A quick search on the internet brings up over four million hits about the latest “epidemic” to hit the United States: Papal Fever. Since the moment the Holy Father, Pope Francis, went wheels up in Cuba, America has been swept up in a frenzy of enthusiastic support of this soft-spoken and humble man in his Fiat. It appears this phenomenon affects those of many different beliefs. Papal Fever has taken hold of the young as well as the old, and everyone in between.
When we returned to school in late August, our principal told the faculty that we would be making a video about our canned goods food drive as part of the efforts to welcome Pope Francis to Washington. After the short impromptu video, from the corner of my eye I saw the school librarian doing what looked like a soft-shoe dance. Then I heard her singing “We’re walking on sunshine, yeah”. She had this great idea to change the words of the Katrina and the Waves hit single to “We’re walking with Francis, yeah”. I told them both it was a great idea and the principal said, “Tell your screenwriter daughter to get on it!” So, my daughter the screenwriter changed the words to the song to fit the occasion and a school parent with a film production company followed us around for a few days catching everyone “Walking with Francis”. Our music teacher, a lovely, trained soprano, went to a recording studio to record the audio which the talented parent then put together with our video. https://youtu.be/KmJgsJlIpXI Both students and faculty seemed to have an extra spring in their step as everyone went about their day, singing “Walking with Francis, yeah!”
The Catholic Schools Office sent each student and faculty member a soft wrist band emblazoned with #WalkwithFrancis, asking us each to register for the Walk with Francis Pledge. My parish church announced that some of the tickets allotted to the parish for the Papal Mass would be distributed via a random drawing of those who had turned in Walk with Francis pledge cards. Given the scarcity of the Papal Mass tickets, I didn’t think I had a chance of getting one, but I filled out the pledge card, even though I had pledged online at the beginning of the school year.
Several weeks later I was asked to serve on the parish council for my church. I hesitated because of the time commitment, weighing it against my already hectic school days, grading language arts tests, quizzes, essays, and projects for the 35 7th graders and 45 8th graders I teach. Add to that the two plays I direct a year for the school, a straight play in the fall and a musical in the spring, and I really doubted whether I had the time for serving on the parish council. But, in the end, after two weeks of mulling it over, I did say yes. Little did I know what that “yes” would mean! A few days later, I received a phone call from one of the parish priests, offering me two tickets to the Papal Mass as a new member of the parish council. Papal Fever reached 9-1-1 status in my household as I scrambled to find a substitute teacher.
My husband and I studied the pamphlet that came with the tickets and plotted out our course of action for the day of the Mass: leave around 9:00, take the Metro, find something to eat after we arrived, and then sit and wait for the Mass. Parking at the Metro and the ride itself was a snap, and a lunch tent was set up near the lawn where the Mass would take place and it was organized and efficient. The line to get through security was quite long and slow but while waiting in it (for almost three hours) we chatted with the people around us. Behind us was a couple chatting with a priest from California. I could hear the conversation, mostly about education, as all three had been teachers. The priest had come from Mission San Buenaventura, one of the mission churches established by Father Junípero Serra, who was canonized by Pope Francis at the Papal Mass.
The people in front of us, three women and a man, had also come from California. A minivan of nine people had driven the entire 44 hours to Washington, DC, without tickets to any of the Papal activities. They had spent the night in the parking lot of the Franciscan Monastery in DC and then walked to Catholic University of America’s campus to wait along the parade route to see the Holy Father in his Popemobile. They spotted a familiar face from their own diocese, San Bernardino in Palm Desert, and he offered them his last four tickets. He told them that he had been standing there waiting for God to tell him who to give them to. The four people in line with us were the four lucky ones to get the tickets.
Earlier in the day I had remarked to my husband that I wondered whether I would see anyone I knew. This turned out to be quite humorous as the day went on and I saw so many people I knew from my parish as well as neighboring parishes, other Catholic school teachers, and so many priests I knew from the Archdiocese of Washington. Even though there were 25,000 ticket holders on the grounds of The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, it felt like a much smaller crowd.
Just before the Mass started, someone spotted David Muir, news anchor for ABC World News Tonight, who was broadcasting live from the Mass. I stepped over to the fence to take his picture and began chatting with a woman also standing at the fence. She told me the Holy Father would be coming down the street just on the other side of the fence in the parade. As we chatted we realized that we had many mutual friends. Even though we were fortunate to have seats for the Mass, they were in the last section of seats and quite a distance from the altar. The Jumbotron was obscured by a tree, so I decided my best opportunity for a good view of the Pope was to wait at the fence for the parade to pass. As the street was emptied and the sidelines closed off to pedestrian traffic, the energy of the crowd at the fence grew and grew. As the Popemobile approached I began taking pictures on my phone, until he was looking straight at me…I completely froze. It is difficult to explain the actual feeling that passed over and through me as it appeared that he was looking straight at me. The Popemobile continued on with him turning to the other side to wave at the people across the street from me. We all staggered off to our seats and then someone screamed, “He’s coming back!” The Popemobile had made a u-turn and was returning along the same fence I had been standing at. My husband thought I had a better view from the lawn near our seats so I stood there with my phone at the ready, hoping to get another chance to take his picture looking in my direction. As the Popemobile continued on past me, I was struck by the way the crowd moved as well, running along the fence as though they could not bear to let him go on without them. As people returned to their seats, many were crying and everyone was smiling widely.
Once Mass started, the atmosphere drastically changed. This enormous crowd of 25,000 people all fell silent and hung on every word from the mouth of Pope Francis. Many of us could not understand him, as the Mass was being celebrated in Spanish, in recognition of Father Junípero Serra’s native tongue. English subtitles were displayed on the Jumbotron, but because our view of it was obscured, I followed along in the program to the Mass. It was a beautiful Mass, with the Papal Choir and musicians adding so much to the liturgy.
After the Mass, we lingered for a bit to take pictures of the altar and to let the crowd disperse. We decided to have dinner across the street from the CUA campus and talk about the events of the day. Many of the diners in the crowded and popular restaurant had also come from the Mass. The atmosphere was again congenial and enthusiastic.
I’ve been blessed to have now seen three popes in my lifetime. My family attended Mass in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on April 11, 2004, the Easter Sunday one year before Pope John Paul II died. He was weak and frail but his voice rang out through the square. On April 17, 2008, my family attended the Papal Mass of Pope Benedict XVI held at the home of the Washington Nationals. I’ve only been to two professional baseball games in my life, and have never seen the Nationals play, but I’ve been to Mass in their stadium. So, September 23, 2015, was my third Papal Mass. It was also the first canonization that I have witnessed, and quite possibly my only one.
As I type, the Holy Father is wheels up heading back to Rome. Things in DC have returned to “normal” and so have NYC and Philadelphia no doubt. Fevers have cooled, and I’m sure the soft blue rubber wrist bands will be seen less and less. The local and national news programs will return to their standard mix of crime, politics, and sports. The soft-spoken and humble man and his Fiat will return to his good works in the Holy See. Katrina and the Waves will get their song back, but I will be Walking with Francis for a long time to come.