Friday, September 25, 2015

The Day the Pope Came to School: The Papal Visit of Francis at The Catholic University of America

          When I decided to go to The Catholic University of America in 2008 to begin my master’s degree in medieval history, I had selected the university for its sterling reputation as a center for those interested in the Middle Ages, rife with eminent professors who wanted to cultivate students’ interest in a historical period full of conflict, faith, invention, imagination, and change. As a cradle Catholic myself who flourished in a Jesuit undergraduate school (The College of the Holy Cross), it was icing on the cake to study at the university founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country with the approval of the Holy See. But as I finished my master’s, and then elected to stay at CUA for my doctorate, the fact that my graduate education was housed at THE Catholic University of America became increasingly important.
            I was on campus the day Pope Francis was elected and watched him emerge to the throngs at St. Peter’s Square.
March 13, 2013 - Jorge Mario Bergoglio's first moments as Pope Francis
As the golden banners came down around campus as we celebrated our new Holy Father, it was clear from the earliest moments of his papacy that he would enliven the church and the world. It was impossible to ignore his beautiful words, his pleas for social justice, and exhortations to love all people, creatures, and our beautiful planet.
            It was thrilling when it was announced that as part of his visit to Washington D.C., he would give Mass on the lawn of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which is adjacent to our campus at CUA. I’ve spent so many Sundays at the shrine, attending Mass, but also quiet moments during the week, between classes, praying at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. This was my church, my school, and our pope, the people’s pope, would be there.
            I spent this summer on campus writing my dissertation. My doctoral dissertation is called “The Voice of Mary: Later Medieval Representations of Marian Communication.” So for the past few years, I’ve been writing in the shadow of the basilica, thinking about the words of the Virgin Mary and her extensive power in medieval devotion. People actively sought to communicate with her and they viewed her as an effective intercessor. As I got deeper into the writing, it was easy to envision the parallels. Mary, who demonstrated quiet obedience when accepting the angel Gabriel’s message at the Annunciation, also spoke to people in the Middle Ages and stirred powerful outpourings of religious piety. Pope Francis, humble while functioning as the most powerful Catholic in the world, electrified the world and challenged an increasingly narcissistic society to change.
            In the quiet moments of the summer, amidst editing footnotes and constructing an effective argument, I would occasionally watch the Basilica, and in the dead of summer, the campus was quiet. How would 25,000 people fit here, and what would it look like? I tried to imagine this church, majestic and awe-inspiring place, one of the largest Catholic Churches, full to brimming with eager pilgrims, priests, students, families, all clamoring for a glimpse at il Papa. In the days leading up to His Holiness’s arrival, the excitement built on campus as pope fever swept through Brookland, DC’s “Little Italy.”
            I signed up to volunteer at the Mass, checking tickets for those who were seated on the lawn. I arrived at campus as the sun was coming up, excitement spread over the 1,000 volunteers who were eager to play a small role in this historic day.
In front of the Basilica, excited to volunteer for Mass
The sun’s golden rays framed the basilica, like a halo over this exalted shrine. After moving through security and making our way to the Basilica Lawn, a clear blue sky enveloped the campus, the light blues mixing beautifully with the blues and gold of the National Basilica. An artistic mosaic was met with the rich mosaic of people who were streaming across the lawn. I greeted families who flew in from California, nuns who bussed in from New York, even friends of mine from college – a Catholic reunion. As the hours passed, the lawn teemed with joy – everyone was brimming with excitement over meeting the Holy Father. Alongside me were metropolitan police and secret service. Snipers lined the buildings of our campus, protecting the Holy Father, the dignitaries, and the 25,000 others who just wanted to spend a few hours in communion with the pope.
            As word got out that the pope was to arrive soon, the barricades were closed, and security tightened up, preparing the route for the Popemobile. The gorgeous music accompanied the beautiful weather and landscape; God was the painter, conductor, of this day. The cheers grew louder and louder, crescendoing as he arrived on campus. Our campus, where students just the day before rushed to classes, rushed to the front of the barricades to greet the pope. I was at the corner, and I saw the secret service car preceding the Popemobile, as the cheers grew louder, as the white Jeep appeared before me.
I was this close to Pope Francis

