This story was submitted to us by one of our readers, Anne Pulsifer, a catechist from St. Joseph Church in Spring City, Pennsylvania, who wanted to share her reflections on her experience with the estimated 900,000 pilgrims for Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia. We hope you enjoy!
I began my journey to see Pope Francis not sure what to expect. I was prepared for big crowds, lots of standing, and a very long day. My husband and I tried to prepare by filling our backpacks with plenty of snacks, water, light jackets and cash, along with our tiny camp stools thrown over our shoulders. We prayed our camp stools did not get confiscated at the check point. All the stores we had gone to the day before had sold out of the smallest stools that had been bought by others traveling downtown, wanting to be able to rest their feet while waiting for hours for a chance to glimpse at the Pope. We certainly did experience LOTS of standing, waiting, and crowds, and yet it is hard to describe the powerful affect the day. We boarded our bus in the St. Joes’ parking lot and left for the stadium area at 8:00am.
There was an eerie emptiness to the Schuylkill Expressway, which was deserted except for the groups of buses being allowed through the police barricades. From the stadium, busloads of people were swarming to the subway, tokens and passes raised high for the transit workers see and collect. Every train was packed. It was only 9:00 in the morning, and the Mass did not begin until 4:00! As we rose up out of the subway at the Broad Street station, the first thing you noticed was that the streets were crowded and full of sounds. Yet this was not the typical busy city. Missing were automobiles of any kind. And the people filled not only the sidewalks, but the streets themselves.
Everyone was moving with a common goal: to see the Pope. We tried to take pictures of this amazing phenomenon at different parts of the day; when we were immersed in a sea of people. But the pictures could not adequately capture how it felt to be part of these waves of people, filling all the streets from every direction, all moving peacefully in the same direction. The crowds of people waiting to get through the security checkpoints filled the streets for several blocks.
At first, there was a bit of a sense of anxiety, as this was the first time the crowd was not moving, and the thought of a terrorist threat in the midst of the packed crowd seemed a terrible possibility. But as we waited, the people in the crowd began to converse with each other. Where are you from? How did you get here? Where are you staying? The tension dissipated. And I realized this day was about so much more than just seeing the Pope.
This kind of camaraderie I had never seen on such a scale before and again, even now is hard to imagine or describe. And yet it is a glimpse of what the world could be like. It provided me with a glimpse of what God’s plan is for us: the time when “God will be all in all”. His plan for His Kingdom is for the whole world to be united; for there to be truly one Universal (or Catholic) church, so there will be one God – one Shepherd – and one flock. Particularly in our time of global conflicts, terrorist threats, ethnic and religious differences, poverty and crime, it can be hard to believe this is possible. And yet continuously throughout the day I experienced moments that reinforce the possibility of this unity.
At last my husband and I settled on a spot near the altar stage, but down far enough that we could view the Mass from one of the jumbotrons and be close to the barricade lining the street where the Papal parade would occur. We figured we would not be able to really see the Mass except on a screen, so we could at least try for a chance to see the Pope go by. We were just 2 rows of people away from the barricade. In front of us was a group of people who had come together. One young man was in a wheel chair. He was surrounded by young friends and motherly women who looked Asian, a young man who looked like a possible brother, and some older grandfatherly men who shared a radio and the score of the Eagles game with everyone until the Mass began. The retired couple to our left had driven 10 hours overnight from Indiana. He wore his Notre Dame cap and a smile on his face the whole day, even though they planned to leave directly from the Mass to drive the entire way back in time to take their granddaughter to the fair the next day. On the other side of the street from us were the grounds of the Oval directly facing the Altar stage. This area was jam packed with people from all over.
There were so many people that it was not possible for anyone in that crowd to sit. I was grateful our tiny stools had not been confiscated, yet after a while, the energy of the day had us on our feet as well. We watched as people tried to start a “wave” in the crowd across from us. There was a group of men in black – possibly seminarians – who were chanting and singing in a circle, arms around each other, bobbing up and down excitedly. Someone next to me commented it was like being at a soccer match in Europe.
Suddenly, a group of people directly across from us broke out in song directed at us: “We love Jesus, yes we do! We love Jesus, how ‘bout you?” As they threw their pointed fingers towards us, the people on our side of the barricaded street responded: “We love Jesus, yes we do! We love Jesus, how ‘bout you?” And the rounds continued back and forth across the street: “We love Francis…” “We love Mary…” “We love Jesus…”
Throughout the day you could hear people chanting “Papa Francesco!” as everyone waved flags from Vatican City. At one point, the group across from us joined in prayer together. When they recited together:
Eternal Father, I offer you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your Dearly Beloved Son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.
