By Becky Aubut
PHILADELPHIA — The group from the Fall River Diocese making the trip alongside this Anchor reporter may have been small in number, but they were large in Spirit as the 14 pilgrims made their way to Philadelphia to the participate in the World Meeting of Families and to see Pope Francis.
Sister Marianna Sylvester, R.S.M., a member of Our Lady of Assumption Parish in New Bedford, said that making the decision to attend the World Meeting of Families didn’t require much thought; she wanted to be part of history, she said.
“I knew he was coming to the United States and I felt it was a moment of Catholic history,” said Sister Sylvester. “I decided that I wanted to be visible, not an invisible, member of the Catholic Church. Some people say living life to the fullest is at least showing up and being there.
“Pope Francis knows how to focus in on the critical concerns for humanity. I’m a Sister of Mercy and for the last 15 years our chapter developed a framework for our work, and it all has to do with human dignity, and the vision is local and global. When I listen to him, I get very excited because it’s not a hidden message. He’s taken the theology of social justice and made it personal and global at the same time.”
For Odete and Joe Depina, members of Espirito Santo Parish in Fall River, seeing Pope Francis would be an opportunity to add to their growing list of trips that have included seeing past popes: “I wanted to see Pope Francis,” said Odete. “I have seen John Paul, Pope Benedict, and I wanted to see the Holy Father. I was very happy to see him, and be able to be with everybody. I was very surprised to see so many young people, and at the same time very happy, because it’s the future, the Church of tomorrow.”
Claire McManus, director of the Faith Formation Office in the Fall River Diocese, heard that the pope was coming to the United States, so after consulting with Bishop Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., about organizing a pilgrimage, she went ahead and got things rolling. Even with her past experience, she wasn’t fully prepared for the toll that navigating blocked-off streets and long security lines would take on her and her fellow travelers.
“I organized the pilgrimage, got a group together and it was a very different experience for me,” said McManus. “I’ve done five World Youth Days, and this was very similar to what I’ve done before but this was with a crowd of people who are very mature, very committed, and also not used to dealing with a lot of discomfort. It was a little challenging.”
Because of security measures, vast swaths of blocks were cordoned off and shut down to everything but foot traffic, causing confusion and angst for those who had to walk for extended lengths to get to where Pope Francis was, and then having to make the long trek back to where their transportation was parked. Waiting in long lines at security checkpoints, though the reasoning was understood, also caused additional discomfort. However, all that pain and aggravation was washed away the moment McManus and others saw Pope Francis drive past in the popemobile on Saturday night. During the Holy Father’s ride from his giving a speech at Independence Hall to visit the festival of the World Meeting of Families, he drove through downtown and his route took him right by many of the members of the group from Fall River.
“When I saw the Holy Father go by with all the lights and all the cheering, it just touched me — his humility, he is very humble,” said Odete, who noted that seeing the pontiff would be a treasured memory. “[I hope] to increase my faith and my humility, and to see everyone with the same eyes as Pope Francis does.”
“The moment for me was when the pope drove past me,” said McManus. “I was in that whole crowd and when that happened, and after all the discomfort, you say, ‘this was worth it, to be part of that moment.’”
Among the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that descended on Philadelphia, there were a select few who had more on their mind than just hoping to see the pope — they were there to help hand out Communion during the papal Mass. Deacon Gary Porter said a few serendipitous key strokes on his computer led him to becoming one of more than 370 deacons taking part in the event.
“I found out by accident. I was just Googling something, and the World Meeting of Families popped up, and I thought this looks interesting,” said Deacon Porter, who eventually stumbled on the webpage offering deacons a chance to serve at the papal Mass. “[I thought] how great is that? Who gets to do this? I had to ask Bishop da Cunha for a letter stating I’m in good standing, and when it came through I electronically sent all the information they needed down to them, and got a response the next day saying, ‘you’re in.’ I was thrilled.”
Alongside his wife Elizabeth, they traveled with the rest of the group except during moments when Deacon Porter had to check in with organizers. Deacon Porter’s first stop after arriving at the historic center district on Friday was to travel to the Philadelphia Convention Center to pickup his credentials that was “essentially a special ticket with a bar code” he said, adding he was scanned wherever he went.
