As soon as Pope Francis announced months back he planned to visit the U.S., Jared Loftus knew he was going to be there to greet him. Loftus is one of many south Louisianans crossing the country this week to see, hear or just be near the wildly popular pontiff.
The Baton Rouge businessman and devout Roman Catholic settled on Philadelphia, the last stop on the pope’s three-city tour of this country, as the best place to try to see him.
Loftus is a busy man. Among other things, he is chief executive officer of College District, a collegiate apparel company, and chief operating officer of MasteryPrep, an ACT prep company. A family friend, the Rev. Tommy Conway, of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, set the Loftuses up with a place to stay in the City of Brotherly Love. But many other details of the trip remained up in the air.
Things took an unexpected turn in July during a day trip to Alexandria. As Loftus sat down for lunch at a restaurant there, he noticed two priests sitting next to him. On impulse, he decided to buy their lunch.
“It’d kind of been a bad day, and I was just doing something nice to get the day back going,” Loftus explained.
After the priests figured out Loftus was responsible for their free meal, a conversation began. Loftus volunteered that he would be traveling to Philadelphia to see the pope.
“This is the guy who is putting it all together,” responded one of the priests, gesturing to his seatmate. “You just bought lunch for the archbishop of Philadelphia.”
“I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding me.’ I had no idea,” recalled Loftus.
Archbishop Charles Chaput quickly repaid Loftus’ kindness. He gave Loftus, his wife, Laura, and Father Conway tickets to see the pope up close not once, but twice, at a speech Saturday night and a Mass Sunday morning.
“The tickets for the Mass say row 5,” said Loftus, still amazed by the turn of events.
Another Baton Rouge resident has already seen the pope up close: Bishop Robert Muench.
Muench held a news conference Friday morning to share his reaction to finally seeing the man he’s admired since he was first named pope in March 2013, saying it was a “profound privilege and an emotional experience.”
“To me a basic quality of Pope Francis is his authenticity,” he said. “There is nothing contrived or artificial about him.”
Francis is the third pope Muench has seen in person, though he didn’t talk to him in person, which he did with Pope John Paul II, whom he met on several occasions.
Muench said he attended a mid-morning prayer service Wednesday in Washington, D.C., led by the pope and later in the day attended a Mass held outside at Catholic University of America for the canonization of Junipero Serra, the 18th century Spanish Franciscan friar who founded missions in California and the first saint to be canonized on U.S. soil.
To explain how he felt, Muench read a passage from the Gospel of Luke describing how people reacted to the emergence of Jesus.
“I kind of felt that about the Holy Father,” Muench said. “That a great prophet has arisen among us. The divine presence of the Holy Father in the whole celebration was very evident.”
Muench likened Francis to John Paul II, noting that both are extroverts who get energy from the people they meet.
“(Francis) lights up like a Christmas tree because he is so motivated to serve and to reach out,” the bishop said.
Muench was critical of many commentators on the pope’s visit, saying “they’re missing, in my opinion, the most essential things he is calling us to.”
“Some are so happy that he agrees with them on these things and not quite so happy that he is challenging them on the others,” he said. “Well, it’s a package deal.”
Many of his fellow bishops captured their experience by snapping smartphone shots of the pontiff. Muench, however, didn’t bother. When asked why, he held up his phone, an old flip phone.
Don Caffery was also in D.C. Wednesday. An employee of the Louisiana Department of Environment Quality, Caffery arrived a day early for an environmental conference to see the pope. Late Wednesday morning, he finally got his wish, soon after Francis left the White House, slowly passing by in his popemobile.
“I really just got a glimpse of the pope. There were so many people with me there with their phones up, and he was faced in a different direction,” Caffery said. “But I still feel like I was blessed to see him.”
Caffery had to pass through an airport-style security checkpoint to even get to the spot, and police and security officers were everywhere. But that did not dampen the ebullient mood, he said.
“Everybody was clapping and cheering,” he said. “It was a happy crowd. More a happy crowd than a Mardi Gras crowd. They were not there just to get something.”
Like Bishop Muench, Caffery has seen three popes. The most memorable was seeing John Paul II when he visited New Orleans in 1987.
“He came on my birthday,” Caffery recalled. “That was nice of him.”
Sister Marjorie Hebert, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, was one of hundreds from the charitable arm of the church invited to see the visiting pope. Like Caffery, Hebert remembers fondly John Paul II’s visit to New Orleans. She was quick to accept the chance to see another pope, especially one whose commitment to helping the poor is well known.
“Pope Francis’ message consistently confirms and affirms all that we do at Catholic Charities,” she said.
She managed two glimpses of the pontiff, first on the south lawn of the White House and then again on the grounds of Catholic University. She and others did at one point get to pose with a life-size poster of him, a “Flat Francis.”
Even so, Hebert said, she could feel something more, his presence. She likened it to being at the Sermon on the Mount.
“Those 5,000 who heard Jesus on that hillside, that’s how they must have felt,” she said. “They were just drawn to him.”
If Pope Francis returns to the U.S., she said, she will go but she dares not hope for such a thing.
“For him to come back another time, that would be a lot of lagniappe.”