World Meeting of Families: one heavenly pilgrimage

In their words: Once-in-a-lifetime trip to see Pope Francis becomes a divine adventure for which thanks is given

By Luis Gabriel Velasco

Diocese of Knoxville pilgrims pause for a group photo at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. More than 100 adults and youth from across the diocese attended the event Sept. 23-27 in Philadelphia that was led by Pope Francis.

Mindful that “we are pilgrims, not tourists,” a diverse group of 72 Diocese of Knoxville parishioners embarked on a most heavenly adventure Sept. 23 to see Pope Francis.

Having departed early from St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City, our long-awaited bus ride to the historic city of Philadelphia took 12 hours. The pilgrims, diverse in culture and age from around the diocese, were on an incredible journey of faith, fellowship, and enlightenment for the World Meeting of Families 2015.

Quite frankly, I did not know what to expect from this pilgrimage because it was my first time traveling to and participating in an event of this kind. I anxiously hoped to gain some rest, along with everyone else, for the exciting days to come. Excitement grew as we finally arrived at our hotel after hours aboard the buses.

Waking up early to get to the Philadelphia Convention Center for our first day at the WMOF was somewhat nerve-racking for me, because I knew we would be enclosed with thousands of other people from around the world.

Indeed, a spectacle of fellow Catholics — religious, clergy, families, youth, and even many from other faiths — vividly represented the cultural backgrounds up and down the aisles.

As we gathered around our seats in preparation for morning Mass, I could feel an attitude of solemnity among all of the thousands of people in attendance.

Then cardinals, bishops, priests, and deacons began processing toward the altar in a beautiful line to commence Mass. I never had participated in such a unique and divine Mass, and this was only the first of the daily Masses.

After the morning Mass, we were ready to begin the different WMOF sessions presented by a diverse group of people from around the globe. One of the sessions in which I assisted was led by Dr. Scott Hahn, the renowned U.S. Catholic theologian, who spoke about “Unearthing God’s Covenant.”

Another keynote session was presented by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, archbishop of Manila in the Philippines. His presentation was powerfully moving and memorable. He spoke about “The family: A home for the wounded heart,” delivering a message to be instruments of healing to those wounded spiritually, morally, and psychologically. His remarks were warmly received by the audience.

On the second day at the convention center, being in the midst of many different people all sharing one mission of love through faith was joyous and allowed me to feel the unity and universality of our faith. It still is a wonderful emotion.

On Friday, Sept. 25, we pilgrims from the Diocese of Knoxville visited two of the many shrines located in Philadelphia, making our first stop at the Shrine of St. John Neumann, an early father of Philadelphia and patron saint of immigrants. It was a special moment to share with the relics and body of St. John, as many of us on this pilgrimage have come to this nation as immigrants or from immigrant descendants. Later, we visited the Shrine of St. Rita of Cascia, patroness of impossible causes.

As we traveled through Philadelphia I noticed the bond within our group grew stronger; we were becoming more self-giving.

Saturday suddenly arrived and with it a different kind of rhythm to what we had been doing.

From right, Father Arthur Torres Barona, Father
Colin Blatchford and Father Scott Russell, all of the Diocese of Knoxville, are shown at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia with
Father Fredy Bonilla Moreno of the Diocese of Portland, Ore.

From peaceful weather in the morning to a chilly wind in the evening, we marched along with joy and passion. We made our way, tired yet enthusiastic, to share ground with the vicar of Christ himself. What an opportunity!

Standing in the crowd, I couldn’t help but notice a remarkable gift of grace as the rosary was being prayed in different languages, but in one language of faith. There, I waited with many in our group as the hours passed until the arrival of the bishop of Rome, our Holy Father Pope Francis.

The crowds grew louder as Pope Francis paraded around the parkway. I was overcome by a sense of gratitude and wonder.

No one in my family has ever had such an incredible honor, and only a few weeks back I didn’t expect to be living it myself.

Listening to the words of Pope Francis as he delivered an improvised speech in Spanish, my native language, I was reassured in my faith as were the many pilgrims there and families around the world. I hold the words “do not be ashamed of your traditions” very closely. Coming from a very rich cultural background, it is very hard at times for me to express these traditions in our communities. His words were comforting and very heartfelt.

Our pilgrimage was coming to its end on Sunday, Sept. 27. I had mixed emotions as we once again marched down the parkway for the concluding Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.

The media was very present during the day. Some of our fellow pilgrims were even interviewed for local and national television, including Mrs. Enriqueta Ledesma, our eldest pilgrim at age 86 and a parishioner at St. Thomas the Apostle, who was interviewed by nationally known reporter Martin Berlanga of Telemundo. She said to him, “I thank God because I have the opportunity to see [the Pope] during my lifetime.”

While awaiting the papal Mass, I had the opportunity to take a few close-up photos of Pope Francis.

I have been very blessed to have had this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The Mass took place, a glorious extravaganza, with all the sounds and hymns, and a multitude of priests preparing for Communion as Pope Francis blessed all the faithful.

Being able to join this pilgrimage, living this experience, participating in the daily Mass, and listening to our pope address families with his words spoken in Spanish has certainly made this a heavenly adventure for me; a moment in my life that I will never forget and for which I will always be thankful to our Lord.

The Diocese of Knoxville pilgrims expressed gratitude to Lourdes Garza, Karen Byrne, Lisa Morris, and Marian Christiana for making all the arrangements for our pilgrimage. Gratitude also goes to Father Arthur Torres Barona of Sacred Heart Cathedral and Father Colin Blatchford of the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul for their enduring spiritual guidance. And thanks to our friends and fellow pilgrims for showing companionship and love to one another.

God bless us all, so that we may continue working together in our mission of love and to show our communities, in the words of Pope Francis, that “it’s worth being a family.”

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