October 2, 2015

Emotions run high as pilgrims catch glimpse of pope during visit

Cathedral High School students Mike Rushka, Rachel Kent and Molly Mitchell pose for a photo in Philadelphia during their recent trip to the World Meeting of Families—an experience that led them to see Pope Francis. (Submitted photo)

Cathedral High School students Mike Rushka, Rachel Kent and Molly Mitchell pose for a photo in Philadelphia during their recent trip to the World Meeting of Families—an experience that led them to see Pope Francis. (Submitted photo)

(Editor’s note: During Pope Francis’ whirlwind six days in the United States, he touched the hearts and inspired the faith of people around the country. Here are four stories about people in the archdiocese who won’t forget the pope’s visit and his impact on them.)

By John Shaughnessy

David Siler didn’t think anything could match the thrill of being invited to witness Pope Francis being welcomed at the White House by President Barack Obama on Sept. 23. Then he experienced an even more memorable moment.

“After the pope did his parade in his Jeep following the White House welcome, I went for a walk,” recalls Siler, the executive director of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. “I ended up at a street corner where I was just waiting for the light to change. Suddenly, there was a flurry of security activity, and a police officer told us that the pope’s motorcade was coming by.

“I looked down the street and saw a few black Suburbans headed our way. Then there was the pope’s Fiat, with him leaning out the back window waving. As he passed, I waved at him, and he looked right at me and waved back. It is hard to explain, but I felt a warm flush through my entire body, and I realized I had tears streaming down my face. I believe that I sensed a profound presence of the Holy Spirit.

“I can only figure that Pope Francis is such a clear reflection of Jesus that that is why I felt what I did. I had this immediate thought about what it might be like to meet Jesus in heaven someday.”

Siler had been invited to attend the White House ceremony by Catholic Charities USA. He was touched that Pope Francis made it a point to meet with the poor and prisoners during his visit to the United States.

“It did not come as a surprise that he wanted to dine with the poor and meet prisoners, but when I saw how his face lit up during these encounters, I knew that these encounters are genuine.”

One other personal encounter for Siler stood out during his conversations with fellow pilgrims in Washington.

“It was encouraging to hear of how inspired people have been by Pope Francis, and that there is a sense of a real resurgence of the Catholic faith. I even heard one young lady, probably in her mid-twenties, say, ‘It’s cool to be Catholic again!’ ”

‘It brought me to tears’

The Jesuit background of Pope Francis has always been a source of pride and purpose for Leighann Eckrich, a student at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis.

That pride and purpose grew even stronger when she, her brother and four other students from Brebeuf made a pilgrimage to Philadelphia for the pope’s visit there.

“It was the greatest experience I’ve ever had,” she says. “One of my favorite parts was on Saturday when we went to hear Pope Francis speak at Independence Hall. At the end, he started praying the ‘Our Father’ and everyone joined in. It was unbelievable to hear all these people praying in different languages. I felt God’s presence in me and everyone around me. It brought me to tears.”

Another memorable part of the weekend was interacting with 400 students from Jesuit high schools across the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. They all stayed at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School in Philadelphia, attending workshops designed to deepen their commitment to the Jesuit motto, “Men and women for others.”

The group was also together during the Sunday afternoon Mass that drew nearly 1 million people—including the Brebeuf student contingent of Leighann, her brother William, Izzy Hackett, Eve Kelly, Willa Sasso, Olivia Totten and their two chaperones from the school’s faculty, Carson King and Jess Rewa.

“We were all together for the Sunday Mass,” Leighann says. “A bunch of the students started shouting, ‘Papa Francisco!’ He slowly passed us and gave us a blessing.”

Leighann hopes to share the blessing of the pilgrimage with other students at Brebeuf.

“Seeing Pope Francis made me more open and vulnerable to God,” she says. “If I could bring anything back to share, it would be his call for justice, for peace and for helping others.”

‘It surprised me how emotional I got’

As Libby Wright helped lead the annual trip to Washington for the eight-grade students of Holy Family School in New Albany, she kept running into roadblocks because of the visit of Pope Francis.

First, the group couldn’t take its usual tour of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception because of the canonization Mass for Blessed Junipero Serra.

Their tickets to go inside the Washington Monument were also canceled because of the pope’s visit.

“Then some providential things happened,” says Wright, the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher. “We were reading in the paper about the pope’s parade route from the White House to the Capitol. I thought we might get the chance to see him.”

She shared her plan first with the other 17 chaperones, and then she told the 33 students.

“We went down there, and all of us got through security in 10 minutes,” she says. “We were just off the sidewalk of Constitution Avenue. We could see the White House in front of us, and the Washington Monument was behind us. He rode right down the center of Constitution Avenue. We were about 60 feet from where the pope actually passed in front of us. We were obviously meant to be there.”

Wright later asked her students to write about that lifetime experience.

“They wrote about how inspired they felt, how touched they were. Some of the kids said, ‘I never want to forget the look on the pope’s face as he turned and waved to us.’ Maybe we will have some future priests because of this, or their hearts will just be open more.”

Wright’s heart was definitely touched.

“I am not someone who gets overly emotional about things. But when I saw the pope and saw the looks on my students’ faces, I teared up. It surprised me how emotional I got.”

A moment of grace and reassurance

When a teacher stopped her in a crowded school hallway to ask about her plans for the weekend of Sept. 25-27, Molly Mitchell never expected the conversation would lead to her coming within just feet of Pope Francis.

“I mentioned a couple of things to Mr. [Matt] Cannady, and he said, ‘How’d you like to see the pope?’ ” Molly recalls about their conversation on Sept. 15. “I was over the moon. I was beyond excited.”

After securing four tickets to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Cannady asked his fellow theology teachers at Cathedral High School in Indianapolis to recommend students for the trip. Molly, Mike Rushka and Rachel Kent were the lucky recipients of the tickets—and an up-close view of Pope Francis.

“He spoke at Independence Hall on Saturday at 4:30 [in the afternoon], and we watched him on a big screen,” says Molly, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Indianapolis. “Later, he drove by us as part of a parade. We had camped there for hours. We knew he was coming because of all the police cars and all the people screaming. My heart started racing. He waved right at us. Just to see his face was so amazing.”

It was also a reassuring moment for Molly.

“In my life, I look for affirmation that I’m doing the right thing, that I’m making the right choices. I thought God was reassuring me when we were there. Everything we’ve been taught about the Church, how we gather together, and how we share the word of God, that was really cool to see that all come together. The grace of God allowed us to be there.”

(For more coverage of the archdiocesan pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families and the papal visit, including photo galleries and links to blog posts, visit www.archindy.org/wmof.)

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