Local Catholics on hand for papal visit energized, inspired by experience

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People cheer for Pope Francis as he enters the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
People cheer for Pope Francis as he enters the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

PHILADELPHIA — Among the myriads who descended on the East Coast to greet Pope Francis last month were dozens of Catholics from the Diocese of Phoenix.

Tim and Rosa Fowler of Mesa visited both Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia with five of their children for the papal visit. Tim said they were able to get close to the Popemobile as it passed by them in the nation’s capital and admitted the experience was exhilarating.

“When you’re 51 years old and you’re screaming your head off like that — just like everybody else — you lose yourself in it. It was so much fun. Our kids were thrilled,” Tim said.

Rosa said the family figured they wouldn’t actually get to see the pope up close, but then came a moment of pure joy. After rising at 3:30 a.m. and spending six hours waiting in line, a Homeland Security agent let them know the pontiff’s arrival was imminent. The Popemobile passed within five feet of the family.

“Catherine, my 8-year-old, said ‘Mom, he made eye contact with me when he raised his hand to give us all a blessing. He was looking at me!’ It was so beautiful,” Rosa said.

“It was just amazing. He is the Vicar of Christ on earth and our kids know that we spent our vacation money to do this, to welcome him. That’s what we wanted them to know. They’ll never forget that,” Rosa added.

Liz Nance of St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Gilbert was at the papal Mass in Philadelphia along with her husband, daughter and grandchildren. Liz said that the family has had its share of sorrows, including the recent, sudden loss of her son-in-law. They attended the papal Mass in Philadelphia and Liz said she was struck by both the excitement at the pope’s arrival and the aura of reverence at the outdoor liturgy. Being there was a chance to gain perspective on the trajectory of her life. She choked up recalling the moment.

“Everything was just overwhelming. My 20s — you think, ‘I can do it without God. I’ve got this under control.’ So my 20s were ugly,” Nance said. “Even though I went to Catholic school my whole life, I didn’t know what it was to be Catholic. In my 30s I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t do this without You.’ And so, when I saw the pope walking, I felt like I had come full circle.”

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If there’s one message that Nance came away with, it’s the pope’s pithy “Families are factories of hope.” The loss of her son-in-law and the agony of another son in the throes of addiction have been heavy blows, but Nance says she’s had many prayers answered.

“As long as we keep hope alive in our family, no matter what we go through, we’ll make it,” Nance said.

Tommy Espinoza, chairman of the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, was there for the historic moment when Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress. The silent attentiveness of those gathered as well as seeing many brushing away tears made an impression on Espinoza.

“My sense was that there was a genuine willingness, at least at that moment, of everybody kind of setting aside their political views and just listening to the Holy Father, the pope, the Church,” Espinoza said.

The Holy Father’s comments that he was in the “land of the free and the home of the brave” struck a chord with Congress, but Espinoza said what touched him most deeply was the pontiff’s observation that “everyone came to the United States as immigrants … that set a tone and people were clapping.”

Esmerelda Estrada and Claudia Carreno were in Philadelphia with 10 others from their youth group based in St. Anthony Parish. They attended all of the papal events, but what stayed with them was the pope’s humility and seeing him in the parade.

“That instant that he was driving by us, he turned to where we were and beams of light from the Popemobile hit his face,” Estrada said blinking back tears as she recalled the moment. “He was smiling and giving us his blessing. I feel so blessed that I got to see him in person and have eye contact with him. It meant a lot to me too. It brought me peace and it made me stronger in my faith.”

Carreno, herself an immigrant, said she will always remember the pope’s words to “welcome immigrants because that’s what this country is all about.”

Estevan Wetzel of Most Holy Trinity Parish, is a seminarian at St. John Vianney Seminary in Denver. He and several other seminarians from the Phoenix Diocese were at the Festival of Families and the papal Mass in Philadelphia.

Wetzel said that the outdoor Mass touched his heart, despite the fact that they were seated far from the altar.

“It was such a beauty to be able to experience the Universal Church and just be with all those people even despite the distance. All of us were able to pray and kneel with the whole Church Universal,” Wetzel said.

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