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REMEMBERING POPE FRANCIS' U.S. VISIT ‘City of Brotherly Love’ hosts local pilgrims’ faith journeys

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In downtown Philadelphia, Bishop Donald J. Hying leads diocesan pilgrims as they move closer to secure areas where Pope Francis will preside at Mass on Sept. 27 for an estimated one million faithful gathered in the city for the World Meeting of Families. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


By Anthony D. Alonzo

Northwest Indiana Catholic


        Like pilgrimages of the ancient Church, where faithful set out to holy places and bonded through trials and joys, hundreds of local Catholics recently completed a journey of faith to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia that “made an imprint” on many.

        The rendezvous with the Holy Father, who visited Washington, D.C. and New York City to speak to lawmakers, and Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families in late September, was part of a Diocese of Gary Catholic Charities-sponsored bus trip for 150 travelers.

        Parishioners from churches such as Nativity of Our Savior in Portage and St. Mary, East Chicago, arrived on separate motor coaches to interact with the pilgrims.

        Starting their trip, pilgrims gathered at dawn on Sept. 24 at Our Lady of Consolation in Merrillville, boarding coach buses with their luggage, and speaking of their great anticipation of seeing the pope.


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        Bishop Donald J. Hying, who arrived with his two suitcases, told TV crews of his joy at being able to travel with his parishioners.

        The bishop later reiterated his priority was not meeting the pope or hanging out with the hierarchy, but having fellowship with his flock. 

        “My favorite part of being bishop is just being with people, talking to people, getting to know people, listening to their stories and praying with them,” said Bishop Hying. “This pilgrimage was abundant in all of those experiences.”

        At the trip’s send-off, a youthful focus was presented to the public as trip coordinator and diocesan Catholic Charities director Jennifer Dyer recommended teens Matt Kresich and Scott Peters, both 19 and Purdue Calumet students, for TV interviews.


papal pilgrims 4       Later at the first of just three stops on the 14-hour drive, 14-year-old Emily Jiminez of Our Lady of Guadalupe in East Chicago recalled being asked by her mother Erica Jiminez to join her on the pilgrimage.

        “I asked her what (the invitation) was for and she said it was to go see the pope and I said, ‘oh, OK,’” Jiminez explained. “At first, I was really scared because there would be millions of people there, but I was actually convinced and really excited to go.”

        When St. Pope John Paul II visited Chicago in 1979, Dolores Smolen said she could not be there in person as she “was busy raising a family.” A pilgrim on the trip to see the current pontiff, she said she was glad another opportunity arose: “now I’m coming to Philadelphia.”

        Starting the modern practice of papal visits to the U.S., Pope Paul VI arrived in New York in 1965. Pope John Paul II also visited in the 80s and 90s. Pope Benedict XVI’s apostolic journey was in April 2008.

        Upon the Gary faithful’s arrival in New Jersey, which is just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, the travelers settled in at two hotels in Mt. Holly. Two Diocese of Camden parishes – St. Peter Church and Christ Our Light – hosted the visitors for Masses and complimentary meals.

        At St. Peter, Ed and Fran Merrion of Notre Dame Parish in Michigan City talked about their experiences attending the World Meeting of Families conference, which kicked off a few days before Pope Francis’ arrival. They traveled separately and then met up with the Northwest Indiana contingent.

        “The whole conference on families is geared toward the same message, with speeches by Pastor Rick Warren and (Boston) Cardinal Sean O’Malley saying we’re all in this together, God has a plan – and the secular world couldn’t care less about the plan; they glamourize all the wrong things,” Ed Merrion said. “We as followers of Christ have to stand up and promote.”


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      At the New Jersey host parishes, Bishop Hying concelebrated Masses with accompanying Fathers Joseph Uko, Carlos Martinez and Alphonse Skerl. The bishop’s homilies and his reflections focused on Catholic teaching about the dignity of the human person, the primacy of human life, and marriage and family as a “sacred avenue.”

        Before Philadelphia’s main thoroughfares in and out of the city were closed for the pope’s Sept. 26 arrival, pilgrimage participants visited city sites such as the National St. John Neumann Shrine. Near the chapel where the body of the fourth bishop of Philadelphia is entombed, Redemptorist priests prayed over individual visitors.

        News reports called the multi-agency security operations for the papal visit among the most elaborate in U.S. history. Downtown Philly was divided into secure areas for the Meeting for Religious Freedom, Festival of Families, and papal Mass. Getting anywhere close to the famous “Rocky Steps” at the Museum of Art or the City Hall required hours waiting and passing through screening more stringent than measures at many airports.


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     Robert Bodnar, 16, who accompanied his mom Mary Ann Bodnar, was understanding of the vigilance.

        “It doesn’t bother me; it’s good for security,” said Bodnar, who is rediscovering his faith. “You can trust a lot of people, but there are some people who could ruin it for everybody.”

        Pilgrims made the comparison of the sense of unity at the event to Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that his followers “may be one.”

        Elizabeth Brown, a Queen of All Saints parishioner and Ball State University student found the crowds to not be what she expected, yet “there’s something really neat about millions of people sharing the same faith,” she said.

        Gary pilgrims had split into small groups to explore on Saturday. They passed student-artists selling their handiwork, musicians playing to the pulse of the crowd, and a spattering of proselytizers. Some of the contingent estimated they walked 10 to 20 miles on the day.


