I first found out about the Papal Pilgrimage last spring, when His Holiness, Pope Francis, announced that he would visit the United States, in conjunction with the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. It was a week after Pope Francis’ announcement when the announcement was made at St. John Vianney College Seminary that nine seminarians would be able to see Pope Francis in Washington DC.
With only nine seminarians out of 135 seminarians chosen, my chances were slim. Even with odds so small, I was the second name chosen out of the hat by Father Jonathan Kelly, the priest in charge of organizing this Papal Pilgrimage. After the nine of us were selected, we were informed that the seminary would cover a large part of the cost, but we would have to raise some money ourselves. I am thankful of the contribution that my home parish, Holy Trinity in Des Moines, gave to help cover this pilgrimage to Washington DC.
After a summer of anticipation and excitement, I returned to the seminary this fall and in my second full week of classes, I embarked on my pilgrimage to the nation’s capital. Once we arrived in Washington DC, we took a tour of Gonzaga College High School. The tour was led by the president of the school, Father Steve Planning S.J. Father Planning not only gave us a tour, but allowed our group to use the school’s chapel for Mass. Mass was celebrated by Bishop Andrew Cozzens, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. After Mass, Bishop Cozzens joined our group for dinner and the first part of a walking monuments tour. On this tour we saw the Washington Monument, the White House, the Capitol, the World War II Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Reflecting Pool.
After completing the tour, we went on a rosary walk down the National Mall. This rosary walk was especially important for us because we were at the end of a novena to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. In addition, our Rector, Father Michael Becker, had expressed his desire to start a Rosary Brigade with seminarians and students at the University of St. Thomas on the Sunday before we went on pilgrimage. The Rosary Walk on the National Mall, was one of my favorite parts of the pilgrimage. It was so moving being in the heart of the country praying for the country under the intercession of the Blessed Mother.
After the Rosary Walk, we went to our respective living arrangements for the pilgrimage. I was privileged to stay at the Congressional Country Club during my time in Washington DC. The next day, we all ate breakfast at home of one the hosts for the pilgrimage. After filling our bellies for the long day ahead of us, we departed. On our way to the Metro Station, we stopped at Georgetown Prep to pray Morning Prayer, take a tour, and be witnesses to the students. Georgetown Prep is also the Alma Mater of Father Kelly, which made this stop especially special to our group.
After visiting Georgetown Prep, we went to the Metro Station to make our way to the Catholic University of America, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Upon arriving to the campus of the Catholic University of America, we were greeted by lines that stretched twisted and turned through the streets. We walked towards our entry gate only to find out the gate system that had been set up was not functioning as they had told us, which meant we had to go to the end of the lines and wait. Luckily, Father Kelly saw someone in line who invited us to join them, which turned a two hour wait into a 20 minute wait. We entered the secured area around the basilica and eventually found our seats. We sat just inside the doors of the East Portico, which was right behind the Papal Altar for the Mass.
We were at the basilica four hours before the Mass started so we had a few guys keep the seats while some of us walked around the basilica. One of the seminarians befriended the homeland security agent guarding the doors to the sanctuary and Papal Altar, and through this new relationship, we were allowed out into the sanctuary. This gave us the opportunity for some great pictures, and also just the chance to stand and walk where the pope would be standing and walking in a short time.
At three o’clock, we had to take our seats as the bishops arrived and made their way to their seats for the Mass. Finally, at four o’clock in the afternoon, Pope Francis arrived at the basilica. When he entered there was a great excitement. What really moved me was the signing of the words, “Christus Vincit! Christus Regnat! Christus Imperat!” It took a moment but then it hit me, I was standing in the same room as Pope Francis. Seeing the pope in person had always been a dream of mine, and now that dream had come true. After several minutes of prayer and a substantial time vesting, the pope processed out of the basilica and into the sanctuary on the East Portico.
In order to enter the sanctuary Pope Francis walked right past the area where I was seated and right out the door which I was sitting behind. We then sat in choir, which means we wore our cassocks and surplices, during the canonization Mass of St. Junipero Serra. After the Mass the pope processed back into the basilica. When he walked through the doors he saw us sitting there, and I was holding out a white Zucchetto I was hoping he would switch out with the one which he was wearing. Unfortunately, he did not switch zucchettos, but he did give us a blessing. Upon seeing the zucchetto he gave a little smile a proceeded to bless us. It was a great gift to be so close to the Holy Father and to be blessed by him personally. I could truly feel the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Holy Father, and it brought peace to my heart.
After the Mass we got back on the metro and went back to our respective living quarters. We then departed Washington DC the next day, but the story doesn’t end there.
During our trip back to the seminary, we had a layover in Milwaukee. While there, we were watching the coverage of the pope’s current activities, specifically his address to congress. Unfortunately, our flight was scheduled to leave just a few minutes after he began his address. However, due to a late departure in St. Louis, our plane was delayed the exact amount of time we needed to see the Pope’s address to congress.
Just as the pope blessed the people on the National Mall, the loud speaker came on announcing that our flight would begin the boarding process. The Blessed Mother was really watching over us during our trip many a time, things seemed to be hopeless and not going according to plan, but every time things worked out perfectly.
I want everyone that is reading this to know that one of my intentions on this pilgrimage was for the Diocese of Des Moines, that the people in southwest Iowa would grow closer to Christ and his Mother under the leadership of Bishop Pates. Also, thank you for all the prayers and support during the pilgrimage. I know many prayers were offered for my safety as well as for the safety of all the seminarians from St. John Vianney Seminary. Finally, thank you again to my home parish of Holy Trinity, and to Father Michael Amadeo for making this pilgrimage possible. May God continue to bless the Diocese of Des Moines and bring her closer to his Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart of Mary!
~ Alex Kramer is a Des Moines Diocese seminarian in his sophomore year at Saint John Vianney Seminary in Minnesota this fall 2015.