HARTFORD – Juan Carlos Huerta remembers the free bread. Marielle Swinson remembers overcoming obstacles. And Debra Sousa felt that Pope Francis was speaking directly to her.
These and other pilgrims shared their thoughts with The Catholic Transcript about their close encounters with Pope Francis during the pontiff’s historic visit to three major United States cities in September.
Mr. Huerta is a member of St. Rose of Lima Parish in New Haven. He traveled to Philadelphia, Pa., on Sept. 27 with more than 100 others to witness the World Meeting of Families papal Mass outside the Philadelphia Art Museum. The group arrived an hour before the Mass began and were not able to get very close.
“There were a lot of people in the streets selling pictures of the pope,” he said. “You can find people selling shirts, flags from the Vatican, any items about the pope. We bought T-shirts.”
He said he and his family were near the Comcast Center on John F. Kennedy Boulevard, almost a mile from the altar, but they were in a restaurant and watched the Mass on Jumbotrons. During the Eucharist, because patrons were unable to receive holy Communion, the restaurant gave out free bread, he said. “I think that was the best moment because if the pope blessed the host, I think God blessed the bread.”
Also with that group was Ezequiel Malpica, who recalls seeing the popemobile drive past him, his wife Maria Medina, and their three children. What amazed him most was that his usually impatient children never complained about the long walks, the waiting or the constant security checks. “They were connected; they were focused,” he said. “We had to walk maybe two miles and two miles back, and we had to stand, and they were very happy. They were connected. They didn’t complain.”
Ms. Swinson, of St. Mark the Evangelist Parish in West Hartford, traveled with more than 250 other pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Hartford. She said she saw only the top of the popemobile as it went by before that Sept. 27 Mass.
“Everybody was lifting their arms and their phones trying to catch a glimpse, and I’m short,” she said. The night before, as the Festival of Families was about to start, she heard a rumble like thunder and saw the sky light up in the distance. “I think it was probably the motorcycles or all the entourage, all the motors of the entourage. They had a lot of SUVs and motorcycles all around us.”
Ms. Sousa, a youth minister at St. Stanislaus Parish in Bristol, was also with the archdiocesan pilgrimage, traveling with a group from St. Bridget Parish in Cheshire.
“The pope really touched me, and I felt like he was really speaking directly to me when he talked about family and how we need to take care of our children and our grandparents,” she said. “I’m a physical therapist and I work with geriatrics. I work with the older population day in and day out. And then when I’m not working, I’m doing youth ministry, so I felt like it was a direct conversation with me as to what I need to continue to do in my life.”
Candy Nesbit is owner of Elite Travel in Cheshire and was asked by St. Bridget’s pastor, Father Jeffrey V. Romans, to organize the pilgrimage.
She said, “There was not one person on that trip who didn’t experience Pope Francis. It was fantastic.”
She added, “Being able to bring 250 people to something like that and just waiting for them to get back to the bus and seeing their smiles, joyful and happy, you know, we were so thrilled over such a historic event.”
Another of the archdiocesan pilgrims was Robert Vaillancourt of St. Paul Parish in Glastonbury. At the Festival of Families, he said, his group was only about 200 feet from the pope. “It was something you just never forget in your life,” he said.
“Seeing the pope live was just a blessing. He wanted the families to try to stay together, and I think one of the most important things he was talking about was that grandchildren and grandparents are very stable in the family.”
Pope for our time
His wife, Rose Vaillancourt, said, “I truly believe that this pope is meant to be our pope. God wanted him to be our pope now because we need men like him so people can start caring about one another.… If I couldn’t have seen him other than on television I would’ve been happy. But I saw him and that was enough for me.”
Maria Martinez was an archdiocesan pilgrim from Sacred Heart Parish in Hartford. At the Festival of Families, she said, the pope’s message was clear: “He said that the family starts in the home. And it’s the truth. A family starts in the home. And you raise that family to create faith.”
She also thought Pope Francis’ message to the clergy was valuable: “He went right out and told them what the problem is, that [priests] need to get out to the public. They need to get out and get people to come home to the church.”
Julian Revie of Trumbull, the composer in residence at the Center for Music and Liturgy of St. Thomas More Chapel at Yale University, was in Philadelphia to witness the performance of a song he wrote during the papal Mass. (See story on page A-7.)
As an attendee, he wrote in an email, “It was an extraordinary, powerful and deeply moving experience to be in Philadelphia this weekend. There is nothing else like it.”
He also saw a downside. “However,” he went on, “I feel I must point out one thing: the focused spirit of reverence and respect that I experienced during papal masses held by JPII in 1997 and 2002 was somewhat lacking. Sadly, I attribute this entirely to the ubiquitous cell phone and photo addiction of our culture today.”
Message to Congress
Father James C. Manship, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in New Haven, traveled with seven parishioners to Washington, D.C., as guests of Senator Christopher Murphy, and heard the pope’s historic address to the joint session of Congress Sept. 24 from the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. “It was an awesome experience and one that we will all cherish for years to come,” he said.
The group also heard the pope’s speech from the White House the day before. “It was wonderful ... an incredible talk,” he said. “He’s trying to help us reset the dialogue by speaking the truth together. Truth for us Catholics is immutable. It has a name, and its name is Jesus.”
Father Austin Phiri, representing the Connecticut Hospice, where he serves as chaplain, was with Father Manship’s Washington group.
He said, “The trip was awesome and the pope was just so down to earth. His speech [to Congress] was inspiring and touching.”
Lynn Campbell, executive director of the archdiocesan Office for Catholic Social Justice Ministry, had a gallery pass for the pope’s address to Congress, courtesy of Senator Richard Blumenthal.
“There was a definite connection between the message of our office and the pope’s message,” she said. “Pope Francis called upon Congress to be a people of dialogue. That is something we have tried to do, especially around the issue of immigration.”
Glen Dmytryszyn, a seminarian from the Archdiocese of Hartford studying at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass., was at the canonization Mass of Saint Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. He said in an email, “I would say the Holy Father’s visit to the US showed to the public just how alive the Catholic faith still is. His visit paired perfectly with the canonization of Junipero Serra, who worked tirelessly to spread the Catholic faith in America. The pope’s words inspire us to continue the good work that already has begun, the work of telling everyone that Jesus is Lord! I would say that the pope’s joy was very evident. He makes joy very contagious; he makes all of us try to be joyful disciples of the Christ.”
Kevin Hogan is a noted Connecticut journalist at WFSB-TV and has now covered events involving four popes. He covered Pope Francis from Washington.
“You know, he’s reaching to the common soul,” Mr. Hogan told the Transcript. “He seeks out – and that’s why there’s such a security issue, you know, because they don’t know what he’s going to do. He wants to be himself. He doesn’t want to be held down. He wants to reach out, he wants to touch the everyman, the everywoman.”
Lisa Finelli, of Bethlehem, Conn., spoke to the Transcript from a vending machine at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. “He’s inclusive,” she said. “He’s pretty basic. His message is to all mankind. It’s [that] we’re all in this together, we’re all on this earth together, no matter if you believe in Catholicism, atheist, paganism, Jewish, we’re all on this earth together. ... I still feel his energy.”
Reported by Jack Sheedy, Mary Chalupsky, Maria Johnson and Roberta Tuttle.