then the time arrived! Our Holy Father was coming down the street, blessing everyone, side to side, smiling like a grandfather seeing his children and grandchildren. As he passed our group, I caught a glimpse of his face, and my soul was lifted in a way that I have never experienced. It was a lift of hope and love, a feeling and a message I needed so much.
As we made our way back to the bus, we met others who had similar reactions to seeing Pope Francis. We felt so blessed, honored, and happy to have reached the mountaintop—seeing the Holy Father right in front of us—after a long journey. We experienced first-hand the power of the Holy Spirit and how profound our Catholic faith is, an unbroken chain in the succession of St. Peter. When we returned to the hotel, we were physically and emotionally exhausted both, but spiritually glowing.
In the morning, we learned that the group leaders had a difficult decision to make, as we were off schedule again. Should we attend the Papal Mass, as planned? Or should we watch the Mass on TV? Although it was a tough decision, we elected to watch the Mass on TV. It was more joyous than we could have imagined. Our unexpected view of Pope Francis the night before gave us an even more profound experience as we watched and listened to him celebrate his final Mass in the United States.
As we began traveling back to Minnesota, we made one final stop, the Shine of St. Therese of Lisieux in Darien, IL. One of her most favorite sayings was “What matters in life is not great deeds, but great love.” As I thought more about her “little way,” I realized that both St. Therese and Pope Francis lead by example and show love when it is least expected. It is this living by example that impresses upon hearts how Christ wants us to be.
All the stops along our pilgrimage route drew us closer to God and His will for our lives. The message was different for each of us, but we experienced it together. The lives of the saints portrayed how we can respond to the gifts we are given, even when they involve suffering, and especially when they involve family or religious life. Through this experience, through the examples of these saints, and through Pope Francis, we were inspired how to live—by visiting the homeless, the imprisoned, the little ones at school, and the seminary students. Attending the Festival of Families, we were encouraged to hear and serve the needs of the family. Pope Francis’ message was lived out before us and on television all over the world. He portrayed the true manner of a father, leading by example, word, and deed. My pilgrimage journey to see Pope Francis transformed my heart and my soul. It taught me patience, hope, and a renewed love of my Catholic faith that will be with me as I continue my “pilgrimage journey” through this life.
About the Author:
Mary Peter works in enterprise risk management across the United States. She is the mother of two adult daughters, Clare and Pamela, and she is blessed to become a grandmother for the first time this winter. Mary is a member of the WINE core team and is dedicated to improving Catholic resources for divorced Catholic women.