Richard Helfrich of Washington Boro, Lancaster County, jumped on the “opportunity of a lifetime” to see the pope.
He reserved his space on the bus with the Diocese of Harrisburg but reserved an additional space for someone “worthy.” That someone ended up being a stranger he met at a Lancaster restaurant.
Helfrich went to a “brewery view,” which is held once a month and pairs craft beer with food at a local restaurant. He was sitting at the same table as Eric Stipe of Strasburg, and they got to talking. Neither one could remember how the topic of religion came up, but they found out they were both Catholic.
“I truly believe in divine intervention, and I truly believe that was all meant to happen,” Helfrich said.
Stipe grew up in the church but because of a change in his shifts at work, recently he hasn’t been able to attend. He had also just gone through a divorce. Helfrich told him about his beliefs in the church and about the tremendous changes that have come about through the new pope. “I adore the new pope,” Helfrich said.
Helfrich offered him his extra spot, and he agreed to make the pilgrimage.
“It’s all about what’s in here,” Stipe said, touching is heart. It’s not about going to church or how many times you sit in a pew, he said.
Faith, to Stipe, is about how you treat other people. Practicing that faith is every day, not just on Sundays.
Stipe agrees with Helfrich about Pope Francis. Stipe thinks he ranks up there with Pope John Paul II, because he’s a people person.
“I like that he’s loosening things up a little,” Stipe said. “The Catholic Church has to get with the times.”
Helfrich believes the Catholic Church has been more tolerant to nontraditional marriage, mostly thanks to Pope Francis.
He married his spouse, Johnny Roberts, in Maryland in 2012, but the two have been together for 16 years. Roberts is Mormon, and Helfrich is Catholic. The two feel strongly about their faiths so religion is usually not discussed in the home, Helfrich said. Their friend who is a minister married them.
With the previous pope, Benedict, Helfrich said he had his faith shaken. He considered leaving the church numerous times because of him, but Pope Francis’ views strengthened his faith again.
“What I think about religion is if God didn’t want me to be Catholic, he’d let me know,” Helfrich said. God is all about love, he said, and he felt that during the pilgrimage to Philadelphia.
“Everybody today was showing a lot of love,” Helfrich said. “That’s what we need more of.”
And he doesn’t just talk the talk either. Helfich exuded love the entire pilgrimage, even during a 4.5-hour wait to get through security. His bright smile reached his ears, and his laugh was contagious, making those standing for hours next to him in line grin too.
From the second he got on the train to get from the bus into the city he was already meeting new people. He bought a Vatican flag right away and waved it as he walked the couple miles from the station to the parkway.
“Out of all of the popes, he’s the one to see,” Helfrich said about Francis.