Pope Francis has been in Dublin, Ireland this past weekend for the World Meeting of Families, and by the grace of the Holy Spirit, I was blessed with the opportunity to see him!
I am studying abroad in Dublin this semester with Champlain College. That in and of itself is incredible, and I am so excited! I’ve had the dates of my travel for several months now, along with our orientation schedule. So when I heard that Pope Francis was going to be in my new home city shortly after I arrived, I scrambled to check the dates. Lo and behold, the free weekend I had available right after orientation was the exact weekend he would be visiting.
On Saturday, several of my fellow students and I took to the streets. Pope Francis was driving through the city in his Popemobile, and we were ready with cameras. The had barricades lining the streets where he would be, and my friends and I were able to get right up to the barricades themselves. One friend in particular and I who share a love of photography and, incidentally, the exact same camera body, set up a competition. When I arrived, he looked at me and said “All right, whoever gets the best picture of the Pope has to buy the other a pint—of water, because I know you don’t drink.” I laughed and offered to up the ante by upgrading to the soft drink of his choice if he won. Then we set up our shots and waited.
Almost an hour passed before the cars that preceded Pope Francis, and he whisked by in about a minute. I snapped away furiously, and I was able to get some pretty good shots! I love how he gently smiles and looks so friendly.
On Sunday, I bundled myself up against the wind and the rain to head to Pheonix Park for Mass. Every street I walked along was closed to car traffic, and pilgrims were migrating to the park. The further I walked, the more and more people joined the crowd. We streamed along the red, green, and navy routes toward the heart of the park. After a little bit of confusion, I was able to to find my section, and I settled in amongst all the people.
I was honestly surprised to find how empty my section was. I expected, with sold out tickets, for every area to be packed, but there was really only a handful of people in my section. The sections near me were similar situations. I was a little bit taken aback, but I laid down my rain jacket on the ground and sat down anyway. As it happened, the section that I was in had its view of the altar and stage completely obscured by a massive screen, but I was okay with that. We were so far away, we wouldn’t have been able to see much anyway.
A half hour before Mass began, Pope Francis rode in the Popemobile again to greet everyone throughout the crowd. As he drove through the channels, people in the crowd ran to his side just to get close to him. The joy on people’s faces brought me to tears.
I am painfully aware of the abuse that has wreaked havoc on our church recently. Between the McCarrick situation and the Pennsylvania grand jury report, it feels like the Church is falling apart around our ears. Because of my travels, I have been largely alone in my faith as I’ve been learning about all of this. I have not been able to connect with my faith family in the aftermath of this news, and it’s felt very isolating. I have mourned in silence, and I have felt very alone. But here, in this field teeming with Catholics, raucously sharing in their faith and eagerly braving distance and adverse conditions to come together and celebrate Jesus in the open air… My heart became full. I no longer felt as alone. The only thing that kept repeating in my head was the phrase, “Our Church may be hurting, but our Church is here.”
I am not at all trying to erase the sadness and shame associated with this abuse coming to light. But I believe that community breeds love and healing, and being around so many Catholics who were on fire in their faith despite the atrocities that have been rampant brought me hope. It brought meaning to the messages of strength and encouragement that I have seen on social media recently as we all reel and recover from the headlines.
At the start of Mass, Pope Francis addressed the abuse scandals and asked for forgiveness on behalf of those who committed the actions, and on behalf of those who turned a blind eye to the actions. He also prayed that this season of shame extend itself, and I thought that was really poignant. We need to dwell in this shame for a time. We cannot just sweep these difficult feelings under the rug and pretend they never happened. We need to feel our shame, really feel it, so that we never allow it to happen again. Catholics are no strangers to suffering, and we know that suffering brings salvation. We cannot run from discomfort just because it is uncomfortable. We run to the Truth, even when it hurts, and we pray that God bestows the necessary graces upon us.
Since the Mass ended, I have learned more disturbing news. Pope Francis has been accused of covering up for McCarrick. This claim has been disputed, but the truth is yet unclear. And perhaps most concerning of all, when Pope Francis was asked about the account after the closing Mass, he refused to talk about it and told us to use our best judgement. I am uncertain as to why he chose this response, but I am frightened for what will come next for our Church. Even so, I have faith that our Church will survive, and I am grateful to have seen Her in stride this past weekend.