What I Learned from Attending the Papal Mass in Philadelphia

Pope Francis in Philadelphia September 26, 2015 a katz / Shutterstock.com

Pope Francis in Philadelphia September 26, 2015
a katz / Shutterstock.com

Since we only live a few hours away, we decided at the last minute to attend the Papal Mass in Philadelphia. Making an appearance with our kids to this event—no matter how historic—made no sense.

We did not have tickets.

We have six children, one of whom is a toddler capable of shattering glass with his high-pitched screams.

Two million people were expected in Philadelphia so the likelihood of even catching a glimpse of the pope was slim.

Bathrooms and food vendors would be at a premium and the lack of facilities and nourishment would be both daunting and challenging with small children in tow.

The highways were shut down on Friday, making driving into they city almost impossible.

And we knew that even if we made it into the City of Brotherly Love, we would have to stand around waiting for Mass to begin, rubbing elbows with complete strangers while the kids whined with boredom.

The entire experience didn’t seem appealing.

At all.

But I was dead set on going.

I did not desire to attend the Mass because I’m heroic or because I’m some awesome Catholic.

I attended because I was convicted that the effort to go would communicate a powerful, but unspoken message to my children: though the mainstream media will tell you Christianity is dead, that the Catholic faith is backwards and archaic and so is the grey haired man in Rome, the witness of the massive numbers of people who showed up to welcome Pope Francis illustrates a far different story.

Seeing all those pilgrims in the flesh would convey to my children—without uttering one single syllable—that Catholicism today is indeed alive and well.

The night before we left, though, my husband and I questioned (again) our sanity and decision to attend. One of my children started running a low-grade fever and the water pump in the house quit working, leaving us with no water at all for pre-Mass showers. Then, when my husband called the train station to verify that we would be able to get into the city, the man on the phone told him not to bother.

“Stay home and watch it from your couch,” he said.

We felt discouraged and wondered if were doing the right thing. We waffled for a few minutes, but ultimately decided to ignore the mounting inconveniences and the Intel from the transit guy.

The next morning, armed with four of our six children, enough snacks and water to feed a third world country, and some close family friends, we set out in our gigantic passenger vans for the Papal Mass.

The hardest part of the day was the over five-hour wait in line outside of the security gate. At 4 p.m. when the Mass began, our spirits flagged as we realized we might not get into the public area where the Mass was being held.

My dear friend and companion for the day, Alexis, had warned me earlier in the week that we might not receive Communion.

“I’ve been to Papal Masses where I didn’t receive,” she informed me. “Plus, who knows if we will even get into the gates?”

When I realized Alexis was probably right and we wouldn’t receive Communion, my spirit sank a little.

Everyone’s spirit sank a little.

“What will I tell the kids? Why did we come?” I asked the adults in our group,

I worried my children would be confused because we traveled so far to stand in a line. We could hear the faint, ethereal sounds of the choir singing the hymns but we couldn’t see a thing, save for the sea of people surrounding us.

My friend, John responded first,

“St. Peter was a screw-up, Colleen. He made lots of mistakes, but he showed up. He was in the Garden at Gethsemane. He was in the Upper Room and he was at the Transfiguration. We’re acting like St. Peter today. We’re showing up because marriage and family are important. We’re showing up because our faith is important. Showing up is half the battle.”

We were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with pilgrim/strangers, some of them pushing us aggressively so they could get through the gates. Our ten children were playing at our feet, trying to keep themselves entertained, but they were tired of standing. All of us were hungry and thirsty.

The outcome of our journey didn’t look good.

But John’s words renewed my enthusiasm a bit—we were walking in the feet of St. Peter. Despite our personal brokenness, we had shown up for the Papal Mass and our presence counted for something.

Surprisingly, at 5:30 p.m. we finally made it through security.

Alexis suggested we push our way through to get up to the barricaded street so we might catch a better glimpse of the jumbotron showcasing the Mass.

She led the charge and we all followed her—the six adults and ten children in our group—and within a few moments we emerged with a clear view of the barricaded street.

People were everywhere: some kneeling on the ground, some choosing to stand and pray. Others were mouthing silently the words to the hymns. Some were standing atop the statues adorning the streets. Some were taking photographs, but everyone was calm and content.

