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Pope Francis Has Landed

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By Chris Sparks (Sep 22, 2015)
During the papal visit, we'll be sharing commentary, photos, and on-the-scene accounts of Pope Francis' first trip to the United States. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015
8:30 p.m.
Brother Matthew Holladay, MIC, shared a rather beautiful story with me after dinner. He'd been in class, he said, a class that was going to run until after the Pope was scheduled to land. His fellow students had been wondering out loud how they'd know when the Pope arrived. Don't worry, said one who works for the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. They'll ring the bells when he's here.

So Br. Matt was walking back to the Marian House of Studies after class, passing the shrine where preparations are in full swing for the Mass tomorrow, including rehearsals by the various musicians and choirs to sing. The bells began to ring shortly before four, indicating that Pope Francis had touched down.

At the same time, the choir was rehearsing the Gloria.

8 p.m.
I heard some interesting tidbits of history about the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from two Marians who have served here for some time.

Father Larry Dunn, MIC, shared with me that "the shrine is not a parish. It is operated by all the bishops of the U.S. — and it promotes Our Lady under the title, 'the Immaculate Conception.' That's one of the reasons for being of my congregation. It feels as though we're in sync," the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception and the U.S. bishops.

And Br. Leonard Konopka, MIC, who has been organizing a special Divine Mercy Sunday Mass at the Basilica each year since 1990 ("It's always full!"), shared that, back in the early days of the Basilica, matters had become rather dire. In the 50s, fundraising had dropped off. The Crypt Church was complete, but the rest of the structure was in limbo. So the secretaries who worked for the rector and in the administrative parts of the Shrine decided to take matters into their own hands. They began to gather at 3 p.m. to pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet.

Lo and behold, funding flowed in and the Shrine was completed.

Lesson learned: Wherever Mary Immaculate is, there also will Divine Mercy be.

7 p.m.
I'm privileged to be able to stay with the Marian Fathers at their House of Studies on the CUA campus for these next few days. While talking over dinner, I turned up an unexpected fact: Many of the Marians have concelebrated Mass with the Holy Father!

Not necessarily Pope Francis, though some had; rather, they've had the opportunity at various points to concelebrate with the popes over the years. The run-down:

* Father Bob Vennetti, MIC, vice-rector of the National Shrine of The Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, concelebrated Mass with Pope Benedict XVI at Fatima in 2010.
* Father Jim McCormack, MIC, house superior here in Washington, D.C., concelebrated Mass in Rome on Holy Thursday in the years 2012 and 2013, meaning he got to concelebrate with Pope Benedict on his last Holy Thursday liturgy as pope, and with Pope Francis on his first Holy Thursday liturgy as pope.
* Father Mark Baron, MIC, concelebrated Mass with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 during his visit to Washington, D.C.
* Father Dante Aguero, MIC, out of the Marian House in Argentina, concelebrated Mass with Pope Benedict XVI at World Youth Day in 2011 and with Pope Francis in Rio in 2013.
* Though he hasn't yet concelebrated Mass with a pope, still, Fr. Larry Dunn, MIC, was privileged to serve as a deacon at the Mass of Beatification for the Marian Renovator, Blessed George Matulaitis, in 1987.

And here I thought tomorrow would be a first for most of these men! Oh, didn't I mention? Many of the Marian priests here will be among the concelebrants for the Mass of Canonization tomorrow outside the Basilica, a mere couple blocks from the Marian House of Studies.

Still, though he's done it before, Fr. Bob described the opportunity to concelebrate Mass with the Holy Father a "privilege."

"It's a gift for the Church in the U.S. that he does this ahead of the Jubilee Year," said Fr. Bob. "It's important for the men in formation. Our motto is pro Christo et ecclesia, 'for Christ and the Church.' Having the Vicar of Christ come to us — literally, since they live in campus — helps give our men this more universal outlook."

Father Ken Dos Santos, MIC, thought the Holy Father's presence for the World Meeting of Families was a response to the crisis of marriage and family in the U.S., in particular. The Holy Father has come, said Fr. Ken, to remind us of God's plan for the family, of the design inherent in human nature to which we must return as a society.

Father Jim added that he thought the Holy Father coming for the World Meeting of Families in between the extraordinary and ordinary synods on the family in Rome seemed providential, since "the U.S. is a particular place where the family is under attack."

So those were some thoughts from Marians from the U.S. Providentially, some Marians from Argentina were also present. Father Dante and Deacon Ariel shared some particular thoughts about this most popular — and most Argentine — of popes.

"At the very beginning" of his pontificate, said Deacon Ariel, "we were very excited, but when he was among us, we overlooked him."

Father Dante said that Pope Francis "runs things like Argentinians do — he forgets protocol; he's impulsive; he uses colloquial expressions from Buenos Aires. I don't know how anyone translates him!"

4:30 p.m.
The Holy Father has arrived! After a greeting from President Obama and family, Vice President Biden and his wife, Cardinal Wuerl, and various other local and federal dignitaries (including the mayor of D.C. and the governors of Virginia and Maryland), Pope Francis is off to the nunciature (residence of the papal nuncio, or ambassador, to the United States) for a well-deserved rest.

