Pope wows youth at World Meeting of Families

In their words: High school senior and recent Catholic convert witnesses pivotal moments in teens’ faith

By Rhetta Botts

Young people love Pope Francis.

From his grandfatherly appearance to his undeniable love for serving the poor, “Papa Francisco” has captured the hearts of millennials. It is easy to say that teenagers are surrounded by distractions.

The popularity of social media has forever changed the way we interact with one another, and the way we see the world. News stories that paint a world of harshness litter our screens; escaping the stress of everyday life seems impossible.

And then there’s Pope Francis, who with his gentle and steady kindness has moved to the forefront of our short millennial attention spans. How has this happened? It is difficult to say, but after a few days in Philadelphia, I believe that I may have figured it out.

On Sept. 25 a group of students and teachers from Knoxville Catholic High School piled into a large charter bus and headed to Pennsylvania. We were not especially excited about the 14-hour drive, but there was an unmistakable sense of excitement and community as we met in the dark parking lot at approximately 4:30 a.m.

As I sat in the very back of the bus (as seniors do), trying to convince myself that I could get my homework finished or I could sleep, I got a great sense of how this trip was going to affect my peers. Although it was very early in the morning, there was a quiet buzz of students anxiously whispering to one another:

  • “He’s going to be so close to us.”
  • “I will never have this opportunity again.”
  • “I love how humble he is, it really inspires me.”

Knoxville Catholic
High School students Gianna Carideo, Alaina Lopez, Suzanna Pickering, and Maddie Woods visit the Mary, Undoer of Knots Grotto at the WMOF.

It was clear that this trip was more about the solidification of each individual’s spiritual life rather than a chance to skip school. We arrived at the campground around 7 p.m., hungry, tired, but jittery with anticipation for the following day. The camp had a short Mass following dinner, and afterward we ventured through the New Jersey forest toward our cabins.

Occasionally there would be a high-pitched scream as a girl found a spider on her bed, followed by some more yelling, and then laughter.

This was definitely a pilgrimage.

What struck me the most were the sheer numbers of people who flooded into Philadelphia to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father.

On the second day of our journey, we arrived at a security gate, lunches in hand, smiles on our faces, and found that we were not the only ones who were excited for this papal trip. As we turned a corner, we were met with the sight of hundreds and hundreds of other people standing in line, waiting to be processed.

Philadelphia had been sectioned off, and we discovered that each day we had to go through security.

It was very eye-opening to realize that people came from even farther away than Knoxville to see the pope. There were people speaking Spanish, French, Italian, and other languages I didn’t recognize. On day two, we learned that the Church is truly universal.

The pain of going through TSA wasn’t something that could dampen our spirits.

No, the Fighting Irish would not be defeated by bag searches or prohibited Selfie Sticks. We marched along Benjamin Franklin Parkway, determined that we were going to see the Pope, and we were going to be front row as he drove by us. I was as enthusiastic as the next person about this possibility, but I didn’t realize that claiming a spot on a barrier meant standing for six straight hours.

I, along with four other upperclassmen girls, took turns holding our desired spot from early afternoon until dusk. Around hour five, more people began to show up, and we knew that something was happening.

The minutes ticked away, and flashing police cars zoomed by. At 7:15 p.m., we forgot about the ache in our legs as all eyes followed a single man in an altered Jeep Wrangler as he approached us.

Pope Francis looked like he was having the time of his life. A grin spread across his face as he saw the multitudes of people waiting to see him, a grin radiating true happiness that can only be attained by someone who lives solely for God.

I saw Pope Francis in the summer of 2014, right after my family’s conversion to Catholicism. While I had been eight rows away from him then, this time was much different. I was less than 15 feet away, and this time I was in my home country, surrounded by thousands of screaming Catholics and non-Catholics alike, fighting back tears that I hadn’t had the courage to shed a year ago.

While I was standing at a railing for six hours to see Pope Francis, four others (plus Father Christopher Manning) were waiting at Independence Hall to hear him speak in the early afternoon heat. Each student was chosen by lottery to attend the papal audience of a few thousand people. There were a limited number of tickets available, and one of my friends, Maddie Wood, had been chosen.

As Maddie and I were reunited later that night, she gushed, “We were all there for the same reason, it was such a moving thing to be a part of.”

Pope Francis waves back to Diocese of Knoxville students in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families

On the third day, we attended Mass with the Holy Father. We had secured a coveted place on the lawn right in front of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. Our backpacks were stuffed to the brim with holy items ready to be blessed.

As we sat on the grass, munching away at snacks, a startling wave of screams pierced through the chilly air. The pope was coming.

And we were all eating. The amount of chaos that ensued cannot be expressed.

People were jumping over blankets, over strollers, over other people.

Several boys had even climbed a tree. Pope Francis drove by, waving, smiling, and making the sign of the cross. As he zipped through the barricaded streets, people followed.

Hundreds of deacons filed out of the cathedral as the time for receiving the Eucharist grew closer. Accompanying them were yellow umbrellas that bounced along, signaling where each deacon was. After receiving the Eucharist, every single person around me knelt and prayed to God. It was humbling.

At the end of Mass, Pope Francis blessed our holy items. As we held our items in our hands, we glanced at one another, knowing that this was only the beginning of our spiritual journeys. A fellow classmate, Abigail Mynatt, said later, “Going on this trip made me want to learn more about God. It was amazing to see how many others believe the same thing.”

No matter where we are, the Church will always be there. It is sturdy, comforting, but most importantly, it is universal. To travel to see the leader of our faith, to see it really alive in one person, is an experience that cannot be felt through the screen of a television.

In closing, I am thankful for this opportunity given to me, and for each person who accompanied me on this wonderful trip.

To see Pope Francis with my own eyes and realize that I am infinitely loved by the Lord and part of the Body of Christ, is something that I will carry with me to college.

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