Students from Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross will ride in buses for 24 hours this weekend to spend just 12 hours in Philadelphia and join 1.5 million people from across the country to celebrate Mass with Pope Francis.
According to Notre Dame junior Emily David, one of the student coordinators of the Papal Pilgrimage, 500 students and faculty members will leave from South Bend in nine buses Saturday afternoon, with plans to return Monday morning.
Fr. Pete McCormick, director of Notre Dame Campus Ministry, said the journey is a unique opportunity for students to engage in the international Catholic community.
“This is a pilgrimage — it’s not just a trip to go see the pope,” McCormick said. “There’s a distinct sense that we are leaving here, with the intent of joining and being a part of a prayerful experience with the pope. It’s a moment where we encounter Pope Francis, but we also encounter the Church universal.”
Students were first given the opportunity to sign up for the Papal Pilgrimage last May. The spots filled up by June, David said, so the pilgrimage had a 100-person waiting list.
David said she is excited to be a part of such a historic event.
“There’s going to be over a million people there, so who knows how much sightseeing we’ll get to do,” she said. “Some people may just stake out their spots for the Mass early on. Some people might go get a Philly cheesesteak.”
Regina Wilson, director of Campus Ministry at Saint Mary’s, said 40 students and five faculty members from the College will make the trip to Philadelphia.
Wilson said participants should view the trip as an opportunity to grow spiritually.
“Young people, of course, are the future of the Church, and Francis gives many people a vision of what we hope the future church will look like,” Wilson said. “We hope that they come back with a renewed sense of being called to serve others and be missionary disciples to our community.”
McCormick said he believes students will grow in faith with each other during the pilgrimage.
“There’s this real sense of the faith that has led them to give up a Notre Dame football weekend, to be a part of this Mass, even though it’s going to have sacrifices that it will entail,” he said. “There are gifts that will come that we can’t anticipate — and that’s what I’m most excited for.”
Pope Francis’s itinerary also included Washington D.C. and New York City during his first trip to the U.S., a visit that holds significance in the eyes of the public as it waits to hear the pope’s message to Americans, McCormick said.
“I think that he will, coming to the United States, have particular topics that he will want to touch upon,” he said. “The encyclical may be one of them. … I think we can anticipate typical Pope Francis in terms of his real emphasis on living the faith authentically. But at the same time, there’s going to be woven elements of ‘Laudato Si’’ in there as well.”
Pope Francis will tour Philadelphia in his Popemobile on Sunday morning, McCormick said. There will be jumbo screens set up around the city, he said, for the crowds to see the pope.
According to Wilson, students should take advantage of the chance to see Pope Francis because he lives an exemplary Catholic life.
“He is joyful and generous with his affection and time,” Wilson said. “He preaches in a way that is accessible to people and engaging. These are all things that attract people to him and ultimately to Christ.”
She said attendees can practice solidarity as they interact with other pilgrims who share a common faith.
“The environment in Philadelphia, we hope and expect, will be a palpable public testimony of Christ,” Wilson said. “We expect that there will be a great deal of faith sharing going on in Philadelphia and that all the pilgrims will grow through interaction with other people of faith.”
David said she sees Pope Francis as a role model for people around the world, regardless of their religious beliefs.
“He speaks so much to the core of what it means to be a human person, and a big part of that is being present with other human people,” she said. “So just kind of encouraging being present with one another, living simply with one another, embracing differences in one another.”
David said Campus Ministry sent out emails to pilgrims in the days leading up to the trip as part of its “Nine Days to Follow Francis” initiative. Each email contains a theme, prayer, reflection and suggested action for the day.
Campus Ministry also hosted an event called “Papal Pancakes” on Thursday morning, where students were invited to watch Pope Francis’s Congressional address, David said.
Saint Mary’s sophomore Maeve Sullivan said she looks forward to embarking on the pilgrimage with fellow Belles.
“It’s at a point in my life where it’s an important thing to do,” Sullivan said. “I’m excited to go with women like me who are willing to grow in their faith. I’m excited to be impacted in the way God wants me to be impacted.”
Sullivan said she approaches this journey with no expectations, and she trusts in God to give her a fulfilling experience.
“[Pope Francis] is trying to build up the current Catholic faith and the people within it,” Sullivan said. “I’m just excited to be in his presence and listen to what he has to say. It’s once-in-a-lifetime.”
According to Sullivan, the pilgrimage to Philadelphia can foster community among all Catholics as they share in a unifying experience.
“Catholicism is a faith that unites,” Sullivan said. “It is a community. We all have the same basis of beliefs. We’re all able to experience different things and grow from one another.”
McCormick said the pilgrimage allows students to see Pope Francis exemplify what it means to live out the Catholic faith.
“What Pope Francis has done is communicate small ways that any Catholic can practice their faith,” he said. “It doesn’t take a theology degree to be grateful, or to be merciful or to express compassion. … I think that there’s an authenticity that people relate with by virtue of the fact that his words match with his actions.”