The alarm went off at 6 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 27, waking Sara Larson and her husband, Mike. For the last week, the couple and their two children had been staying at the home of friends in a suburb outside Philadelphia.
The Larson family attended the World Meeting of Families, waking early each morning, taking the bus into the city and coming home late at night. On Sept. 26, the family decided to take the day off, because the next day was going to be big.
They normally attend Mass at SS. Peter and Paul Parish, Milwaukee, but on this day they were going to try to celebrate Mass with Pope Francis.
“Going to Philadelphia was so smooth; we were so impressed with how organized everything was,” Sara, child and ministry coordinator for SS. Peter & Paul Parish, said about taking a bus into the city. “The highways were completely empty, except for all the buses heading in.”
Four hours to cover four blocks
After arriving at the convention center where the World Meeting of Families had been taking place, the couple, with their sons, Sam, 12, and Benjamin, 9, took the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority train near to where the Mass was to be celebrated.
When they got off the train, they were about 15 blocks away from the security checkpoint.
“We walked probably 11 of those blocks just in the streets with people all heading in the same direction with lots of space and everyone was really excited,” Sara said. “And then we got to a road that was leading up to the security checkpoints … we spent about four hours covering four blocks to get to that security checkpoint. It was a long wait and we knew it would be, and the crowds were amazing; everyone was so friendly and joyful.”
They passed the time talking with each other and those around them. Mike, the visitor services manager at the Urban Ecology Center, prayed the rosary out loud to himself, but eventually people nearby started saying the rosary with them.
“We were very fortunate that we got through security just about 10 minutes before the pope came through in the papal procession,” Sara said.
Sam said he and his brother rushed to see Pope Francis.
“Many people let us through because we’re kids and that was really great of them,” he said.
Once they got close enough, it became the highlight of the trip.
“We saw the popemobile coming and we saw Pope Francis and he did the sign of the cross for our section and blessed us, and it was probably the best thing on that entire trip for me,” Sam said. “I felt like I was united with everyone who loved him and wanted to see him and I got to see him. He’s probably my hero, I guess. It was really great to see someone who I really respect and like so much.”
The experience wasn’t lost on Benjamin.
“I felt really blessed because it’s like a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Benjamin said. “He blessed our section, then he waved to us and we waved back.”
Leading up to this trip, Sara and Mike prepared their children for the crowds and the long wait by relating it to a pilgrimage. In 2002, when Sara was a student at Marquette and Mike attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, they took a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Toronto, where they celebrated Mass with Pope John Paul II. It changed them forever, she said.
“It really shaped our understanding of the church,” Sara said. “We really wanted our kids to have an experience like that.”
Emphasis on pilgrimage
As the date for the trip approached, they said daily morning prayers as a family and talked about pilgrimage, defining it as a time to place trust in God, even when the future is uncertain. But waiting in line on your feet can be exhausting and they harkened back to rules they learned on that first pilgrimage.
“Rule number one is don’t complain and rule number two is don’t complain,” Sara said. “A little bit of suffering is always OK, but they did a great job and they got the spirit of it.”
The boys missed seven days of school at Catholic East Elementary School, where Sam is in eighth grade and Benjamin in fourth grade, but they’re excited to tell their classmates what they experienced.
“It wasn’t really a vacation; it was more of a pilgrimage and the differences between pilgrimage and vacation is pilgrimages are more about praying and talking to God in prayer and vacations are kind of just for fun,” Benjamin said.
Sam said he’s been on long road trips and is used to traveling.
“This is the first pilgrimage that I’ve been on, those other things were vacations, kind of fun experiences, and this is fun but it was mostly for God and going to see the pope and celebrate Mass,” Sam said. “We were doing it all for God. It wasn’t as hard as it would’ve been if we were just standing in line for no reason at all.”
Community, not crowd
As the popemobile made its way through the crowds, and Sara and Mike watched their kids rush to the front of their section, the two of them stood on a bench to get a better view.
“I was overcome with emotion seeing (Pope Francis); I was crying when he went by,” Sara said. “I think he just radiates God’s love.”
In addition to the 2002 World Youth Day trip, Sara was in Rome with a friend in 2005 for the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
“I’ve seen every pope in my lifetime,” Sara said. “What was so beautiful about (this experience) was I got to share it with my whole family.”
From the beginning of the trip, there were no guarantees they would get to see Pope Francis.
“When we were making arrangements to get to Philadelphia on Sunday, all we knew was we were going with this parish that was near our friends’ house,” Mike said. “Sara and I were mentally and physically prepared to walk five miles from the station where our bus was going to drop us off, to the papal Mass, and then walk back at night.”
They told the children what could happen.
“We told the kids, ‘We’re on this bus, but if we’re not able to get through the crowds to get back in time and they have to leave, we might have to spend the night in Philadelphia, like, on the streets,’” Mike said. “Of course, they were super excited about that. I think they were kind of disappointed we didn’t get to do that.”
During the Mass, the feeling in the crowd was unlike anything the Larsons had felt before, they said.
“The crowd has this love for the pope and he just exudes it back,” Mike said. “It felt more like a community than like a crowd.”