The bus ride to a spiritual experience like no other

Pope Francis leaves in procession after celebrating the closing Mass of the VIII World Meeting of Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Pope Francis leaves in procession after celebrating the closing Mass of the VIII World Meeting of Families on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The hundreds of thousands of captive hearts here listened (or, if they didn’t understand Spanish, read the subtitled English text) intently as the Vicar of Christ spoke to them from the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Closing out the World Meeting of Families’ Congress here last Sunday, Pope Francis capped off a whirlwind six-day tour of the United States with a call to holiness for the families around him: senior citizens pressed up against steel railings; teenagers clung to tree branches; boys and girls hung off fathers’ shoulders.

“We Christians, the Lord’s disciples, ask the families to help us!” Pope Francis’ homily went, in his native Spanish.

“How many of us are here at this celebration! Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love for the sake of all the families of the world.”

Indeed, people seemed to feel at home here, seeing and hearing their spiritual leader.

With almost 30 others, I arrived at St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Gibbsboro at 8:30 a.m. last Sunday, on a cool, breezy morning, to take a bus into Philadelphia for the Mass.

“We’re honored and privileged to share this opportunity to see Pope Francis,” said John Janusz, who with his wife Joan, made the 50-mile trip to Gibbsboro from New Egypt.

Runnemede resident Jashanna Jones boarded the bus with son Michael, 10 years old, and daughter Michelle, 8.

“He’s right next door, and this is once in a lifetime. Why not?” she said.

The 30-minute trip over the Walt Whitman Bridge to the Wells Fargo Center parking lot, gave us a first glimpse of the large crowds on the historic day; joyful groups banging drums or clashing cymbals, singing songs, and holding signs like “Viva Papa.” Getting in line behind other busses, ours inched forward before finally finding a parking spot.

From the sports arena, our group walked to the Broad Street Line’s AT&T Station to catch the next train to Spring Garden and bring us closer to the Parkway. I struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me, from Chile, who only knew Spanish. She came with a group from Allentown and was very excited about seeing the pope, whom she had met once before in his hometown of Argentina.

An hour and a half later, the St. Andrews’ pilgrims were in the boisterous security checkpoint line. Soon, “Father Eddie” from the Archdiocese of San Antonio, with 40 pilgrims, and I were sharing stories from our respective homes. The next hour brought conversation with women from Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in North Little Rock, Ark., who, despite their 24-hour drive, were in high spirits. As we chatted, local business owners brought over free pizza to the security-line pilgrims, but we passed. Entrepreneurs tried selling us Pope Francis flags at $5 each, but we knew just a glimpse of the man himself would be more than enough.

Through the checkpoint, the three of us found a spot near the Philadelphia library on 19th and Vine, close to one of the 40 Jumbotrons placed in the city, broadcasting the Mass on the Art Museum steps.

In between high school students sitting on tarp stretched onto the asphalt, and families who, as evidenced by blankets, picnic baskets and lawn chairs, had already been waiting long hours to see Francis, we listened to the Philadelphia Orchestra.

A little after 3 p.m., the crowd seemed to gather more energy, and their voices started picking up; the popemobile had been spotted. As its passenger urged toward us, on his way to the altar, shouts became roars, and finally, deafening noise as Pope Francis came into view. A city, jubilant. A city, alive.

Loud crowds grew solemn and reverent as the liturgy proceeded. The multicultural English, Spanish and Vietnamese voices from the choirs lifted up their countrymen. Amidst diversity, unity.

Nearing the end of his homily, Pope Francis called on the hundreds of thousands to open up hearts that have become “closed in on itself, impatient of others,” and “thus overcome the scandal of a narrow, petty love.”

And, at the end of the liturgy, characteristically, the pontiff reminded all to “Please, pray for me. Don’t forget.”

A few hours later, pilgrims were back in their cars, trains, or buses, and Pope Francis was heading back to Rome on Shepherd One.

For six days, through Washington, New York and, finally Philadelphia, Pope Francis brought the joy of the Gospel to people desperate for its message.

“We saw people from all walks of life, loving the Lord and celebrating,” a tired, but happy Jones said as she slid into her seat, for the trip back to Gibbsboro. “I don’t think I’m ever going to forget this.”