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     By the afternoon, when Pope Francis was speaking at Independence Hall, many found their ways into the tight throngs of bystanders lined three- to five-deep on the motorcade route. The pope would have to reach the Benjamin Franklin Parkway passing City Hall.

        As the sun set behind the city’s concrete and glass canyons, ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ occasionally arose from the crowd as people mistook a variety of motor patrols to be the popemobile.

        Yet the moment came.

        As he approached, standing in a modified white Jeep traveling at a moderate speed, Pope Francis’ smile met the eyes of thousands. The electric feeling, the bright white lights from flashing smartphones then quickly dissipated.


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        Nine-year-old Sara Magerski of St. Ann in Gary got a clear view of the Holy Father.

        “I was excited,” said Magerski. “Everyone was taking pictures and videos like me.”

        On Sunday, Northwest Indiana pilgrims woke early and traveled by bus and then train into downtown Philly. Delayed for hours and moving inch-by-inch as they approached security check points for the Papal Mass, Bishop Hying made the decision to break away from the line so the group could at least view the liturgy at a big screen viewing location.

        Event coordinators expected up to 1.5 million to pack the streets for the Papal Mass. The previous day’s crowd was about a third of the size.


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    Pilgrims departed together with personal memories - the joys and the disappointments of a journey of faith. The experience served as a confirmation and a calling for local participants.

        For Mary Yates of St. James in Highland, passing the under the shadow of the successor of St. Peter gave her a sense of peace regarding a profound loss she has been grieving. Her 19-year-old son passed away two years ago.

        “I came here to be healed,” Yates said. “I started praying for healing, and for the pope’s blessing to heal me in my grief…. The Lord answered my prayer.”

        Ss. Monica and Luke parishioner Michael Cummings departed Philadelphia with an understanding of the importance of youths to the Church.


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        “One of the things I take away from the Mass today is, yes, it was somewhat distracting with the kids there, but that was the whole point of the event – that the family be there,” explained Cummings. “If we want the Church to grow we need the kids there. We have to learn how to make the adjustments.

        Bishop Hying said pilgrimages bare a resemblance to a believer’s ultimate quest.

        “We see (such a trip) spiritually as a symbol or a microcosm of our pilgrimage to heaven,” Bishop Hying said. “Pilgrimage really articulates well our whole understanding of the Church as a pilgrim from time and space in history journeying toward the kingdom of God.”


Papal pilgrimage 2015 bonus picture gallery


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Gary diocese pilgrim Dolores Smolen exits a bus at the South Philadelphia Sports Complex on Sept. 27. Three new Cavallo lines coaches transported local travelers to various New Jersey and Philly sites. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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Bishop Donald J. Hying raises the host during the Liturgy of Eucharist as Fathers Joseph Uko, Carlos Martinez and Alphose Skerl concelebrate Mass at St. Peter Church in Merchantville, N.J., on Sept. 25. The parish also hosted papal pilgrims from Northwest Indiana for a meal. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


papal pilgrims 35Bishop Donald J. Hying accompanies Northwest Indiana pilgrims as they file into turnstiles in a SEPTA public transportation hub en route to the downtown Philadelphia Papal Mass on Sept. 27. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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Bishop Donald J. Hying and Cavallo Bus Lines driver Dave Stoops talk to local papal pilgrims on Sept. 27 before they exit the coach at South Philadelphia Sports Complex en route to downtown Philly via the city's public transportation system. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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Anticipating a chance to see the pope in Philadelphia, Lila Patino, 7, sits on a train in New Jersey headed for the city on Sept. 26. She traveled with her family on the diocesan pilgrimage. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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With One Liberty Place towering in the background, Bishop Hying walks alongside Wisconsin resident John Schultz at left and St. Michael the Archangel of Schererville parishioner David Leydet en route to a secured area in downtown Philadelphia where Pope Francis will celebrate Mass for an expected one million faithful on Sept. 27. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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A plush toy Pope Francis keeps watch over local pilgrims who pass the Romanian Consulate on Spruce Street en route to the Papal Mass in downtown Philadelphia on Sept. 27. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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Police officers and a trained dog watch pilgrims lining John F. Kennedy Boulevard in downtown Philadelphia awaiting the passing of Pope Francis' motorcade as he travels to the Festival of Families on Sept. 26. Multi-agency security efforts for the papal visit were among the most elaborate in U.S. history. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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Nearing a downtown Philadelphia security checkpoint and moving only inch-by-inch, Gary diocese papal pilgrims take the opportunity to sit on pavement on Sept 27. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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Pope Francis waves to the faithful who line John F. Kennedy Boulevard in downtown Philadelphia as his modified Jeep and security motorcade make their way to the Festival of Families on Sept. 26. After waiting for hours, many Gary diocese pilgrims got a clear view of the pontiff as he passed by. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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At Philadelphia's Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul, an image of Mary, Undoer of Knots is pictured on Sept. 26, illuminated above the area where tens of thousands of prayer ribbons were tied to structures by pilgrims. Pope Francis stopped by the grotto to pray during his visit to World Meeting of Families events. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)


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At center, near the door of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, Our Lady of Grace parishioners Sue Kresich, Matt Kresich and Scott Peters take in the downtown sites at the conclusion of a multi-artist concert attended by the pope on the evening of Sept 26. (Anthony D. Alonzo photo)

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