‘Encounter’ high priority of trip to D.C.
Guest commentary by Andrew Polaneicki
Several months ago when I was enjoying the quiet summer days and before the Francis-in-the-U.S. hype had come across my radar, I received a message from a priest friend in D.C. inviting me to come assist at the papal Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception where Junipero Serra would be canonized. Because I am an instituted acolyte I was told I could be of great assistance for Communion and the handling of the Blessed Sacrament.
Seeing this as a great opportunity to enrich my faith, I decided to teammate with Holy Cross College Professor Michael Griffin and planned a five-day trip to our nation’s capital. In addition to assisting at the Mass, we planned numerous other engagements, including talks and presentations at several area high schools, a gathering with young Holy Cross alums in the area and a ticket arrangement at the capitol terrace for the papal addresses.
After returning home from the trip I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked, “How close did you get to the pope and did you touch him?” Unfortunately, I did not touch the pope and I did not really even get that close.
Seeing the pope from a short distance was truly inspiring and of course I would have loved to have a close and intimate encounter with our Holy Father. However, at the same time I did not see an intimate encounter with Francis as the objective of the trip as my take-away from the entire experience ended up resting within the notion of encounter with the people that I met.
During the five-day trip, I literally engaged hundreds of people, all who had a thought or a comment about Pope Francis. At the high schools we visited, Michael Griffin and I interacted with students ranging from some of the most well-off in our country to those that are on the margins. We talked to locals in the Metro Stations, visitors from other countries, Catholics and non-Catholics. We engaged our Uber drivers, local baristas and airport workers.
It is hard to make any generalizations about what Francis meant for those we encountered, but the story of a young woman Mary (not her real name) probably can sum it up best. Mary was a young woman who was invited to be a volunteer at Communion at the canonization Mass of Junipero Serra. When I asked her during our practice session for the Mass what her job was she somewhat embarrassingly said she was a part-time assistant to an office worker at a church in D.C. I of course dismissed the idea that this was a job to be embarrassed about because it is people like Mary who are the backbone of the Church.
In all, there were nearly 400 people that I helped to assist and coordinate during Communion (180 deacons, 180 Communion escorts, and another 40 or so volunteer ushers) and I would probably not have noticed Mary during the Mass itself except that I could see that she was weeping throughout the Mass as her gaze was transfixed on Pope Francis at the altar.
After Mass, I had the chance to ask Mary if she was all right and if she needed anything. She explained recently that she had not been well and so that just being at the Mass was a moment of overwhelming joy. Explaining further she said, “The thing is, I have struggled with a health disorder since I was 12 and I have spent a good amount of my life feeling alone, sad and thinking that I am a bad person. The only time I don’t think I am a bad person is when I am close to Jesus in prayer. Christ is the invisible head of the Church and Pope Francis is the visible head. Being here today is a reminder to myself that I am not a bad person and that Christ loves me despite this terrible cross that I bear. I just didn’t want to ever stop looking at that man.”
Each of us have crosses that we bear and I think Pope Francis has been able to stir the hearts of so many and garner so much attention because his authentic witness to the Gospel is dripping into the hearts of so many and filling a bit of the void and emptiness that we all experience.
Francis forces us to look inward at our emptiness and at the same time drives us in an outward manner encouraging us to drink of a well that will never run dry. The media and hype of Pope Francis in the U.S. will likely quickly fade, but my prayer is that the subtle stirring of the hearts of so many may lead individuals down a path where they are able to unite their crosses with the cross of Christ.