Adventure to see pope leads to deeper realization about church

Categories: Editorial,Papal visit,World Meeting of Families


Pilgrims from the Diocese of St. Cloud and Bishop Donald Kettler, second from left, pose for a group shot after dinner Sept. 24. Photo by Joe Towalski/The Visitor

By Joe Towalski
Editor/The Visitor

It’s hard to match the excitement of seeing the pope in person and up close. He is, after all, the vicar of Christ on earth, a leader beloved by billions who serves as the conscience of humankind.

Who else can claim that? So, when you get the chance, you don’t want to waste it.

That’s what I — and tens of thousands of other people — were thinking when we converged on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Pope Francis’ first night in Philadelphia.

I was determined to shoot some good video as the pope-mobile went by — something I could post right away on The Visitor’s Facebook page that would make our followers ooh and ahh as they “liked” and shared it with their friends. We journalists — even Catholic press journalists — can be a prideful bunch.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy; I had been on papal adventures a few times before, including World Youth Day in 1993 in Denver, where I never got closer than 50 yards to John Paul II (My wife, the real photographer in our family, was able to get close enough, however, that she could have shaken the Holy Father’s hand. But, always the professional, she took a photo instead.) I was also at a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with Benedict XVI, but again not close enough for a good shot.

This time I was determined. By the time our diocesan pilgrimage group arrived on the parkway, however, the closest I could get was four rows back from the gates lining the popemobile route. One of the pilgrims from our diocese allowed me to balance on his tiny folding stools — my left foot on one, my right on the other — to get a clearer shot.

I stood there for a few hours, precariously balanced, worried that I would completely lose the feeling in my feet and tumble onto the people in front of me. On this early fall evening, I also noticed it was starting to get dark … fast.

Finally, the popemobile and its entourage came. The crowd roared, I aimed the camera over the countless phone cameras in the crowd, zoomed in and hit “record.”

It was over in 15 seconds.

It wasn’t a very good video — a little out of focus and a bit grainy in the twilight. At least it captured the excitement of the moment.

But it got me thinking —  about the pope, the pilgrimage I was on with three dozen other people from the Diocese of St. Cloud, and what I was feeling about our Catholic faith on this trip to Philly.

Seeing the pope is a highlight for anyone, and Francis doesn’t disappoint. For a person in his elevated position, he seems so down to earth, so personal. His gestures and messages — I’m thinking especially about his speech to Congress and his off-the-cuff talk to families on the night I shot the video — give us much to reflect on as a nation and as Catholics.

But our Catholic Church isn’t just about one person — as important as he is — and that’s what became evident to me so strongly once again during my time on the pilgrimage.

Seeing the Holy Father was a magnificent experience, but some of my best memories are the experiences of the Universal Church that I had over the week we pilgrims traveled together.

I’m thinking of people I met from other countries like Nigeria and the Dominican Republic who talked to me about the importance of coming together with fellow Catholics from more than 100 other countries to talk about the importance of family and celebrate our Catholic faith.

There were other experiences, too, that I won’t soon forget: watching hundreds of Catholic clergy process into the opening Mass attended by thousands of worshipers at the World Meeting of Families. Being on the Ben Franklin Parkway for three hours of fun, testimonies of faith and music, including Aretha Franklin singing “Amazing Grace.” The sound of hundreds of thousands of worshipers singing the “Our Father” together at the pope’s concluding Mass.

There were also the experiences of church that I shared with our diocesan pilgrims — my Catholic family for the week in Philadelphia. We were a mini-universal church, coming from all ends of the diocese: Fergus Falls, Pelican Rapids, St. Cloud, Braham, Eden Valley, Melrose, Rush Lake, Little Falls and points in between. We were Latinos and Anglos all united in our Catholic faith.

I don’t pray the rosary as much as I should, but I’ve come to appreciate it more now that we prayed it every morning on the bus as we headed into the city. We visited shrines together, waited in lines, shared early breakfasts and late dinners, and learned to adjust to some of the unexpected difficulties that come with any true pilgrimage.

I love the story of Teresa Thompson from Fergus Falls who was sitting with another one of our pilgrims by some families from Philadelphia for the closing papal Mass. A mother and her children heard our pilgrims talking about how they didn’t have anything to eat during the long wait because they weren’t allowed to bring their lunches onto the grounds. The mother offered them some of their food and, as the children were snacking, they always offered what they had.

Pope Francis would have been proud.

Quite simply, the whole experience made me proud to be Catholic. Yes, our church has challenges, but when you see it on display like I did, you see what it can be at its best.

Yes, seeing the pope is important and an unforgettable experience. But experiencing the church at its finest, on a scale like I did in Philadelphia, is also unforgettable.

At the World Meeting of Families, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston called on families to be missionary disciples, to be evangelizers. My hope is that our pilgrims in Philadelphia and those watching all the events at home will share the messages they saw and heard regarding life, family, dignity and justice in their families and parishes.

The Catholic Church I witnessed on the pilgrimage was inspirational. We have something to be proud of, and we need to share it with the world.