By: Fatima Perez, Full Member of Women Youth Apostles and Assistant Director of Campus Ministry at Bishop Ireton High School
After months of preparation in the campus ministry office of Bishop Ireton High School, the weekend many of us have been anticipating had finally arrived. While a number of our students had the opportunity to attend different ticketed Papal events in our nation’s capital, most of which were arranged weeks and even days prior, we have been preparing a group for a pilgrimage to Philadelphia for months. Thanks to the efforts of the Arlington Diocesan Office of Youth Ministry, we were blessed to bring a total of 42 people from Bishop Ireton to join in their arranged pilgrimage to Philadelphia for the concluding events of the World Meeting of Families and to see the Holy Father, Pope Francis. All grade levels were represented and we also had faculty and parent chaperones take part in this special journey.
The weekend was filled with many special moments as you can imagine. Being in the presence of the Holy Father was one thing, but being in the presence of the Holy Father and vast crowds that share the same faith was another. For anyone that has experienced an international Catholic event knows how unified the crowds can be – from chants and cheers to prayers to songs – it was easy to sense the joy and enthusiasm of the Church. You could also sense how on fire the Church was, that no matter who you are, what your story is or what you do, the weekend allowed people to remember that they are a part of something beyond themselves. It was also inspiring to see so many people from all over the world in all stages or states of life – teens, priests, brothers, nuns, young children, babies, seminarians, and grandparents. There were so many members of the family represented!
One of the things we made very clear to our students prior to our trip was that this wasn’t just any trip, but a pilgrimage. We shared that while on this journey, there would be plenty of opportunities to give up the daily comforts that we are used to and instead walk a few extra miles a day, sleep in a small cabin with no heat for two nights, stand in line to use the bathroom or to board an overly crowded train—these are only a few examples. Despite the discomforts, these were all golden opportunities to offer up those who were in need of prayers—for our loved ones back home, families everywhere, for the Church, for the suffering. So while we were certainly met with some challenges along the way, we were also met with many graces.
On Saturday night after attending the Festival of Families in the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, we made it back on our bus near Lincoln Financial Field after what seemed like a very long journey. Once we all boarded on the bus, the driver came to discover that the bus would not move due to mechanical issues. As time went on, we watched more and more buses leave the bus lot, one after the other. After an hour, four tries, and a few prayers later, the bus still wouldn’t move and we were just about the only ones left. Everyone in our group was exhausted at this point, of course, but there were no complaints. In fact, when we told everyone to get some rest because the next day would be another long one, the bus grew silent and they all got any rest they could. It was really special to see the teens really dive into the spirit of pilgrimage in this way especially with how tired they were. Finally at half past midnight, we were picked up by another bus from our Diocesan group and made it back to our camp site by 1:30 in the morning.
Another challenge worth sharing was the long line to get through security for the Closing Mass with Pope Francis. At a certain point while in line, there was no movement at all; we were at complete standstill. Mass was scheduled to start at 4 and it was almost 2. With the amount of people in front of us, we made the unanimous decision to get out of line and head into another part of the city that had a jumbotron screen broadcasting the Mass. We figured we would just participate in that way because there was a slim to none chance of us getting through before the start of Mass. While Fr. Bresnahan was giving the group the game plan on a side street, an NBC10 cameraman and journalist found us and even asked to interview us about our pilgrimage, what our plans were for the Mass (since they saw us get out of the line), and overall how excited we were to be a part of this experience. Despite not being close enough to get in, it’s safe to say that we still had high spirits not minding the fact that we would be much, much further away.
After walking for a bit more, we ended up right next to City Hall and found a big enough space for our group to settle into for Mass. Luckily I brought my Magnificat with me so I passed it around so the teens could follow along the readings, especially if it was read in a different language. We also got to sing the Mass parts in Latin because of the Magnificat as well, which was awesome!
There were two especially moving moments for me during the Mass. The first was at the moment of Consecration. It was a powerful scene–pilgrims knelt and watched the Holy Father elevate the host and chalice, while locals simultaneously weaved in and around us. In that moment I realized that the work we have cut out for us as missionaries of the Gospel is right in front of us, literally; to be strengthened the Eucharist, our food for the journey, and the people that God is calling us to bring the Good News to. That was such a simple, yet profound moment that I just could not stop reflecting on.
Another moment occcured a few minutes later. My heart swelled with great joy as my Pieta prayer book was passed around to each person in our group. It was being passed from one person to the next so that they could individually recite a Spiritual Communion since we were unable to receive Christ sacramentally as there were no Communion stations outside of the secured area. Again, it was such a simple, yet profound sight to see.
I’ve been blessed to attend pilgrimages throughout my adult faith life, but I really felt like this one was extra special because it was right at home. We were blessed to have the Successor of Peter visit us on American soil and leave imprinted in our hearts the message of mercy, the vitality of our Catholic faith, our call to share the Good News, and the sacredness of family. And it was extra sweet for me, personally, not only because I got to experience such a great pilgrimage with my students, but also because the pilgrimage affirmed me as a new wife and a soon-to-be mother.
From the time spent in prayer with students to cheerfully greeting the Holy Father in his popemobile to playing games to dancing on the streets, the love of Christ was truly made manifest in not just the presence of his Vicar on earth, but in each of the pilgrims that journeyed alongside us. Praise God for such a fruitful pilgrimage!
Our Father will not be outdone in generosity and he continues to scatter seeds. He scatters the seeds of his presence in our world, for “love consists in this, not that we have loved God but that he loved us” first (1 Jn 4:10). That love gives us the profound certainty that we are sought by God; he waits for us. It is this confidence which makes disciples encourage, support and nurture the good things happening all around them. God wants all his children to take part in the feast of the Gospel. – Pope Francis, Homily during the Closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia