Regardless of whether they are Catholic, Pope Francis is someone who absolutely amazes Americans. He is puzzling, he is baffling. So when he came to America almost a year and a half ago for the first time as pope, twenty-four-hour news stations followed his every move. For a minute, the country almost forgot about the beginnings of the campaign season we were in the midst of and wanted to know everything they could about the little man in white who spoke very little English, but could get the entire country to listen.
As soon as the Pope announced that he would be coming to American, specifically Philadelphia, Franciscan University announced that they had begun planning a trip to visit him. Spots were taken very quickly and many were left behind. I was lucky and got one of the 220 spots.
I had seen Pope Francis about a year before during the general audience in St. Peter’s Square while studying abroad in Austria. It was an experience I will never forget, but to see the home in my homeland was an experience I did not want to miss.
We loaded into four busses at 12:30 am on Sunday morning, September 27, and drove into the city. In the first few hours, most everybody slept, but as we hit traffic outside of the city, people started to buzz excitedly about seeing the Pope and celebrating mass with him.
We parked the buses at the Sports Complex in Philly and had to walk about 5 miles to Benjamin Franklin Parkway where mass would be held. On the walk, we stopped by the Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia to receive a special blessing from the Augustinian monks who manage the shrine. We desperately tried to stay in the group people with the same bright red t-shirts.
We hit a security checkpoint on the streets of Philly that spread across multiple streets and entered the parkway where there were barrios blocking off where Pope Francis would drive past. There were large screens on about every block showing us that he was leaving his previous appointment and was on his way to greet us.
Seeing him was amazing. I didn’t see his face, I saw his back, but the experience was unlike anything else. I was right up against the barrier and he was only about seven feet away from me. The joy that exuded from him was addicting and the crowd soaked in his every move. We were exhausted and our feet were throbbing. There was no food or water, but all of it washed away when we saw our shepherd, our papa, the one true vicar of Christ.
We celebrated an open-air mass afterward. The altar was not in the group’s line of vision but we were able to participate thanks to the large screens and speakers placed sporadically throughout the crowd. There was not been a final count of how many people were present at the Mass, but officials expected numbers to reach up to 1.2 million people in the 33-acre space.
In his homily, Pope Francis spoke in English and emphasized that love within a family “is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home.” He cited examples including giving a loved one a hug after a long day of work, making meals for loved ones and blessings before going to sleep.
People were on a “Pope Francis high” after seeing him. There was not a negative thing to be said about the trip, even though there were many reasons to complain including a ten-mile walk to and from the buses, very demanding and stressed bus captains, sassy nuns trying to get to the front and more. We were all still in high spirits, even after the day was over.
Pope Francis left that night just hours after mass ended. The walk back to the buses and the ride back to Steubenville allowed students to ponder and digest the once in a lifetime opportunity to see Pope Francis and his words. We arrived back on campus close to 4:00 am and dragged our tired, sore feet to bed to rest before 8:00 morning classes.
Hannah Crites is a senior communications arts major (with a concentration in journalism) and theology minor from south-suburban Denver, Colorado. She is the oldest of three and is the first person in her family to attend Franciscan University. She enjoys drinking coffee (particularly in unhealthy quantities), playing the guitar and ukulele, writing, hiking, traveling, and going on random adventures.