In just a matter of days, I’ll be boarding a plane heading for Philadelphia, destination World Meeting of Families and reception of Pope Francis. By the time some of you read this, I’ll already be in Philly, wandering the streets with my diocesan tour group, eating cheesesteaks and cannoli.
Yes, I’m a little excited about what is, for me, a once-in-a-lifetime journey, and a bit of a second chance, having narrowly missed an opportunity to cross paths with JPII in spring of 1991 while in Rome for a college study abroad trip at age 21. This bucket-list bullet point had been staring at me for years in an especially taunting way. “You’ll never get that chance back,” it said.
So when I heard last year that the pope would be coming to America in September 2015, I began to dream, and hope and eventually, in desperation, to pray. “I feel like I’m at the right time in my life to bring glory to you through this, Lord. If it is Your will, please show me the way.”
Over many months, I felt hope surge and then wane, until one day late in the game, I received a phone call with an invitation to go to Philadelphia as a reporter for our diocese.
I’ll never forget where I was — sitting in a motorized shopping “cart” waiting for my friend to make some exchanges in Hobby Lobby. I suppressed my excitement until we got back out into the parking lot before bursting forth with the news. Throughout the rest of the summer, this adventure was tucked away in my back pocket, waiting for the time to be right, and now, it is. On Facebook, I’ve been posting a countdown related to the trip to Philly, sharing information about the shrines we will visit, and thoughts on the pope.
As much as I admire and respect our holy father, I know not all do. Just the other day, I came across a Facebook thread on another page, through which I witnessed the thrashing of Pope Francis by (mostly) fellow Christians. One, named Peter — a former Catholic who just happens to bear the name of the first pope — called the Church the anti-Christ, and chided Pope Francis for thinking himself above the law and Ten Commandments, and on par with God himself. He criticized the pope for his planned meetings with dignitaries, such as President Obama, saying this kind of behavior is not the example Jesus set when He came to save us.
I’m not sure what’s at bottom of his critical comments. I can’t begin to guess about his heart. But I feel he’s missing out on this wonderful man we call “Papa,” the pontiff who showed us his precious humanity recently during a virtual interview with citizens of our country in various cities. If you didn’t get a chance to view that interview with 20/20 on ABC News, find it here. And make sure to bring a box of tissues.
Other Catholics can be critical, too. A few years back, I read a thread by some who called the propensity of whose who swoon over the pope “pope worship.” But is it that?
The pope is regarded by many worldwide, and thousands regularly flock to see him. To most Catholics, he isn’t just another star but the vicar of Christ — Christ’s representative on earth (even if not Christ himself). We believe that when Jesus said to Peter, “upon this rock (you), Peter, I will build my church,” he was putting in place the first in a long line of popes to shepherd His people until His return.
As we anticipate his visit, it is not Jorge Bergoglio we are fawning over; rather, we are admiring the Jesus the Christ that dwells in him in a special way. We are looking upon 2,000 years of Christian history, embodied in one man; one human who has been breathed upon by the Holy Spirit in order to draw us closer to God.
Recently, I had a chance to take part in a webinar for Catholic journalists, led by Father Thomas Rosica, who works for the Holy See press office. In other words, he’s been writing about and been fairly close to the pope since the beginning (having served as one of the official spokespersons for the transition from Benedict to Francis). He knows a great deal about the pope, and as such, was able to give us some insight into what we might expect, and look for in Philly.
I shared some snippets from that session on Facebook, and thought you might appreciate them, too:
Fr. Rosica on the worry that crowds will either be too full or too thin in Philly during pope’s visit: I’m not worried about the crowds, it’s standard stock and trade, the fear tactics (about traffic and such that we hear predicted when a pope visits), but people want to see this man and even those not in the church want to see him and be in his presence, so let those who want to be there, go.”
When asked to predict what issues Pope Francis will focus on during his visit here, and if they will be U.S.-focused: “He will come as the universal pastor in tune to the universal church…and the big issues affecting not just the United States but the whole world.” – Fr. Rosica
“It is highly significant that (the pope) is choosing to enter the U.S. from Cuba. This was not coincidental, it was a strategic decision.” – Fr. Rosica to Catholic Press Association
To those concerned the pope may not speak much English while in the United States in a few weeks: “Pope Francis in a sense, no matter what he speaks, is understandable — look at the facial gestures, the body language, the smile — and sometimes those speak louder than words.” – Fr. Rosica
Fr. Rosica said even more than giving a message, the pope wants to interact with the people during his upcoming visit. But also to keep in mind that his visit “is happening between the book ends of the Synod on the Family and the Eve of the Year of Mercy. This is the backdrop for his visit.”
“I have had two revelations about this pope: 1) a revelation about his tenderness, the way he speaks, and 2) of normalcy. He’s not a world leader with all kinds of shields and rings around him. He wants to connect with the people, and it’s through that connection that his message is getting out. And thank God the pope is speaking.” – Fr. Rosica
“Humanity at its best attracts humanity at its best and the goodness of this man brings this out in many, so be surprised and enjoy it.” – Fr. Rosica on the pope’s forthcoming (and first) visit to America
Finally, responding to a reporter’s question about whether the pope has expressed interest in American fare: “He’s asked to have access to the people, but he hasn’t asked for anything like a hot dog or a cheesesteak sandwich; that’s just not the pope we have.” – Fr. Rosica
Needless to say, I am over the moon with excitement to see and hear from our holy father. It is something I have prayed for, and now, it’s about to happen. I will not apologize for that, nor let anyone rob me of my joy over what will soon take place. Oh, to have a chance to touch his cloak, as the bleeding woman did the garment of Jesus. I doubt that will happen, but even being close will be a blessing, I know it.
I have a list of things I will need in Philly, but one item I don’t plan to take is rose-colored glasses, nor any star-studded clothing. I will not be rolling up a red carpet to pack into my duffle bag.
Instead, I will bring a heart open and a mind attentive to what God wants me to hear to share with those who could not be there. I have read many of the pope’s words in recent years, and seen some of them twisted and turned until they match the liking of the messenger. I’m excited to hear straight from the horse’s mouth this time and receive the blessing of standing on the very same ground, at the same time in history, as the vicar of Christ. It will be an honor to absorb it all and bring it home to you.
Q4U: Have you ever met a holy person you had once admired from afar? What was it like? What question would you want to ask the pope if given a chance?