One Pilgrim’s Journey: From Immaculate Conception to the Holy Father

By Joe McHugh

On Sunday, Sept. 27, Pope Francis held a Mass in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. I was blessed that my local parish, Immaculate Conception in Revere, organized a pilgrimage and I was able to go.

This is one pilgrim’s story.

On Saturday night, Sept. 26, we gathered at Immaculate Conception. Father Daniel Lazo offered us a blessing and warned us that pilgrimages could be physically very trying; he implied that this aspect was part of their value.

He would prove to be correct.

The group was nervous with anticipation. It was heartening to see several whole families traveling together.
We loaded into the bus at midnight. I dislike bus trips, and despite being very tired, I couldn’t sleep. We arrived in Philadelphia around 7 a.m. We took a short subway trip and then it was about a 30-40 minute walk through downtown Philadelphia to the area where the Mass was going to be held.

With assistance, I found a grassy spot along the parkway where Pope Francis was to come by in his “pope-mobile.” Despite being there early, I was still five rows back from the street.
It was a long day. I slept, read and chatted with new friends. There was a flood of immigrants from all different parts of the world. I also was impressed by the large number of college-age, native-born kids I saw. They were alive with anticipation. I saw young guys with “The Pope is Dope” t-shirts and “Francis is my Homeboy.”
Then, finally, around 3 p.m., a buzz of electricity went through the crowd as we saw various Cardinals coming by on golf carts and we knew the Holy Father was close. Around 3:15 p.m., his figure appeared on the giant screen in his “pope-mobile.” The crowd turned from electric to ecstatic.

He passed by us for a moment.

But it all happened so fast as I was blown-away emotionally just by that small glimpse and his blessing. The woman in front of me started sobbing and was embraced by her older children.

Faces turned radiant.
Mass began at 4 p.m.. The altar was several miles away but they had screens and loudspeakers set up. The throng was reverent and sang what they could and gave all the responses.
I was disappointed that the Holy Father gave his homily in Spanish because I couldn’t see the subtitles on the screen. Later I read that he lectured on doing “the little things” in the family to cement bonds. He said these activities, such as an extra hug, reading to your child, a special day out, preparing a special meal, are often overlooked in families. His words could easily be seen as trite, especially considering some of the grander themes he has emphasized.

But my God was he correct!

These types of things are easily overlooked. Parents get caught up in rushing their children to get ready in the morning, rushing them to the bus, rushing themselves to work and rushing the kids at night to get the homework done. And then we’re rushing them off to bed. Weekends are just as rushed.

Off to soccer, off to the car wash, and even off to church. These are important things, but the Holy Father is right: without the “little” things, family life can suffer tremendously and wither.

How does Francis know these things?
At communion time, I was surprised when I saw an army of priests bringing the Eucharist to our area. We weren’t directly at the Mass site so I didn’t think they would bring the Eucharist down the parkway, but they did. Hundreds of priests came by. It was impossible to organize distribution, so the clerics simply went up to the barricades. Crowds of people jostled to make sure they could receive. Hungry hands stretched out as far as they could to take the Host. I was pushed and jostled by enthusiastic young people trying to get near.


Afterwards, thousands were waiting to get into the subway. It took three hours of standing but I noticed no one seemed angry. There were no complaints, even among the elderly and the infirm. This was a real miracle. I was surprised to see a member of the College of Cardinals, also waiting with the rabble and as cheerful as the rest. There was not a hint of resentment. Some in the crowd sang.

I met a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate. He introduced himself as Brother Alex. Being exhausted I said “I’m Brother Joe.” Then I corrected myself and said “not brother, just Joe.”

“We’re brothers in courage” he responded.

I hope so. As the physical exhaustion drifted away and my bones healed, I realized that I had witnessed a miracle. Several million people gathered under very physically trying circumstances to cheerfully catch a glimpse of a rather homely looking man and the masses listened raptly as he told them to hug their kids more.


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