Two buses of pilgrims gathered at St. Joseph’s parish in Springettsbury Township on Sunday morning, while it was still dark outside, to make the journey to Philadelphia for the papal Mass late that afternoon.
Many on the bus knew what they were in for — walking and waiting — but many also said those things didn’t matter.
They were going to see Pope Francis, on the last day of a three-city trip to the U.S., his first as pope.
“He’s really important and he came to America,” Eliana Fetters, 9, said on the bus at St. Joe’s. She was with her grandparents from Spring Grove.
In Philadelphia, parishoners of the Diocese of Harrisburg left the bus with energy and with smiles on their faces as they boarded a Septa train to make their way into the city, where papal events have been going on for two days.
“Everyone’s so happy, can you imagine if the world was like this every day?” said Richard Helfrich of Washington Borough, in Lancaster County south of Columbia.
The ride would take them to what would be the biggest challenge of their day.
Thousands of people packed together in the streets, forming a blob that had to get through security and into the Benjamin Franklin Parkway area where the Mass was held.
The trip into Philadelphia had taken about two hours. But the group waited about 4 1/2 hours in line to pass through security. The Mass lasted one hour and 20 minutes, and most people viewed it on a jumbotron. But, for them, it wasn’t about how they saw it, it was about the pilgrimage.
“I never would have done this for anybody else,” Lisa Helfrich of Lancaster said, talking about Pope Francis.
The wait in line for security was exhausting. There was no sitting and no bathroom breaks — just waddling a few feet every 20 minutes.
But their souls were not weary.
People in the crowd would start chanting, “When I say pope, you say Francis,” and they’d always get a response. Another group brought guitars and serenaded those around them. No one gave up to walk back through the now-empty streets further from the lines. They were focused and on a mission.
But it wasn’t easy.
“People are losing their sense of humor,” Richard Helfrich said, after waiting four hours.
Just as some parishoners were getting through the line, they heard the cheers of the crowd of people seeing the pope parade around the parkway, just ahead of the security tent.
“I was about done and then I heard the screaming,” Peg Neal of Washington said. The cheers electrified the crowd, bringing them all back to life.
Once the Mass started, a silence fell over the crowd. The birds flew above, flags slapping in the wind, security workers in golf carts zooming by occasionally. It was a Mass unlike what many experience weekly. There were no walls, no icons painted above surrounding pews. But that didn’t matter. Everyone was listening intently to what Pope Francis was going to say, and they were ready to receive communion as a bonded community.
The prayers were ringing in the parkway with an overcast sky and cool breeze.
Communion was distributed in about 15 minutes, with crowds making their way to several nearby stations placed around the parkway. People were calm and meditative as they received the host, and some kneeled along a nearby fence.
At the end of the Mass, the pope said “Pray for me don’t forget!” The comment lightened the mood, and people laughed.
For Lisa Helfrich, the long day and the long waits that ended with Mass on a city parkway was the experience of a lifetime.
“It was worth it,” she said.