By Sunday he found himself at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts and from there, he and his fellow deacons traveled by bus to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Having time to mingle before Mass was a great way to meet people he would never have had the chance to meet otherwise, said Deacon Porter.
“I met a deacon from Minneapolis who lives five miles away from my aunt’s house,” he said. “I met a couple from California, North Carolina; it was a camaraderie-type thing. They were from all over the country. I’m not sure how they got there, but there was a Vietnamese contingent and I understood, and maybe I’m wrong, that they were from Vietnam and if that’s true, the fact that a communist country would allow them to leave and do something like this is remarkable.”
The deacons were then broken up into groups based on where they would actually serve the Eucharist during Mass; Deacon Porter was sent to the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul, “which is gorgeous, by the way,” he said.
It was when he got off the bus at the foot of the cathedral that he realized the enormity of the moment and felt the uplifting Spirit of the faith-filled crowd: “We got off the buses, pouring out and all of the sudden the whole place just erupts into cheers,” he recalled. “And it was like, is the pope coming? And then [we realized] it’s for us. As we walked, people were giving us high-fives. It was remarkable to see all these deeply, faith-filled people.”
They stayed in the cathedral until the pope consecrated the Eucharist, then ciboriums were distributed “and we had an escort with the umbrella,” said Deacon Porter, “[Escorts] were nuns, religious, Knights of Columbus, and I’m not sure if it was a Catholic high school or college, but a lot of young people. The lady who was with me was from California.”
In a well-coordinated effort and led by priests associated with the cathedral, the deacons were led out and guided either right or left, with someone already in place who would tell them when to stop. Each deacon — though it may not have looked like it on TV, said Deacon Porter — were told to be spaced roughly 14 feet apart.
As he began to hand out the Eucharist, said Deacon Porter, “my first thought was, ‘why isn’t everyone this excited to receive the Eucharist?’ You could see the joy in their face, the desire and the love — it was an incredible thing. It was just a beautiful thing. I felt so privileged.”
While most receiving the Eucharist understood it to be the Body of Christ and accepted it with reverence, there was one woman who came up to receive it, said Deacon Porter, and “she was walking and taking it away, and I tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘Ma’am, you have to consume it — now, in front of me.’ She looked at me and you could tell she didn’t want to, I don’t know what her intentions were but it wasn’t to consume the Eucharist.”
A circle of Catholics surrounded her, said Deacon Porter, and that’s when the woman put the Eucharist in her mouth. He wasn’t sure if she was trying to keep it as a souvenir, but Deacon Porter said people need to realize it’s not for keeping.
After they covered their area, a lot of the deacons had some hosts left and since they still had some time, 20 deacons made their way down another street to continue giving out the host. People were so grateful, said Deacon Porter, especially since they knew where they were standing was not on the official route. After returning to the cathedral, deacons received the Eucharist, extra hosts were returned to the Tabernacle, and Deacon Porter managed to snag two of those distinctive Vatican umbrellas from the extras they had available.
“Without a doubt, the fondest memory I will have is the incredible look on people’s faces when we got off the bus and started cheering, and the absolute joy when we left the cathedral to distribute the Eucharist — those are the two memories that will stay with me forever,” said Deacon Porter.
After braving more than two hours in a security checkpoint; Odete wasn’t sure she would even be able to receive Communion, “but when I saw deacons coming by with the umbrellas,” she said, she knew she would be able to receive Communion, and was thrilled.
McManus and a few others in the group opted not to go too far inside the city, and instead rested on a raised curb to watch the Mass on a big screen: “The Mass was beautiful and we were comfortable; it was just a great experience. [Sunday] was much more relaxed and Spiritual,” said McManus.
As she reflected on the her experience, McManus said that she wants to truly sit down and read in depth everything the pope said during his six-day trip to the United States, especially his homily during Mass.
“I think he had some powerful messages,” said McManus. “I didn’t really get a chance to absorb because we were really dealing with logistics all the time. In his homily today, he talked a lot about love being the Gospel message and that it happens in the family, and that’s something I can bring back to my own family. It’s very easy to do the work of God on the outside, but when you do it with your family, that’s where it counts the most.”