Meantime, I have my press credentials, and again, a renewed sense of the scope and scale of the papal visit. Traveling over to the media center, I kept encountering men in clerics, women in full religious habit, pilgrims, probably, come from across the country to be present for the next few historic days. As we stated earlier, this will be the first time a pope has canonized a saint on U.S. soil, so a lot of people are eager to be here.

2 p.m.
So after making the hop from Union Station to the D.C. Metro, I encounter the full force of papal visit preparations at the Catholic University of America (CUA) campus. On the wall as you leave the metro, there's a great sign of Pope Francis' smiling face, welcoming Pope Francis in the name of the Knights of Columbus.

Outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a great stage has been set up for the Mass. Rows upon rows of chairs stand on the grass, while bleachers and cameras on cranes indicate the media interest in the canonization to come. Various choirs are singing as I walk by, some in a Gospel style, some singing in Spanish, some in English, but all in full voice and with fervent passion.

There are students wandering amidst all the different fences, signs, trucks, and many, many people at work to make the Mass a success. Sometimes, I can't tell whether the people taking selfies or talking into smartphones are media personnel, students at CUA, or both.

A large banner of Blessed Junipero Serra adorns the front of the Basilica, as well as a great banner welcoming Pope Francis (slightly ironically, in English).

11:30 a.m
And the effects of the papal visit are apparent on this very train. As I went looking for lunch, I passed four women religious in full habit. At the club car, I waited in line behind a group of young men, whom I initially assumed were college students, going between cities. Then one of them started talking about how beautiful the Basilica is, and asking another whether or not all of the Mass would be in Spanish.

They turned out to be seminarians from the diocese of Bridgeport, and they have tickets to a special audience with the Holy Father in the Basilica around the time of the Mass of Canonization for Junipero Serra.

Another woman in line piped in, asking about the Mass, their plans. She explained that she was just an ordinary Catholic, fascinated by Pope Francis, with a lot of non-Catholic friends who find him compelling.

"I just want to be in his presence," she said, and mentioned she'd passed a bishop on her way to the club car.

The Church is gathering. This will be a huge occasion.

10 a.m.
Well, the Holy Father will be in the air in a couple of hours to fly from Cuba to the U.S. As we await his arrival, let's take a look at some of the recent news and preview some upcoming events.

First and foremost, of course, the Holy Father came to Cuba and will come to the United States as a missionary of mercy. In his remarks on Sunday, Sept. 20, to religious in Cuba at Vespers in the Cathedral in Havana, he set aside the prepared text to urge them to "never tire of showing mercy".

He spoke of the mercy of God to sinners in a particular way during his homily for the feast of St. Matthew, Evangelist. Monday was also the 62nd anniversary of a young Jorge Mario Bergoglio stopping in a church on the way to meet some friends (and perhaps ask a girl to marry him) when he met a priest who was so transparent to Jesus Christ that Bergoglio asked to confess to the priest. After that Confession, Jorge Bergoglio knew he was called to be a priest. As Matthew experienced the gaze of Jesus, the face of the Father's mercy, and knew he was called to follow him, so, too, did the future pope experience the tender gaze of Jesus through a holy priest. So, too, did Jorge Bergoglio, like St. Matthew, know himself both miserable and chosen, a recipient of the mercy of God and a sinner chosen by God to bring that mercy to others.

The theme of "mercy" or "charity" continued with his homily at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, today in Santiago. He reiterated one of his favorite themes: The Church is called by the example of Christ and the example of the saints to go out to all in need, to go to the peripheries, the margins, the liminal places where children of God slip through the cracks. The Church is to emulate the Blessed Virgin Mary, who ran to the help of Elizabeth, her cousin, when she learned that Elizabeth was pregnant.

Mercy has been the signature message of his pontificate, most fully realized in his decision to declare an extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, to commence Dec. 8, 2015, the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception.

He visited a statue of his predecessor, St. John Paul II, the Great Mercy Pope, on Monday, Sept. 21, in the atrium of the Cathedral of San Isidoro de HolguĂ­n. The statue had been put in place to commemorate St. John Paul II's historic visit to Cuba, the first pope ever to have done so. That's just one more piece of evidence of the continuity between these two pontificates: both deeply centered around proclaiming the mercy of God and calling all followers of Christ to share that mercy with others.

Also, Popes John Paul II and Francis have each had a lot of firsts in the course of their pontificates, a rare thing for a 2,000-year--old institution.

The official Vatican network, News.va, reports, "The visit will be rife with historical firsts: the first time a Pope will address a joint meeting of the US Congress (not a joint session — a technical precision perhaps significant only to parliamentarians, but one that is there nonetheless); the first time a Pope will speak to the United Nations during the annual general session of the General Assembly; the first time a Pope will canonize a saint on US soil."

Of course, this visit is also the very first time that Pope Francis personally will have ever visited the U.S. He's also the first pope from the New World, the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope to take the papal name "Francis," after St. Francis of Assisi, one of the greatest models of poverty, mercy, and the imitation of Christ in the history of the Church.

Visit here for all papal visit coverage.

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Robin - Sep 23, 2015

Thanks, Chris, for the commentary. I feel as if I'm there. Have a wonderful time at this great event. Prayers for you and all who are working in media.

Lerry - Sep 24, 2015

Thank you, these details and bits of information are inspiring. Pope Francis truly reflects the kind of life that our Lord Jesus is asking for us to live