Bishop Michael Burbidge visited Catholic University last week during a trip to Washington, and as he walked across campus, students kept calling out, “Are you ready? Are you ready?”
Burbidge, leader of the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, knew they were asking about the highly anticipated arrival this week of Pope Francis in his first visit to the United States. Catholics from the across the country, including thousands from North Carolina, have been getting ready for months, planning to be in the audience in the cities Francis will visit.
They are pilgrims, hoping to share in a historical event and bask in a fellowship of believers.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Mary Jaskowiak, president of the Catholic Campus Ministry at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She is helping to organize a trip for about 20 of her classmates to a Mass the pope will lead in Philadelphia next Sunday.
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No one is keeping track of how many people will travel from the Triangle and beyond to catch the pope’s public appearances as he hops between Washington, New York and Philadelphia from Tuesday through Sunday. The bishop of the Raleigh Diocese will likely get to shake the pope’s hand in Washington. A priest from Chapel Hill will celebrate Mass with the pope in the nation’s capital, while some parishioners from the priest’s church plan to drive to Philadelphia. One will be there all week as a volunteer. A church in Siler City and a Catholic high school in Raleigh have chartered buses.
While their travel itineraries – and the proximity they will achieve with His Holiness – will vary, all share a desire to draw near to the worldwide leader of their faith, and to this leader in particular. Though not universally loved even among Catholics, Pope Francis’ views on social justice, the environment, humility and tolerance have garnered him a following beyond his church. More than 23 million people follow him on Twitter, according to the Vatican. There is a bobble-head doll in his image.
“I think any pope would create a certain excitement,” said Evyatar Marienberg, an associate professor of religious studies at UNC who specializes in contemporary Catholicism. “But this pope, because of his personality, because of what he stands for, and the idea that he not only talks the talk but walks the walk, he is extremely popular. He has shown something that people appreciate and find very attractive.”
Catholics began making plans to see Pope Francis as soon as the Vatican announced the trip last November. While the main purpose of his visit is to attend the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Francis also will meet with President Barack Obama and address Congress in Washington, and speak to the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
He will have several gatherings with church leaders and plans to visit a school, a prison and a charity operation. But his schedule also is packed with opportunities to see – and be seen by – the general public.
He will arrive in Washington on Tuesday afternoon. The next day, Francis will make a public appearance in a parade along the Ellipse and the National Mall, and hold a Canonization Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. He’ll speak to Congress and make a brief appearance outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday.
On Friday, he’ll be in New York, where the Popemobile will cruise through Central Park, with 80,000 people expected to line the route. Afterward, he’ll lead a Mass in Madison Square Garden.
As many as 2 million people are expected to attend events the following two days in Philadelphia, the highlights of which will be a Mass led by the pope on Saturday morning and his appearance at the Festival of Families that night, with another huge papal Mass on Sunday afternoon.
While some of the pope’s public appearances will not require tickets, groups planning pilgrimages have faced complicated logistics trying to arrange overnight accommodations and figure out where to park so that they can reach the events, or at least watch them on Jumbotrons in the host cities.
Last month, Philadelphia’s transit authority held a lottery for one-day rail passes during the pope’s visit. Jaskowiak and her friends, and their friends and families, all entered and were able to secure enough passes for their group. They also landed a $1,000 grant from UNCW to help pay for a rental van and gas. Once in Philadelphia, some in the group will stay in a hotel, and others will crash at the home of one of the campus ministry members.
Jaskowiak, a junior studying environmental science, has read the pope’s writings and is especially interested to hear what he says while he’s here about natural resources and climate change.
Jaskowiak said she and others in her group love Pope Francis and relate to him in ways they never did with his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
“I love that he really makes himself part of the world, he is out and about, he is hands-on,” Jaskowiak said. “He’s not just telling people, ‘This is what we should be doing.’ He’s doing it and being an example. He’s taking care of our planet because it’s what God gave us, and he’s taking care of the less fortunate.”
Students at Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons High School have been following news of Pope Francis since his election in 2013. Many of them follow him on Twitter (@Pontifex) and Instagram. Over the summer, the school decided to charter a bus to Philadelphia to take up to 40 students and about a half-dozen adults. When administrators announced the trip two weeks ago, the line to register went out the classroom door.
Junior Michael Hils, 16, of Apex, will make the trip, leaving at 11 p.m. Saturday night and arriving in Philadelphia in time for the pope’s afternoon Mass. The bus will roll back through the night on Sunday, returning to Raleigh before school on Monday.
“It’s historic,” Hils said. “And I see (Pope Francis) as a father figure. Being close to someone that holy would be a really amazing, memorable experience.”
Jason Curtis, principal at the school, said the students were especially excited that Burbidge will get to greet the pope during a brief meeting with the administrative committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Burbidge will get to shake hands with the pope at St. Martin’s Chapel, St. Charles Barromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, where Burbidge attended seminary.
It will not be Burbidge’s first encounter with Francis; they met in Rome in 2013. Burbidge also met Benedict XVI in Raleigh in 2012, and John Paul II in 1979.
Burbidge said Francis is remarkable in his ability to convey strong, sometimes controversial beliefs in a way that does not alienate those who disagree with him on issues such as abortion, immigration and the environment. He does that, Burbidge said, by holding to a message that is based in the Gospels and that is unchanging.
“The consistency of his teaching is that all of human life is sacred, from the moment of conception to natural death; that every single human being is God’s child and has a dignity that must be respected and upheld; that God’s creation is God’s gift to us and we are to be good stewards of the world in which we live; that those who are blessed have the obligation to take care of those in most need; and that all of us have the freedom to bring our beliefs and moral convictions into the public realm.”
Francis preaches those tenets, Burbidge said, “with a sense of joy, a sense of respect and compassion that ... touches your heart.”
Even if the nearest most people get to the pope during his visit is a video screen, Marienberg, the UNC professor, said it can be transformative for the faithful just to be in such a large fellowship of believers.
“Unlike other Christian denominations, where one is saved as an individual and has a personal relationship with Jesus, with Catholics, it’s a community. To be part of that community, to be there physically, can be very powerful.”