Fifty years after the first papal visit to the United States, friends of Hillsdale, students, and alumni went to see Pope Francis during his visit Tuesday through Saturday of last week.
Thousands of people from all across the country flooded Washington, D.C. for the opportunity to pray with the Pope and attend one of his masses.
Laura Smith and her two sons, William and Nicholas, made the drive to D.C. to see the Pope.
“We wanted to see him when it was announced last year that he was coming,” Laura Smith, the wife of Professor of English Stephen Smith, said.
They didn’t plan on going, though, until a week before he was expected to arrive. The next day, Smith and her two sons had three tickets to see Pope Francis address Congress.
“His address to Congress was the most historic part of his visit,” said Smith, “A pope had never spoken to Congress before.”
Smith said that their opportunity to see Pope Francis was largely thanks to Brian McGuire, Mitch McConnell’s Chief of Staff, who also happens to be her son’s godfather. He was able to get them their last-minute tickets to see the Pope’s address to Congress.
The Smiths’ week was packed with events. They began their trip to D.C. Monday night and arrived in Maryland Tuesday morning. After stopping at the Kirby Center, they went to bed early so that they would be able to get up at 3:30 the next morning to go to the parade.
“We were basically camping and sleeping on the sidewalk,” Smith said.
Seven hours and one appearance on Good Morning America later, they and thousands of others watched Pope Francis drive through DC in his pope-mobile.
Emmaline Epperson, a Hillsdale alumna, waited in line for four hours in Philadelphia to go through security in order to see him.
“It was definitely worth it, though, because I got within twenty feet of the Pope,” Epperson said.
At 2:30p.m., Smith received a text from a friend that three tickets to the Canonization Mass were available.
“It was a minor miracle that we were able to go,” Smith said. “There was this beautiful connection because a woman I had never met, who was a friend of a friend, knew I was looking for these tickets for my sons and I, and went out of her way to make sure I got them. Our seats ended up being caddy-corner to the Vice President. It was just truly amazing.”
Smith and her sons rushed to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Pope Francis was expected to canonize Junipero Serra, a Spanish-born Franciscan Friar known for starting nine Spanish missions in California in the 1700s.
“The mass was the most moving part of the Pope’s visit, even though I couldn’t understand much of it because it was in Spanish, English, and Latin, and I wasn’t able to see the screen. It showed the universality of the church, and reminded us that we are apart of something bigger than ourselves,” said Smith.
Epperson also attended the Canonization Mass, but what stuck out to her was how empty Philadelphia was during the mass.
“It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen,” Epperson said, “the city was completely empty because everyone was there at the mass. They said at one point that there were about a million people there, and everything was dead silent.”
Thursday morning, the Smiths headed to Capitol to watch the Pope’s address to Congress.
“It was a very different feeling than the Canonization Mass,” Smith said. “We were sitting in a political section, which changed the atmosphere.”
Anna Pfaff, a senior who is currently in D.C. for the WHIP program, also heard the Pope’s address to Congress. She and three other girls who are involved in WHIP waited in line for six hours, standing most of the time since there wasn’t enough room to sit.
“It was frustrating at times, but it was totally worth it. We were able to watch the sun rise from behind the Capitol throughout the morning.”
In contrast to Pope Francis’s time in Philadelphia, his stay in D.C. was highly politicized.
“When you’re living in the capitol, everything is absolutely saturated in politics. It was a much different atmosphere for him to enter into,” Pfaff said.
Pfaff said that one of her favorite parts about the Pope’s visit was when he appeared in one of the windows in the Capitol building, facing the West Lawn.
“He blessed the crowd in Spanish,” Pfaff said, “It was like being in Rome.”
After the address to Congress, Smith said that she and her sons went back and prayed to end their pilgrimage.
“We talked about everything that had happened, and what it meant to us,” Smith said.
They returned home on Friday, ending their five-day spontaneous adventure. Saturday night, the Smiths watched Pope Francis’s address on religious liberty and family life.
“He really spoke from his heart, and it was touching to be able to watch him speak as a family,” said Smith.