Life-Changing Moment: Communion with the Pope in Philadelphia

Photo of Pope Francis taken by Ravizza.

Photo of Pope Francis taken by Ravizza.

Clare Ravizza, Staff Writer, Advanced Journalism

When my parents told me we were driving to Philadelphia to see the Pope, I didn’t really know what to expect. In my mind were visions of hordes of people packed so tightly that we could barely breathe. I imagined fifteen painful hours in the car with my parents.

I didn’t imagine, however, a spiritual experience that would change the way I look at my own faith for the rest of my life.

Recently, as everyone in the United States probably knows due to the extensive media coverage, the Pope came to our country. His purpose, which fewer people know, was to visit the World Meeting of Families. This meeting takes place every three years around the globe, and this is the first time it has ever been held in the U.S. It seemed appropriate to hold the Meeting of Families in the City of Brotherly and Sisterly Love.

We arrived in Philadelphia on the Saturday of the Festival of Families, and it was immediately apparent that this was an unusual type of city crowd. People were hospitable and friendly, and it felt as if I was in a small town rather than a large city. A man behind us in line gave us free tickets to a special section. We happened to strike up a conversation with a woman who turned out to be a graduate of St. Joe’s Academy. Everywhere around us were people speaking a variety of languages or wearing t-shirts from their respective parishes across the globe.

The most startling thing to me, though, was the singing. There would be groups of hundreds of people all in matching t-shirts walking around or waiting in line, and they would all be singing at the top of their lungs. There were usually a few people playing guitars, some tambourines, but everyone’s mouth would be moving. People would be singing hymns in every language, waving flags from their native countries over their heads, and pressing forward together. I’ve never seen anything like it.

That night was the Festival of Families, where people such as Jim Gaffigan, The Fray, Aretha Franklin and Andrea Bocelli performed. The Pope also came around in his Popemobile. We staked out a spot around noon against a fence that blocked off where Pope Francis would be coming, and we waited there (in shifts) until he finally came around 7:30.

This was a moment I’ll never forget. I could hear the screams in the distance, and we all knew he was coming. People from behind me began to push in towards the fence, and everyone pulled out his phone. First the police on their motorcycles sped past, and then the screams grew even louder until all I could hear was people screaming, “Papa! Papa!” He came into view in his well-lit Popemobile, and hundreds of arms reached out towards him. He was scarcely five yards away. He waved, and then he was out of view, speeding down the street.  

We’d waited seven hours in one spot to see him, and he was gone in a matter of seconds, but it was still worth it.

I don’t really know what two million people looks like, but when we came back to Philly on Sunday for Mass, there were more people than I could possibly fathom. Waiting in security lines were thousands of people, stretching probably 40 people across, and reaching back so far I couldn’t see the end. Each street we walked down, the masses of people got thicker and thicker, until we could barely cross the street.

We decided it wasn’t worth it to wait in those lines and instead laid out a picnic blanket in view of a jumbotron. We watched the mass on a screen, reading the subtitles as Pope Francis spoke in Spanish, and yet it was still powerful. There was a crazy sense of community with the people there, all watching the screen in silence, awe-filled. We shook hands with and hugged strangers around us during the Sign of Peace. Then came the most memorable part of the entire experience for me: Communion.

We were watching from a screen, insurmountably far away from the physical Mass going on, and so we did not expect to receive the Eucharist. Yet, as we were packing up to go, we noticed that people were flooding to the fence that blocked off the street, sticking their arms out. We looked over and saw dozens of little umbrellas, the ones that were used to identify the priests that were Eucharistic ministers.

Suddenly, a family against the fence was making room for me to stick my arm out towards the priest. Before I knew it, a priest was looking me in the eyes, pressing the Eucharist into my hand.

Maybe it was because I was so shocked that I had received the Eucharist. Maybe it was because Pope Francis had blessed the host I had in my hands. Maybe it was because the chattering French boys next to me had silenced when their parents received Communion. But as I received the Body of Christ, I began to cry.

Before this experience, I didn’t consider myself an exceptionally pious Catholic. I went to Mass on Sundays, I prayed before meals when I was eating with my parents, I attended faith formation once a month on Wednesday nights. I tried not to lie, to honor my parents, but I’ll openly admit that I’m not perfect.

Yet, there was something so spiritual, so moving, that day. It was in my parents, in the little French boys next to me, and even in myself. For the first time in my life, I truly felt God.

I looked to my mother, and she was crying too, and I knew that I wasn’t the only one who could feel it.

This experience has honestly, unequivocally changed my life. The fact that I was reluctant to come on this trip seems absurd now. I feel like I am a stronger Catholic, and I am sure that I will never forget what that moment felt like. I am sincerely glad that I went, and I’m trying to talk my parents into taking me to Dublin for the next World Meeting of Families in three years. Maybe Francis and I will meet again. I truly hope so.