In the past year I have had the incredible opportunity to travel to 3 cities that have been on my "Top 5 Cities to See" list for my entire life: London, Rome, and Athens (the other two cities on that list being Cairo and St. Petersburg--in Russia, not Florida). It has been my dream to travel to London and I was blessed enough to live and study there for four months. Before going to the UK last fall, I had never left the country and had never done much traveling. It's surprising, then, that after a year of crossing things off my bucket list left and right, the most incredible journey took me to my own backyard, the great city of Philadelphia.
Pope Francis ended his visit to the US in the City of Brotherly Love with an outdoor mass celebrated on September 27. Hundreds of thousands of people flooded the streets in an attempt to see the head of the Catholic Church. My mother and I were lucky enough to share this experience with each other and see the Pope twenty feet away from us.
That's right; Pope Francis drove by in his popemobile twenty feet from us. Tears streamed down both of our faces as our voices were carried up to the heavens amid shouts of "Viva Papa Francisco!" Of course, as a Millennial, I captured the experience through social media, posting a video of Pope Francis driving by us to my Snapchat as well as sending it to some friends. One responded, knowing my perpetual emotional state of, well, emotional, with "Are you going to be okay?" and a very knowing look. I replied, my eyes rimmed in red and full of tears but at the same time glowing with happiness and full of love, "I've never been better."
I watched the Mass via Jumbotron from a perch in a tree, with the crowds spread out beneath me and a clear view of Pope Francis and the altar. During his homily, he stressed the importance of small gestures, of small everyday acts of kindness and love that help us grow in our faith and live our lives for God. He asked us to question how we did this--if we raised our voices in our home, if we taught our children to act in kindness towards everyone. I clung to the branch of my tree, tears of an unknown origin (joy? guilt? happiness? desperation?) once again streaming down my face. Pope Francis spoke about being a community, a community of Christ, and joining together in unity, especially for the children, and to think about the kind of world we wanted to leave for them.
When it came time for Communion, 350 deacons walked the parkway to distribute the Eucharist. Almost in a trance, everyone migrated to the barriers, hoping to be one of the lucky few. Somehow, I managed to get to the front as a deacon made his way over. I barely got out my "Amen" and accepted the host. I swallowed the Blessed Sacrament, walked back to where my mom and I had been standing, fell onto my knees in the dirt and prayed. I had just received the Body of Jesus Christ that had been consecrated by Pope Francis himself, and my heart was overflowing. It was a once in a lifetime event that I was experiencing half an hour from my home. Even now, I cannot describe to you my thoughts during the time spanning from the consecration to when I rose from the dirt. But God knows. God always knows.
I've since joked that the Pope and I are best friends. After all, I visited his home in Rome just last year and he came to visit me at mine last week. Unfortunately, while I was in Rome, I didn't get to see the pontiff, but I did sorta kinda get a picture with him.
Besides being an amazing year for my passport and physical journey around the world, it has been a moving journey for me in my faith. While I was in Rome, I went to the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, where I prayed and cried and prayed and cried and marveled at the global community I was a part of. That was the part of the experience I loved the most, in both countries; I was surrounded by family members, my brothers and sisters in Christ. We were all there to celebrate our faith, to profess our love for God, and to be united as one family.
So I did travel all the way to Rome and got to see sites important for my religion, but just as miraculously I got to see Pope Francis in a city I've known all my life, enveloped in a love I've felt just as long. In fact, I'm glad I didn't have the opportunity to see the pope while I was in Rome. I get to connect this fantastic memory to a city right down the street from me, and to share it with one of the most important people in my life. My mom has guided me through my religious education and relationship with God, and I'll never be able to find the words to thank her for this. For as long as I can remember, my mom has taught Sunday school and CCD, inspiring me to do the same. She has always told me that we should pray for those who hurt us, that that is one of the greatest signs of strength. She taught me all my prayers and whispered Hail Mary's with me when I was sick or upset and couldn't sleep. She taught me about forgiveness, about love, about growing into a good, kind, strong, loving person. Pope Francis was here for the World Meeting of Families, and I'm honored to have shared it with my family. He spoke in his homily about small acts of love and kindness, how these were important in living a life for God, and I looked down at my mom and thought about everything she has done for me, our family, and our community. Pope Francis said "we are capable of boundless generosity," and I knew he was talking about my mother.
Thank you Mom, for loving me and teaching me about God's love. Thank you Philadelphia, for welcoming Pope Francis to our home and giving so many the opportunity to see the man who gives them hope. Thank you Pope Francis, for preaching about love and acceptance to a generation who has never known a time of peace. Thank you to the hundreds of thousands of strangers I stood with during that long Sunday, for showing me how big my family is and for sharing the experience with me.