Pope Francis’ popemobile was passing right by us so our group began chanting en espanol to get his attention: “¡Colegio Jesuita! ¡Colegio Jesuita!” (“Jesuit high school!”) Would he hear us?
Last week, we at St. Joe’s Prep, the Jesuit high school in Philadelphia – The Prep in The City of Brotherly love – hosted “2Philly4Francis,” an intentional, spiritual journey (not a vacation!) to coincide with Pope Francis’ visit to my hometown. (Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you that I am unabashedly proud to be from Philly. I love this Catholic town to my Catholic core, so when Pope Francis announced he was coming to visit, I was pumped!) At school I worked for months with a team of students and adult volunteers to prepare to welcome more than 300 teenage pilgrims from 42 Jesuit high schools for a 5-day, 4-night event filled with talks, breakout sessions, prayer and, we hoped, more than a few sightings of His Holiness.
I’ve had plenty of experience in high school ministry, but I was still nervous; I couldn’t sleep in the days and weeks leading up to the event. Some of these pilgrims were literally traveling across a continent for this. I wondered, what will they get out of this? How will 300 teenagers respond to a 78-year old Argentinean bishop and his call for encuentro – an encounter with the Other?
After all, it’s my experience that teenagers love walls. We all do. Safe and protective, walls help to keep things just comfortable enough that we don’t have to become vulnerable or move or change too much. Walls allow us to keep true encounters to simple surface-level interactions, they make it possible for us not to interact with each other at all, if we so choose.
What will they get out of this? I needn’t have worried.
Almost from the moment they stepped onto our campus, I saw teens allow others in to see their truest selves, whether interacting with peers from other schools during a breakout session, or with strangers we passed on the street on our way to hear the pope speak, or in the sacred conversations they had with priests during the sacrament of Reconciliation. In these days of pilgrimage, I watched walls, so carefully erected and maintained, come down, making space for encounters like none other.
Pilgrimage is for the thirsty. Anyone who shows up to a holy site comes for some reason, some inner desire that motivates their journey. They long to touch the sacred, to bask in the spiritual, to take in the venerable. These students came thirsting for encounter, even if they couldn’t name it as such when they arrived. They wanted encounters with their God, with their peers, and with their Pope who seems to unite it all.
Back on the sidewalk, we watched as Pope Francis did a double-take in the popemobile, turn in our direction, and flash that great big familiar smile. He heard us. Reaching out, he offered our group a blessing. As the group cheered (and I cried) I realized that I came thirsting for a sacred encounter of my own, and that this thirst was satisfied by spending 5 days (on very little sleep) with these teenage pilgrims who surrounded me.
Some of those student pilgrims told me they wanted to write letters to the principals & presidents of their schools to encourage them to offer similar programs, while others were moved to take up the causes championed by some of our keynote and breakout presenters. Still other students spoke about how the encounters of the pilgrimage had moved them to a place of deeper faith: “I’ve never experienced God like this before.”
But how else do we experience God if not as a holy encounter brought about only by lowering our walls and presenting our truest self to the Other we meet? Or by receiving fully the Other in front of us? This God of encounter is the One that Pope Francis, the same pope these young pilgrims encountered one Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia, constantly calls us to recognize. This God of encounter is the one who truly feeds us, who ultimately quenches our thirst. I will remain deeply grateful for these young people because of their simple, beautiful, joyful, and pure faith, and their brazen courage to share it and to teach me how to drink deeply of the things of God.