Fifty-seven Minnesota pilgrims looked forward to attending the papal Mass last weekend, but in the hours before the Mass began, they headed for home rather than to the Mass site in central Philadelphia — a decision that many came to see as a blessing.
Through unexpected detours on the nearly 2,400-mile trip, including difficulty in caring for disabled group members in an enormous crowd, God taught the pilgrims from St. Pius X parish in White Bear Lake spiritual lessons about the value of journeys, prayer and community.
On the first day of the trip, the group had to “recalculate” when the mother of the group’s leader, Pastor Joe Bambenek, dislocated her shoulder at a church they were visiting. Four hours at a Wisconsin hospital meant they arrived at their hotel at 5:30am and had to revise their plan for visiting shrines and churches in Philadelphia. The group responded with prayer, and the experience strengthened their pilgrimage community. Thankfully, Mary Ann Bambenek was able to continue on the trip.
When I joined them on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the afterglow of the Sept. 26 papal parade, the pilgrims, in their orange and yellow group bandanas, were exhausted but elated. Excitedly, they showed me their photos of the Holy Father in his popemobile.
The trip into City Center for the Festival of Families had been worth it, but the large crowds, distance, train travel and long security lines had been difficult for some of the pilgrims, especially the three in wheelchairs. All the pilgrims cared for each other during the day’s challenges.
Father Bambenek and trip leaders Debbie Keller and Jeannie Bendel considered how those factors would be compounded by larger crowds at the closing Mass and the fact that leaving the city soon after the Mass to stay on schedule would be nearly impossible. In addition, most of the pilgrims wouldn’t be close enough to receive Communion and might not even see the Jumbotron screens set up for the Mass.
The pilgrims discussed the options and sought the intercession of Sts. John Neumann, Rita, Katharine Drexel and Thérèse, whose shrines they visited on the trip. Interceding for all circumstances had become part of the group’s rhythm of prayer that included novenas, Rosaries and morning and evening prayer.
In the end, they decided to start the return to Minnesota on Sunday afternoon and watch the Mass together at a western Pennsylvania hotel. It was a sacrifice, especially for a few who had coveted tickets to the area closest to the Holy Father, but nearly all saw the wisdom of it.
Watching the Mass on TV at the hotel wasn’t quite like being there; a bucket of candy went around as group members sipped coffee and tea. They participated as they could and followed the homily with English subtitles. When it was over, a number of pilgrims commented that they had been blessed by the experience.
The pilgrims had come from 15 parishes besides St. Pius. Some sought healing; others sought ways to build up parish families and youth; all desired spiritual growth. Through it all, they prayed together, and they also had fun. A kindergarten teacher’s stories about her students and another pilgrim’s papal trivia kept everyone laughing. And a bump in the road knocked rosary-making materials onto the floor, prompting pilgrims to chase rolling beads around the bus.
The final detour came, despite a group Memorare, when a plan to visit the National Memorial to Flight 93 had to be abandoned because the memorial was closing. To everyone’s joy, a park ranger came on the bus and gave an account of the heroic events.
That evening, Father Bambenek said Mass from his front seat on the bus and then brought Communion down the aisle to the seated pilgrims.
Mass on the bus while driving through rural Pennsylvania was “wonderful” and “unique,” some said, and celebrating together as a pilgrimage family made it special.
At the National Shrine of St. Thérèse in Darien, Ill., near the end of the pilgrimage, Father Bambenek blessed medals, rosaries and other religious items the pilgrims had wanted the Pope to bless.
The St. Pius pilgrimage hadn’t quite gone according to plan, but certainly as God intended.