This weekend I was blessed to be in Philadelphia for the Pope’s visit at the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families. I do not think words can express how amazing the whole experience was, but I am still going to try – even if it gets a bit lengthy! Going into this trip, we fully expected to be back on a side street somewhere watching the proceedings on a screen. While we would have been perfectly content with this, our experience exceeded all expectations and was more than I had hoped for!
The group from our diocese left early Saturday morning on our bus. This truly was a pilgrimage and each bus trip had time spent in wonderful prayer and song. After arriving at our campground, unloading, and eating a late lunch, we broke into smaller groups and headed into the city. It took about 45 minutes for our bus to get to the main parking lot at the Philadelphia Sports Complex. From there we took the subway into town. Saturday we knew we would not get close to the main stage for the Festival of Families so instead we headed towards City Hall where Pope Francis would be passing by in a Papal parade that evening.
We found a spot about five rows back from the gate to the street where he would pass by and waited. The crowd was large but not overwhelming and everyone was so friendly and joyful! You could hear in the distance the immense cheers as Pope Francis’s motorcade got closer to our spot and we all got our cameras ready. He went by pretty quickly and was looking on the other side of the street when he passed but it was still amazing to be so close to the Holy Father! Being a bit shorter, I could see him mostly through my camera which I held up high and succeeded in getting a (slightly blurry) photo as he rode by. Our small group of eight was amazed at how close we had been! We walked a few blocks to a large jumbotron to watch the Festival from there. We saw him (on the jumbotron screen) speak at the Festival and stayed to watch a few performances before heading back to our bus.
The next morning we woke up, ate, and made lunches for the day. Again we boarded the bus but this time when we arrived at the parking lot we were instantly aware that today the crowds would be much larger. With this in mind, and being fully convinced we would have to find a jumbotron far from the action, we took our time to keep our group together as we journeyed on. The subway station was packed and the lines long but the atmosphere was so filled with joy and excitement that we didn’t even care! We met people from near and far, Quebec, Pennsylvania, Dominican Republic, Chicago, and even some fellow pilgrims from Ohio!
When we got into the city, we headed towards the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. We found a security checkpoint but had to walk along the line to try and find the end of it! As we walked, we came to a block with angry protesters on each side. With their megaphones, yelling, and hateful signs, perhaps they thought they would discourage us. But walking by them only made the experience even richer as we joined together, the whole line of us, in singing the Our Father over and over until we passed their section. It was such a beautiful thing to see people so filled with love and joy in the Lord joining in song and prayer together without even stopping to pay any mind to those who were against us. ‘If God is for us, who is against us?’ Romans 8:31
The line was so long and there was no end in sight when we passed one of the many military members helping in the security efforts. As we passed, we heard him say that the checkpoint one block over was just being opened to the general public (it had previously been for ticketed guests only.) Our group cut over a block and got in the (much shorter) security line. We could not believe this blessing! We made it through security and were amazed at how close we were. Since we were so close to the ticketed area that each of us received a mass booklet as well! We had not been anticipating this at all!
We found a spot on the corner right in front of a large jumbotron that was directly behind the ticketed area. We literally were as close as non-ticketed guests were able to get! We set up our blankets and chairs. There was a sewer vent right near our spot and one of the volunteers informed us that since we were “in limbo land” we would not have access to any restrooms. The restrooms were either closer up in the ticketed area, or we would have to go out to the non-ticketed area behind us which would require going through security again. Despite this, we decided to stay at our spot. We ate our lunches and then decided we would say a rosary together. We had just begun the first three Hail Marys of our group rosary when that same volunteer came up to our group. She told us to quickly gather our things, there was additional room in the ticketed section and they were going to let us in!
We scooped up our blanket and quickly went forward. We ended up setting up a spot right behind the handicapped viewing area. We were close enough that you could see the art museum ahead of us and could make out the crucifix on the altar for mass! We were so thankful and thrilled! We finished eating and finished our rosary. We had plenty of time still until mass so we began to sing. One of the members in our group had put together a booklet of popular hymns that we had been singing earlier on the bus. We took out our booklets and started singing. People around us began to join in. It was beautiful.
From our spot, not only could we see the altar, but we were also right by a huge jumbotron where we could see the mass up close. We saw on the screen that Pope Francis was beginning his procession prior to mass. We watched in anticipation for him to pass by our spot as he slowly went through the crowds, stopping to kiss several babies along the way. When he was nearing our spot, I held my camera up above me but did not stop to look through it. I clicked away figuring I will get whatever photo I get. I wanted to watch the Holy Father pass by with my own eyes. He went much slower this time and was facing our direction so that we got a clear view of his joyful self, greeting all of us with love.
After the procession it was time for mass. The mass was more beautiful than I could ever describe. It is said that during mass we are the closest to heaven. All I can say is that you could truly feel that. Celebrating mass with a million people, not to mention the millions who watched from their homes, and with Pope Francis! It was beyond words. The readings were in Spanish, English, and Vietnamese, with some of the prayers in English and the Eucharistic liturgy all in Latin. The Holy Father gave his homily in his native Spanish. The jumbotron had translated captions along the bottom so we could follow along.
When it was time for communion, the priests who were distributing the Eucharist were signified in the crowd by yellow and white umbrellas held high above them. To see over a thousand yellow and white umbrellas as they made their way through the crowd for people from all over the world to receive our Lord in the Holy Eucharist was so moving. As we began to sing the communion hymns and made our way to the nearest umbrella I felt tears in my eyes. How awesome to celebrate this most Blessed Sacrament with so many others in one place together! Before mass ended, we received our blessing from Pope Francis.
The crowds leaving Philadelphia after Mass were certainly large but it was so well organized and everyone was so joyful that we didn’t mind. People were singing and laughing and celebrating together all the way back to the bus. You could truly feel the Holy Spirit among us all this weekend.
It is hard to describe our pilgrimage to Philadelphia. The photos don’t do it justice and while I pray my words express what we felt, I know they cannot. It was not about just seeing the Pope. It was not about getting as close as possible (although I am incredibly thankful that we were blessed to be as close as we were!) This was about worshiping together with so many people, led in prayer by our dear Pope Francis. It was an experience filled with prayer, love, and the joy of the Lord. It was inspiring and truly life-changing.
Glory to God for watching over us all this weekend! Thanks and praise for the wonderful blessings we received on this trip. And thank you to the Holy Father, Pope Francis, for inspiring us all each day by your words and your actions. For helping to draw the Church closer to Christ. And for coming here to America with your message of love and mercy. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I feel so blessed to have been a part of it.