The key to my up-close encounter with Pope Francis came not because I traveled more than 1,000 miles to see him, nor thanks to my two days sitting on concrete and leaning against metal barricades the way you might for a Mardi Gras parade.
I got a great view of Pope Francis because I was lucky enough to be standing near a beautiful baby girl, one of the many whom he blessed during his weekend trip to Philadelphia. And his palpable joy soaked into me in a way that I hope it did for the million of other people who also spent the weekend on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
I have never known a time when my Roman Catholic, Italian family did not adore the pope. A photo of St. John Paul II hangs above my childhood bed, and seeing a pope in person has always been on my to-do list.
But when Pope Francis became the leader of the Catholic Church, my to-do list item became more of an urgent desire rather than a far-off “I’ll get to it someday” dream. He quickly charmed me with his actions like kissing a disfigured man on the street and inviting a group of homeless people and their dog to share his birthday breakfast.
My dad and I swapped these “what’s your favorite Pope Francis moment” with many other pilgrims in Philadelphia, who felt the same personal connection to him. One of the ways in which their love for him was most evident was the way they eschewed formal titles and instead called him “Papa.”
A Vietnamese man turned to me at the Festival of Families and said “doesn’t Papa look tired?” It took me a few seconds before realizing he was talking about the pope. Papa Francis quickly became my own preferred name for him as well.
Even with tickets, it was not easy to get close to Papa Francis. National Guardsmen, Secret Service agents, state troopers, border patrol officials, TSA agents and other security personnel swarmed Philadelphia.
We waited on a curb for 12 hours on the pope’s first day in Philly, angling for a glimpse. We were in the front of the ticketed area, but we were still behind press boxes and a front section for special guests.
With a tall rosebush blocking our view, we were barely able to see Papa Francis.
We tried a different strategy the next day, and sat against a barricade so we could get a front-row look at Papa Francis during his parade. The lines of people were at least 10-deep, and the anticipation built as hours passed by.
Finally, we heard the sirens and saw the figure in white from a distance.
I could not contain the squeal that escaped from my lips when he came into my view. I set my phone to video as he moved toward me, but then decided I would rather see him with my own eyes instead of through my phone screen.
I’m glad I did that, because his joy radiated through all of us. His face shows the kindness of God, his wave is like the “come follow me” of Jesus, and his smile is what I imagine to be the happiness of a soul entering Heaven.
I waved to him, shouting “Papa! Papa!” along with thousands of others.
And when I thought my couple of seconds with his Popemobile in front of me were finished, it stopped moving. A security guard hoisted up an Indian baby, and Papa Francis kissed her. She placed her tiny hand on his face.
It was a precious, intimate scene and I could not believe it was happening in front of me. All too soon, he was back on his way down the parkway, waving to thousands of other Catholics and heading toward the altar where he was about to celebrate Mass.
I was still caught up in what I had witnessed, and I wanted to prolong it.
I walked toward the baby and her family. She was cradled in her mother’s arms, and tears poured down her mother’s cheeks.
It was the afterthought of Papa Francis’ passing, seeing the mother’s tears, feeling the continued joy upon the crowd, that did me in. Tears welled up in my eyes as well, and I held the baby girl’s hand as strangers rushed in to take photos with her.
I looked over at a nun from Lafayette, who also had a front row spot along the barricade when the pope passed. Minutes had now gone by, but she stood with her eyes closed and her lips turned up in a smile, still basking.
She eventually turned to the group of people we were with and struggled to find the right words. “Sacred,” she finally said, and I could not agree more.
Papa Francis then celebrated Mass for us on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, and closed out his trip to the United States by asking us to pray for him.
As he goes about his duties of being the Holy Father and bringing smiles to peoples’ faces, I will add “seeing the pope” back to my to-do list.
Once was not enough.
Andrea Gallo covers East Baton Rouge Parish government. Her email is email@example.com.