The crowd on our side responded:
For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.
After a few rounds, I, and many others were able to join in. I began to wonder how long these rounds could go on, when I realized many in the crowds were holding their rosaries. It dawned on me that this must be the Chaplet of Divine Mercy which we were praying. Together, we did the entire chaplet on the rosaries.
It had been nearly 5 hours of this energetic waiting, when the excitement suddenly became more intense. The Pope’s arrival was clearly nearing, as more and more frequent busloads of reporters and other privileged people were being dropped off by the stage. We were suddenly being pressed up against the group in front of us as the crowd pressed up to the barricade hoping to catch a glimpse as he rode by. A friend of the young man in the wheel chair called out to the officer nearest us on the other side of the barricade. Would it be possible for them to lift their friend over the barricade for a chance to be blessed by the Pope? To my surprise, rather than dismissing the requests, he went off to inquire from his superiors. When he returned with the expected response, those around the young man moved out of his way so that he could at least be right up against the barricade.
Suddenly, there were cheers and screaming from the end of the crowd. Everyone pressed together, cellphones raised taking pictures and video. There he was! Just feet from us, waving and smiling as the Popemobile drove him down the parade route. We watched the jumbotron and listened to the crowds as he continued his route. There were frequent outbursts of excitement each time an infant or young child was carried to him by one of the members of his security detail to be blessed.
As we waited for Pope Francis to get vested, the crowds moved back and settled into position to best view the Mass. The crowd was still excited from the parade, and the grandfathers by us were still calling out the score of the Eagles game. But when the music changed and the giant screen began to show the Entrance Procession, this enormous crowd of people went silent. The excited energy turned to respect, and awe. People craned their necks to be able to read the captioning on the screens. At times, Papa Francesco used his native tongue. At others, he spoke in such heavily accented English, it was not readily understandable. Though many of the prayers were said in Latin, the motions were familiar, and the crowds gestured together the Sign of the Cross, and beat their breasts in unison. The readings and Intercessory Prayers were read in different languages by representatives from different countries. I felt like one people, in communion with everyone crowded around me.
Following the Consecration, there was a sudden flow of yellow umbrellas with the Vatican seal, as hundreds of priests from all around the world began to pour out from the Altar area and into the street. Each was vested in a white chasuble and stole from their native countries. Escorts carried the umbrellas protecting the ciborium that each priest was carrying, filled with the Blessed Sacrament.
I watched in awe and joy as again the crowds pressed against the barricades where the umbrellas were stopped in order to receive Communion. People young and old from all over the world patiently waited their turn to bow their heads and stretch out their hands or open their mouths to receive the Lord. Some struggled to be able to kneel amongst the throng of people surrounding them. As I bowed to receive the Body of Christ, I did not recognize the language the priest spoke, but I knew the response: “Amen”.
As I turned and blessed myself, I reflected on Francis’ homily and gave thanks for the gift I had received that day. The homily had been in Spanish, and I had read the captioned interpretation as best as possible between the other craning heads around me. The message I received from the homily was simply this:
God’s plan for universal love between all people of the world begins with our families. We must start with each of our own families by treating our children, our brothers, our sisters, our mothers and our fathers, with tenderness, kindness, love and respect. If we can do that, then that tenderness, love and respect will naturally overflow to how we treat those around us, and in turn, how they will respond to us and others. And that is how God’s love will someday reach all our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
As I looked around me at the thousands of people gathered there, I knew indeed that the day was much more than just about seeing the Pope. These people from all over the world were there to celebrate Mass together! They were there to receive Communion, and be IN communion with one another. And at that moment, the message from Francis’ homily not only seemed essentially important to personally follow, but also seemed possible for the whole world to realize.
And each one of us, no matter how insignificant we may feel, plays an important role in our everyday actions just through our simple encounters with one another. As I looked around at all the people from every generation and countries from all around the world, I realized we were experiencing a glimpse of God’s plan. And so I left filled with hope, and the certainty that there would be a day – even if not in my lifetime – when the whole world would know peace and unity.
This blog post was submitted by one of our readers, Anne Pulsifer, from Upper Providence, PA.