When we looked into the barricaded streets, all of a sudden we noticed a sea of white and yellow umbrellas with the Vatican logo on them.

“It’s Jesus, Colleen” Alexis whispered. “Do you see the priests? They are walking under those umbrellas carrying Communion. Jesus is everywhere! He’s everywhere! Look! We can receive.”

We had arrived just in time for the Eucharist.

I grabbed the hands of two of my children and dragged them to the barricade. Around me, the same people who had pushed my family aggressively in the security line where now pushing me towards Christ so that we could eat Him. They were making space at the barricade for all of the hungry pilgrims frantic for Jesus.

The atmosphere of tension and aggression outside the gate had changed to an atmosphere of peace and unity inside it.

I waved the priest down so he would give us Jesus. Like a beggar, I stretched out my dirty hands and mouth to receive the body of Christ and I took him into my own.

Distributing Holy Communion Philadelphia Papal Mass

Receiving Holy Communion
Philadelphia Papal Mass

“Lord, I am not worthy for you to enter under my roof, but only say the words and I shall be healed.”

Though I had driven to Philadelphia to see Francis, as soon as I ate the body and blood of Christ, I realized my soul needed Jesus.

I was a beggar amongst beggars and we were all starving for Him.

I wept in the street.

Every Sunday I attend mass at my well-to-do parish, surrounded by beautiful statues of the saints, stunning liturgy, and a well-trained choir. Yet I sit lethargic and spiritually numb, struggling to pray the entire time. My physical comfort keeps me blinded, unaware of the severity of my impoverished soul.

But this past Sunday, with my comfort stripped bare, I had a spiritual experience at Communion like I’ve never had before.   I stood on that dirty, cramped thoroughfare in the middle of Philadelphia and I waited in line for hours, with little food and drink to sustain me, and Christ came to me.

He came to me, as the beggar I truly am, and I had nothing to offer Him but my love.

“But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…” (Luke 14:13)

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About the Author

Colleen Duggan

Colleen Duggan is a popular writer for Catholic media and her work has appeared in both Catholic Digest and RTJ’s Creative Catechist magazine. For almost two years, she was a bi-monthly blogger for CatholicDigest.com and her articles have also appeared online at CatholicMom, Faith and Family Live, RTJ’s Creative Catechist, GeniusMom, and the K4J Family Blog.

Colleen holds a Master in Education from the University of Notre Dame and has spent the last 12 years teaching religious education classes, running Bible studies, and giving talks on Catholic spirituality at the parish level.

Despite any professional and educational accomplishments, Colleen believes her most important job is as a wife and mom to 6 kids. Check out her website (link below) where she pontificates about potty training and the art of messy housekeeping.

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8 Comments

  1. The children will remember this experience. It’s a very strong catechesis: an experience of being in communion with the universal church.

  2. That was amazing, Colleen. And to think that you’re in America, which to us foreigners, seem to be doing everything to remove all traces of the Catholic faith from its collective consciousness. Your narrative and experiences enforce my faith that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church, in America or anywhere else. God bless you and your family.

  3. Pope Francis came to the Philippines only some months back. I and a friend woke up at 2 AM to attend a mass he would be officiating at the grounds of The University of Sto. Tomas here in Manila. We landed in a queue which lasted for 5 long hours when the gates had closed because the venue was already jam-packed. We never had a glimpse of the Pope that day. Nevertheless I was tirelessly up that whole day as later on I got myself glued in front of our home TV set watching all the Pope’s activities that day. There was supernatural feeling.

  4. Thank you for your beautiful words. I felt as if I was there experiencing it with you in the crowd of pilgrims. Tears filled my eyes in anticipation of seeing Jesus.

  5. Having traveled in for the Festival Saturday night (which I hope my kids formed some lasting memories of) we stayed home for the Papal Mass but loved watching all those umbrellas out into the crowd.

  6. This brought tears to my eyes. The way you put things into words is a gift. I have 2 close friends here in Baton Rouge who attended with all of their young children, and they both said it was just about the most difficult thing they’ve ever had to do as a married couple. They both cried when they read this. 🙂

  7. I applaud you for your effort. We took our family for the same reason – so our children would experience an environment where people were on fire for their faith. Half the battle in life is just showing up – you accomplished that mission and its impact will be powerful for your kids…

    God Bless

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