I really couldn’t feel my legs anymore.
My knees lean against the concrete bench that won’t move in front of my group, almost like a church pew kneeler. The crowd behind me presses against my back and 10 a.m., the supposed time of Pope Francis’ arrival to Philadelphia’s Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, ticks closer and closer.
Emotions and discomfort runs high. To my left, a claustrophobic lady asks for room to breathe. To my right, an even older lady tries to sit on the bench. There isn’t much room, but I tell her to take all the space you need.
My group that surrounds me — a team of social media journalists — doesn’t talk much. Our photographers grapple with a metal fence that corrals us, my other teammates behind me work the crowd handing out Pope Francis #PopeEmoji fans. I look down, triple-checking my own test shots then a roar of noise erupts down the street.
When my heart exploded
“He’s here! He’s here!” I hear a girl scream. Cassie is shaking. The entire crowd around me vibrates with the most energy I’ve ever felt in my life.
I lift my camera to my eye — I’m a journalist after all. I raise my iPhone higher above my camera, finger on Snapchat’s trigger — I’m a millennial after all.
The Fiat rolls up — I don’t have time to breathe — a man dressed in white steps out. He’s taller than I expect. I see his skull cap. He turns slightly. My heart explodes. It’s really him! It’s the pope!
The humble Fiat pulls away and Pope Francis greets those around him. Then he turns around and looks at us and the crowd is deafening.
My camera shutter is firing off a million times, I’m Snapchatting this whole thing, my heart is still exploding and I forget to breathe. He turns towards the church, walking up the steps into the Cathedral Basilica to celebrate Mass with the men and women religious of Philadelphia. And suddenly, he’s gone. The Holy Doors are closed, and then I remember to breathe. My chest feels tight and my eyes feel dry. Did I even blink? He was so close to me, I could have (badly) thrown a football to him.
I turn to those around me, “Wasn’t that amazing? Did you see his smile? He waved at us! He looked at us!”
When I heard “He looked at us!” I had just scrolled to a picture where Pope Francis seems to be looking directly at me. His eyes are dead into the center of my camera. They pierce the lens and, still leaning against the bench, they pierced my heart. He saw me. I’m sure he was looking at the hundreds around me, also in a chaos, but that photo captured a silent gaze of love.
When I finally sit down
Mass starts, and it’s the Gospel. I realize I’m not actually attending this Mass, just listening, and also remember that I can’t feel my legs. I tap my knees, still pushed against the bench, good, they’re still there. I need to sit down, but the crowds aren’t moving. They’re expecting him to exit the church the same way he came in, but I doubt that and wade through people to find a place to sit.
All the benches are taken, but there are several shady trees, and the grass looks soft. I find a big tree with a small older lady sits beneath it, reading a book. She looks friendly, and with a deep sigh of relief, plant myself under the green canopy. She looks over at me and smiles. “You were up at the front, weren’t you?” she asks.
I simply nod and show her the photo of the Argentine pontiff looking at me.
Her eyes and smile are as big as mine. “He’s looking at you! He’s making eye contact with you. That’s such an intensely personal experience, and so special,” she explains, reaching over and squeezing my shoulder. “You should feel very special.”
Before I can do anything, my eyes well up and tears start to fall. Seeing this, she lovingly pats my hands in a motherly way. They’re joyful tears, tears of thanksgiving.
When I look ahead, I also look back
I attended World Youth Day in Madrid, but never got to see the pope up close like in Philadelphia. As I prepare my heart and soul to once again encounter the Universal Catholic Church, just as I did in Philadelphia at the World Meeting of Families, I am setting no expectation. I ask for your prayers, and will bring you with me on this pilgrim journey with the pope.
Now with just days before I see the Holy Father again in Krakow, I think back to my time under that tree with my friend in Philadelphia. Dozens of families finally make their way to the park, setting up picnics around our tree.
To my right, a father rolls a small orange ball to his young child. The little boy can’t seem to pick up the rubber ball and seems content with just pushing it. His dad takes his hand, placing it under the ball and lifts it so it will drop. His little face lights up when he sees the ball fall and bounce on the grass. The ball keeps rolling, and he chases after it.
Under the shade of a towering leafy tree, I can feel my legs again. My new friend leans back over: “Peace be with you.”
This was previously posted to WYDCentral, Salt+Light’s continuing coverage of World Youth Day Krakow.