            He was greeted like a rock star (this video by CUA shows the live version. The parade downtown wasn’t for a sports team, or a throng of millennials screaming for the latest boy band, but for a pious man who preached about caring for the poor, loving all without judgment, and doing unto others. And this humble man, dressed in white, waved and blessed the crowds, smiling modestly. Pope Francis’s presence was invigorating. I waved and waved as he rode by, grinning and a bit teary-eyed. Joy radiated throughout the campus. And then he did a victory lap, coming back our way and the palpable joy and wonder spread. I waved feverishly, so moved by the presence of this man, so filled with joy and hope, as faith welled up within me. Calling it magical sounds trite and understated. It was phenomenal. I was fifteen feet away with the Vicar of Christ, the heir to the keys of St. Peter’s. But those terms, majestic and accurate, would not be Pope Francis’s first choice of titles. He has carried himself with humility, embracing the role of servus servorum dei (Servant of the Servants of God), the people’s pope.
After the Popemobile tour, Francis entered the Basilica to process down the aisle. I had seen so many priests walk down that aisle, and it was remarkable to know that he was doing the same. And as he came out behind the red velvet cloth, it was reminiscent of when he first stepped onto St. Peter’s, overlooking the flock of excited Catholics. We witnessed the canonization of St. Junipero Serra, an eighteenth-century Spanish Franciscan missionary. It was a historic moment as it was the first canonization to ever take place in the United States. As a medieval religious historian, I had long studied the history of canonization procedures and the impact of saints in medieval society and I was able to witness was a twenty-first century edition of a medieval practice.
Pope Francis swinging the incense (Courtesy of
Mass in progress (Courtesy of
The canonization transitioned into the Mass, which mirrored Pope Francis’s message of welcoming and loving all. Different parts of the mass were read in different languages, a variety of genres of music sung by the angelic choir: a colorful tapestry of all of the different kinds of people who professed the faith. I was thrilled beyond words that I was able to receive communion, as they provided gluten-free communion for those of us who could not consume the wheat due to Celiac Disease. To fully partake in this most special mass and receive the Holy Eucharist was just one of many blessings of the day. There was time to pause and pray silently, and I offered up prayers for my family and friends, loved ones who had passed on, and for the world in crisis, that such crises and expressions of hate would be challenged through the love and strength of those who saw the good in people. In the concluding remarks, Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of the Diocese of Washington, thanked and welcomed the pope on behalf of the diocese, country, and The Catholic University of America. We CUA students clapped and cheered, and the welcoming words brought the entire crowd to its feet again. It was our city, our campus, our church, our pope, and we could not be more thrilled to have him in our backyard.
I was up past these trees, but this gives some semblance of the crowds

As the pope went into the basilica one more time, and people started to go, the music continued to play, fading more into the background. The sun set, drenching the religious landscape with new hues, closing out on a magnificent day. We began to pack up, and bid farewell to old friends and new ones, wishing everyone the best as we went our separate ways. Some were complete strangers, but we were united in this shared experience.
"Love is Our Mission: Welcome Pope Francis" (Banner on the Basilica) (Courtesy of
The closing moments of Mass
As I made my way home, I reflected on the day with my husband, parents, and grandparents, all who watched it online but wanted to hear my version. Beyond my wedding day and a select few memories, this day was like no other. I walked home with a feeling of hope, a sense of renewed faith – that if one man could rally a crowd like this, could we take that feeling and bring positive change to our nation’s capital. In discussing this palpable energy on campus with Msgr. Paul McPartlan, professor of theology here at CUA, he beautifully articulated that we need to remember that while Pope Francis provided palpable energy and inspiration, we need to remember that it is the Holy Spirit that is within us, always, and gives us the power and strength to effect positive change and make a dedicated effort to improve conditions, in the wake of His Holiness’s visit. Just because Pope Francis has departed our nation’s capital, does not mean that his message should fade into the background.
Because of an efficient and dedicated staff, the campus will go back to normal quickly, and in a few days, there will be little physical evidence that he was here. But I am hoping that the Holy Spirit will continue to flow through the city and make us think less of selfies, and strive to be selfless. I’m less than a year away from finishing my dissertation on the voice of Mary, and its resonance at the end of the Middle Ages. I’ve been making progress, but the days of writing and editing are not always glamorous and rewarding. But after a day like that, when the Spirit is alive and ever-present, it is a reminder to be proud to be studying at The Catholic University of America, writing about the Virgin Mary.

The pope came to my school, and it is my hope for all who witnessed his presence, whether in person or through the media coverage, we heed his lessons and live his mission to the fullest.