Does seeing the pope matter? Philly pilgrims say yes — and no

| September 30, 2015 | 0 Comments
People cheer as Pope Francis arrives in the popemobile for the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia Sept. 27. CNS

People cheer as Pope Francis arrives in the popemobile for the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia Sept. 27. CNS

Jean Stolpestad and her husband, Craig, have made sure all of their three sons have had the chance to see the pope. One of them has seen all three of the men to hold the position in his lifetime.

Jean, however, hadn’t seen one before going to Philadelphia. The director of the Office of Marriage, Family and Life for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Stolpestad hoped for a glimpse of Pope Francis during a pilgrimage her office organized for the World Meeting of Families, Sept. 22-27.

She got that glimpse — as well as an unexpected ticket to a much-coveted seat near the altar for the World Meeting of Families’ closing Mass Sept. 27, the pontiff’s final public event during his whirlwind U.S. tour.

The ticket belonged to Teresa Stanton Collett, a University of St. Thomas law professor and consultor for the Pontifical Council for the Family. She was assigned a seat with other representatives of the council, which organizes the triennial World Meeting of Families. When Collett had to leave Philadelphia earlier than expected, she gave her ticket to Stolpestad, who was giddy about the opportunity.

Earlier that week, Stolpestad compared her desire to see the pope to children’s desire to be with their parents.

“To be in his presence is so exciting,” she said, her eyes filling with tears. “This is the first time I get to meet my papa. . . . I get to be with my spiritual father, and it’s something I’ve always wanted to experience.”

Stolpestad saw him for the first time with other pilgrims from the archdiocese as he drove down a Philadelphia parkway during the Festival of Families. Her eyes shone as she described screaming with the crowd, chanting “Pope Francis! Pope Francis!” as Father Kevin Kenney, pastor of Divine Mercy in Faribault and the pilgrimage’s bilingual chaplain, shouted “Papa Francesco! Papa Francesco!” next to her. She stood on a collapsible stool to get a better view, steadying herself on the shoulder of another onlooker. When Pope Francis came by, she snapped a photo — of a tree, because she was wildly waving her arms.

Tens of thousands of people crowded the parkway the night of Sept. 26 as musicians including Marie Miller, the Fray, and Aretha Franklin performed for Pope Francis, and families from around the world shared stories of their struggles and joy. Pope Francis extemporaneously addressed the crowd, calling the family “a factory of hope,” where “difficulties are overcome with love.”

Andrea Bocelli was soulfully singing the Our Father as Stolpestad and other Minnesota pilgrims worked their way through the crowd to meet the waiting bus.

The next day, elation over that special seat almost turned into deep disappointment as dense crowds nearly dashed Stolpestad’s hope she would make it through the two required security check points in time. With the help of a determined Philadelphia seminarian, a prayerful religious sister, a group of international priests who were also running late and a compassionate member of the Secret Service, she was able to secure her seat right before Mass began, giving her a good view of the altar and Pope Francis.

“It was that sense of calm and peace. I had a deep sense of beauty — the beauty of Christ present in the people around me and in the Holy Father, [and in the] gift of the Church and our faith,” she said. “It wasn’t ecstatic or over emotional. It was just this profound sense of joy.”

Other pilgrims said seeing Pope Francis made a deep impression, even if they depended on a jumbotron for a view of the stage.

Beatriz Lopez, a parishioner of St. Francis de Sales in St. Paul and formation coordinator for the archdiocese’s Latino Ministry office, said she was amazed by the reverence of the crowd at the papal Mass and grateful to have been able to receive Communion.

Lopez, 47, also relished “the second” she saw Pope Francis drive past before the Festival of Families. In that moment, she said, all the energy of the pilgrimage that had built up inside her flooded out.

“He needs to represent Jesus Christ, and you really find that in this pope,” she said. “He really wants the unity of the Church. He really wants to reflect Jesus. That is important for me.”

Gerrie Soine, a parishioner of St. Paul in Ham Lake, said she didn’t go to Philadelphia with the aim of seeing Pope Francis, and she didn’t, beyond a screen. Being in the same area with him was enough, she said. She waited five hours to get through security into the Mass, and by then, it was nearly time for Communion.

“I didn’t come all this way to see the pope. I knew he was going to be here, but I wanted to be with my shepherd in the area, because I knew it would be holy ground,” she said. “But I also wanted to be . . . with a crowd of people, who were, like me, looking for hope no matter what.”

In 1984, she made her first pilgrimage to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to see St. John Paul II, even though she had skipped what would have been a shorter trip to Des Moines, Iowa, where he visited in 1979.

“Before we knew he was there, we knew he was there,” she said. “It was holy ground. We knew he was on the ground. I could sense it.”

In Philadelphia, Soine, 71, saw the top of the passing popemobile skim the crowds on Saturday. What could have been a huge letdown for other pilgrims didn’t faze Soine, who called going on pilgrimage “responding to God.”

“The surprise for me was all the people I encountered in this city . . . . They were all excited for the pope to come,” including non-Catholics, she said. “Everyone’s looking for God to fill that need.”

She added: “Hope was given, and this pope gives hope.”

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