CHESHIRE –The excitement was palpable in the hall at St. Bridget School as Archbishop Leonard P. Blair met on Aug. 17 with some of the 258 pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Hartford who will travel to Philadelphia next month for a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
“I just think it’s an honor to go,” said Rose Vaillancourt, parishioner at St. Paul Parish in Glastonbury. “We are going to be at a Mass officiated by the Pope. How special is that? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The Holy Father will be in Philadelphia for the Sept. 27 closing Mass of the 2015 World Meeting of Families, after addressing a joint session of the Congress in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations General Assembly in New York earlier in the week. He is also scheduled to have a private meeting with President Obama.
“I’m happy to be going,” said Marielle Swinson, a member of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in West Hartford. “I’m at a point in my life and in my faith where being in the same space as the pope is very important to me.”
The pilgrims met at St. Bridget to talk about plans for the three-day pilgrimage, coordinated by Father Jeffrey V. Romans, pastor of St. Bridget, and Father Jose Mercado, pastor of St. Augustine and St. Anne-Immaculate Conception Parishes in Hartford. Elite Travel of Cheshire is in charge of arrangements.
Pilgrims will depart Sept. 25 on five buses and stay in a hotel outside of Philadelphia. The next day, they will attend a conference in English and Spanish offered by Dominican Father Juan-Diego Brunetta at St. Andrew Church in Drexel Hill, Pa., about "Giving and Receiving Mercy." It will include confession and eucharistic adoration, and Archbishop Blair will celebrate Mass.
On Sept. 27, they will attend a private Mass before going to the papal Mass scheduled for 4 p.m. that is expected to draw up to two million people to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Father Romans drew laughter when he cautioned, “If you signed up for this pilgrimage because you thought you were going to shake the hand of the pope, I’m sorry to disappoint you but that’s not going to happen … [unless] maybe if he drives through with his popemobile ...”
Archbishop Blair talked about the spiritual importance of pilgrimages and offered advice to the gathering. “Pope Francis said we have to be ‘missionary disciples’ of our Lord Jesus Christ” by addressing the material, spiritual and moral destitution of the world, he noted.
Among themes he expects Pope Francis to address, the archbishop said, are moral truths that are fundamental to a just and peaceful world and freedom of religion.
“When he comes to a country like this, we are reaffirmed in our communion with him, our unity with the Holy Father, who is the visible head of the church in the world,” he said.
He observed that Pope Francis is coming to the Eighth World Meeting of Families at a time when marriages and family life are “facing mammoth challenges.” “But we are people of hope and faith,” he noted. “This is an important opportunity for us to affirm our Catholic faith,” to bear witness to the world about “our faith and about marriage and family” … and “to be in solidarity with people from everywhere.
"I encourage all of us to open our hearts to see what God wants to give us,” he said. “Ask yourself, ‘What is the grace God wants to give me and give to our parish and our archdiocese?’”
Archbishop Blair will record his thoughts during the pilgrimage and they will appear as a travelogue on the Transcript’s and archdiocese’s websites as they become available to keep parishioners informed. Excerpts also will be played on WJMJ-FM, the archdiocesan radio station.
I think it's important that we support the pope," said Richard Cuomo of St. George Parish in Guilford.
"We're the largest religion in the world. You don't see the initiatives we offer from other religions, such as helping the poor or serving the environment. So I think it's important for Americans to get out and support him."
Iris Ramos, a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Hartford, agreed. “I think he’s the pope for the people. We need peace and justice, and he’s teaching us about the poor. I think he brings a rebirth of the church, and puts you in touch with the reality of the church worldwide.”