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Pope Francis inspires Holy Cross pilgrims from ND

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Friday, March 22, 2013

Notre Dame students and Moreau seminarians got more than they expected during their spring break pilgrimage to Rome, when rearranging their entire itinerary allowed them to be in St. Peter’s Square to watch the announcement of the new pope. 

Fr. James Gallagher, vocations director for the Congregation of Holy Cross, led a group of three seminarians and 12 male undergraduate students who are discerning vocations to the priesthood on a weeklong trip to Italy. The group joined the thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square the evening of March 13 to witness the first moments of Francis’ papacy. 

Gallagher said trip plans were underway before Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI announced his resignation in February. News of the conclave made the pilgrimage “a special thing this time around,” he said.

The group visited Assisi before returning to Rome in time for the beginning of the conclave on March 12.  Together, they fit daily trips to the Square into their schedule in order to watch the smoke signals.

“On Tuesday, when the conclave was starting, they had the Mass at St. Peter’s and we were able to go to Mass with the cardinals,” Gallagher said. “It was incredible to be there and to recognize that only once every papacy do all the cardinals in the world come together like that.

Gallagher said he got a sense of the universality of the Church during the Mass, as well as the profound connections that link Catholics across the ages.

“One of the things that occurred to me during Mass was that for the Eucharistic Prayer, they used prayer number one, which has a litany of the saints. Some of those saints have been popes themselves,” he said. “Being there at the Mass, it occurred to me that it’s not just a group of [cardinals] doing an election, but the whole Church is involved through their prayers [and] invested in what’s going on, including these previous popes.”

Freshman Brian Herrmann said the group had just left another Mass in the Basilica when the smoke was sighted – the timing was perfect.

“We were told that if the bells started ringing [to announce the white smoke], the priest would cut to the chase, distribute communion and run out of the Basilica,” Hermann said.

Senior Pablo Quan said the stretch of time spent waiting in St. Peter’s Square produced a “mix of anxiety and excitement.”

“It was very exciting, and I felt a great connection to the universal Church,” Quan said. “I saw people from many different countries speaking all kinds of languages, but with one same faith. Everyone was waiting for the same thing.” 

Gallagher said the group ended up standing so close to the balcony window where the new pope would later appear, they were unable to see the actual smoke.

“We were thinking to ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice, we’re up close, wouldn’t that be something if it happened now,'” he said. “So the smoke comes out and everybody starts cheering, but the moment of confirmation is when the bells started ringing, so that was when we were thinking, ‘This is it.’

Herrmann said the sound of the bells ringing is especially vivid in his memory. 

“The large bell tolled once, twice, and the rest joined in,” Herrmann said. “In the distance, the bells of all the churches in Rome all started ringing their notes. [I knew] that all around the world, the bells of every Catholic church were ringing too.”

Gallagher said the group prayed a rosary while waiting for the announcement, joined by several surrounding people. He also said once the announcement came he was unable to hear it over the noise of the crowd.

“It was funny because when the announcement was first made that we had a pope and they said his name, it was hard to hear both with the cheering and the sound system,” Gallagher said. “In the end, one of my brother priests had texted me to ask ‘are you there’ and I said ‘Yes, who is [the pope]?’ because we had heard Francis but didn’t know which cardinal it was.”

The pilgrimage is intended to facilitate the discernment process for the students by allowing them to visit holy sites and taking time to pray while exploring the Church’s center, Gallagher said.

“It’s not a tour of Rome, it’s a pilgrimage,” Gallagher said. “We try to go and see most of the major religious sites and also to take time for prayer. In the busyness of the school year, it’s tough for guys to kind of slow down and think about things, pray about things, so going away and taking time in some of these holy places gives them the time to do so.”

Quan said he already feels a great connection to Francis because he witnessed the first moments of Francis’ papacy.

“I knew it was such an important event and a truly once-in-a-lifetime thing, I couldn’t just let it pass as just one other moment in my life,” Quan said. “I have to react and do something about it. … It inspired me to get a little bit more involved with the Church in the future and follow the pope’s theology and contributions.

He said the entire experience was “a great blessing,” and for him it connected the current historic moment with the centuries of Church tradition.

“To see the tomb of St. Peter, the first pope, and then to be there for the election of Pope Francis, it’s amazing to see just how long the Church has been alive,” Quan said. “It’s a different time now, but the Church is just as alive now as it was a century after Jesus died.”

Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pontiff in Church history, and Gallagher said while Jesuit spirituality differs from the Holy Cross spirituality of his order, there are several interesting overlaps. The motto of the Congregation of Holy Cross is “Hail the Cross, Our Only Hope,” and Gallagher said he noted a similar theme in one of the pope’s first homilies. 

“If you look at the conclusion of the pope’s homily at his installation Mass, he talks a lot about hope, about being people with hope to bring,” Gallagher said. “Hope is a big part of the Holy Cross message, so it was wonderful to see him talking about people of hope in the homily.”

Another connection is evident in the symbols Francis selected for his papal crest, Gallagher said, which include marks that represent Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

“Holy Cross has a great devotion to the Holy Family, and those are the three symbols represented on the pope’s crest,” he said. “Holy Cross and Jesuit spirituality are different, but it’s been very interesting to see the things this pope is going to press. Devotion to the Holy Family and the need to be people of hope connects with Holy Cross spirituality for sure.”

Gallagher said as a priest, he looks at the office of the papacy as having dual responsibilities of leadership and teaching.

“Part of the teaching aspect is constantly helping us to understand who Christ is and what it means to follow Him, and the leadership is to then show us the way to do that,” he said. “It will take a little time to learn who [Pope Francis] is and what it is he has to teach, but it seems like right off the bat it’s charity and love that are his main things, especially for the poor and those in need.

“It’s always a challenging message … and it seems like he’s going to constantly challenge us to grow in charity and be attentive to the needy in our midst. It seems like he’s really going to lead by example as well, so I think it’s a good challenge to see someone in authority try taking that on as well. It can be a great lesson for us as priests, and he can give us a great example.”

Gallagher said the pilgrimage participants are often inspired and encouraged by the tangible history of the Vatican.

“I think one of the most powerful things about this pilgrimage is that you see men and women who have given their lives in service to the Church, which is often the most daunting thing when you’re talking about vocations,” he said. “We visit the tombs of St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Francis … and to see the witness and the profound effect that these people have had can be a bit of encouragement for the guys.

“If we make those sacrifices, the Lord can do great things with it, so seeing the great men who have gone before really encourages these guys to trust in the Lord.”