Reflecting on Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. one year later

By Michele Brock

Special to The Witness

“Pope Day” started by awakening at 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning and heading out for the hour-long drive to our regional rail station by 6:30 a.m. We beat a lot of traffic, as it was smooth sailing. We waited in line for the next train, meeting people excited for what the day would bring.

The half-hour train ride ended with one local couple in their 60s offering a white rose from their bouquet to our five-year-old. Apparently this is the pope’s favorite flower, and if we got close enough, she was to give it to him. We navigated to a security check point. More waiting. After about 15 minutes, we were through the metal detectors and bag checkers. Off we went to explore. Some areas were narrow and crowded, other streets were open and roomy.

Pope Francis was saying Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul. Crowds were starting to line up along a blocked off area in hopes he would pass by after Mass. We were drawn in. More waiting. New Jersey, Texas, Argentina! All here to see the Holy Father. Mass ended; word got around that he would not be coming this way. But no one was discouraged. All had hope for the parade later. We headed to the ticketed area for the Festival of Families along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a long street, lined with formidable Greek-style-columned buildings— museums, libraries, cultural centers— all surrounding hundreds of thousands of people.

A stage in a non-ticketed area hosted cultural entertainers, adding to the truly global party. Many languages could be heard as we trekked to the entry for the 50,000 or so who had tickets like us to be “closer” to the stage for the festival. More waiting. We pressed as close to the stage as we could—still several hundreds of yards away, but much closer than most others. We met more people, sharing the reasons we came to this one big family reunion. Inspiration, faith, joy, a desire to have a tangible feeling from the servant leader who teaches us about the ultimate servant leader in Jesus. Our teenagers met others and played cards. The 5-year-old took a nap in the stroller. Many Philly soft pretzels were bought, shared and eaten. Cheering erupted as the pope gave his speech at a different venue—Independence Hall—we watched on the massive Jumbo Trons.

“Many of you have emigrated to this country at great personal cost, but in the hope of building a new life. Do not be discouraged by whatever challenges and hardships you face. I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land.”

After a bit more waiting and evening settling in, the crowds starting cheering again, and the noise only continued to crescendo— this was it—the Saturday Papal Parade—the best chance to see him closer. And we did—about 25 or so feet away he zipped by in his Popemobile; there really was no bad place to be on the parade route. His lit vehicle in the darkness was like a light to all seeking hope for a world that often seems so inhumane.

After the parade, he sat on stage, then spoke, during the festival, sharing so many words of wisdom. “… family life is something worthwhile, and that a society grows stronger and better, it grows in beauty and it grows in truth, when it rises on the foundation of the family…the family is…a workshop of hope, of the hope of life and resurrection… there are difficulties, but those difficulties are resolved by love. Hatred doesn’t resolve difficulties. Divided hearts do not resolve difficulties. Only love is capable of resolving difficulties.” Never do you have hundreds of thousands of people who all get along so well— no fights, no impatience, all happy and chatting with each other. When people feel good about your cause, they’re willing to unite for it. With all the superstars that performed at the festival Saturday evening, no one received more cheers than the pope. Strong, positive, humble, uplifting leadership is important to rally people around a cause.

One of the pope’s messages is to meet people where they’re at; this holds true for all who we encounter. Learn where they’re at, talk to them gently, love them no matter what, and pray for each other. So was the 30-hour round trip drive in a five-day time span with three teenagers, a five-year-old and four busy adults worth it? YES, YES and YES! Do something nutty now and then or you will regret not doing it. We hemmed, hawed and overcame some roadblocks to going on our pilgrimage. We’re so glad we did, as we would have regretted not going. We connected with so many people and were more than blessed ourselves. Brock, her husband Doug and two daughters live in Cedar Rapids and are members of St. Joseph Parish in Marion.