Marywood Blogs

Keep Moving Forward: One Pilgrim's Journey to See the Pope

Posted by Sheryl on October 22, 2015 11:50 AM

When I think of pilgrims, I either picture men and women in Puritan-style outfits serving Thanksgiving dinner or pious individuals walking on their knees to some sacred site in the Holy Land. I certainly never pictured myself as a pilgrim—until Pope Francis made his first-ever visit to the U.S.

I admire his gentleness, his humility, his joy, his love, his absolute commitment to the poor and vulnerable, so I was drawn to the idea of seeing him, especially since he was going to be as close as Philadelphia. Yet, as a wife, mother, and full-time Marywood employee, I wondered how I could manage the journey. Sister Cathy Luxner IHM, Director of Campus Ministry, told me that there would be a great deal of walking and standing. It would be a very long day. Although my heart dreamed of seeing Pope Francis, my mind began to conjure a million and one reasons why it would not be possible.

Let’s clear up a few things about me. I am not a young college student. I am not a particularly active middle-aged adult. I’ve had some health issues that have limited my physical ability and willingness to walk more than a mile or so or to stand for long periods of time. Mentally and spiritually, however, I am strongminded (OK, stubborn), devoted, and purposeful. My husband once likened me to a female version of Rocky Balboa, the fictional fighter so near and dear to the heart of Philadelphia, who said, “It ain’t how hard you’re hit; it’s about how hard you can get hit, and keep moving forward.” 

“Keep moving forward.” Isn’t that what pilgrims do?

On Sunday, September 27, 2015, I found myself open to what the experience would bring and ready to keep moving forward. As the early morning light illuminated the horizon, I joined a group of Marywood students, alumni, faculty, and staff in the parking lot at Nazarath Student Center.


Sister Anne, Marywood’s President, was there to greet us and wish us well. She had been honored to attend the Pope’s historic address to Congress just two days earlier, due to the generosity and kindness of Rep. Matt Cartwright. Sister Anne encouraged us to open our hearts to the words of Pope Francis and to receive whatever the Holy Spirit had in store for us.

Sister Cathy and several students led us in morning prayers, and the bus trip was quiet and peaceful.

Anyone who has traveled to the City of Brotherly Love knows the Schuylkill Expressway is not for the faint of heart, so I wondered what we would face once we got nearer to Philadelphia. However, we were waved through police roadblocks and zoomed down the Schuylkill, which looked like a deserted country road.

The buses were directed to the lots at Citizens Bank Park in South Philadelphia. From there, it was up to us, a group of hopeful pilgrims in Marywood t-shirts, to navigate our way to the “Promised Land”—the Ben Franklin Parkway, a distance of roughly 4.3 miles.


We traveled along Broad Street with cheerful smiles and Marywood signs, which were held in the air as visual anchors to keep us together throughout our journey. Along each corner, members of Pennsylvania’s National Guard stood, handing out maps, offering directions, and kind words of encouragement. Throngs of vendors hawked their goods, from Papal flags and t-shirts to Pope Francis dolls and pins.


As we neared City Hall, the crowds grew exponentially. We heard the lively beat of drums and joyfully sung “Alleluias” from one group, while African-styled spirituals could be heard from another. We did encounter a smattering of people protesting the Pope’s visit, but they were vastly outnumbered by the throngs of faithful people of all backgrounds and beliefs, called by love.

We lingered by City Hall for a while, just enjoying the sights and sounds before us. Several people along the way, including some of our alumni or those who were simply familiar with Northeast Pennsylvania, offered us encouragement and shouts of “Hey, Marywood! Hooray, Marywood!”


We tried to line up at a few different security checks, none of which seemed to be moving, so we eventually wove our way through the crowded roads to arrive at Callowhill and 22nd Streets—the last security check available to us.

It was a good place to be. Once we cleared security we found ourselves at an excellent location, right in front of the Rodin Museum along the Ben Franklin Parkway.


The entire Parkway was filled with more humanity than I’ve ever encountered in one place, but our spot in front of the museum allowed us close access to the road. I was caught up in the joy of the crowd, the energy and enthusiasm of the students, and my own personal accomplishment of smiling while tolerating the pain of walking multiple miles. Any discomfort took a backseat to the meaning of the moment. It struck me that no rock star, no politician, no celebrity could bring this many people together. The work of God is greater than all of those and infinitely more meaningful!

Before we knew it, a groundswell of cheers rose from the crowd. We couldn’t see him yet, but we knew he was near, so we readied our cameras and cell phones. Soon, we saw him. A genuine, warm smile radiated as Pope Francis waved, stopping right in front of us. I couldn’t believe it! Our students gasped, cheered, waved, and, of course, took pictures and videos. People shouted his name. He paused to kiss a baby before continuing on his way.


This visual encounter lasted less than a minute, yet it had a lifetime impact on me, on all in our group, and, assuredly, on the nearly one million other brothers and sisters who surrounded us. I closed my eyes and thought about the multitudes of people who gathered to see Jesus in His time. They may have only caught a glimpse or perhaps were not even close enough to see Him, yet they heard the sound of His voice, and His message changed them.

This message resonated in our hearts when scores of Extraordinary Ministers walked along Ben Franklin Parkway, accompanied by Papal umbrellas as a visual anchor, so all could have the opportunity to receive Jesus through Holy Communion.


Pope Francis reminded us that the little things we do make a big difference in the lives of others: a smile, a hug, a warm meal, a kind word—these small things can improve someone’s day. He referred to families as “true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.” As part of the great human family, he said, we are challenged to continually answer the question, “What kind of world do we want to leave to our children?”

I don’t think anyone who was there will ever forget the experience. Our students described the day as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” and they were glad to be a part of it. It is important to carry forth the meaning of this pilgrimage, to share the message of love that Pope Francis articulated, to recognize and appreciate the little miracles that enrich our lives daily, and to claim our role in shaping the kind of world that we want to leave to our children.

Topics: Catholic Respect Service News Magazine

Posted by Sheryl Lynn Sochoka

Sheryl Lynn is the Publications Director at Marywood University. A proud Marywood graduate and IHM Associate, she is greatly interested in the history of Marywood and of the IHM Sisters. When she's not online, she enjoys cooking, volunteering, being a Marching Band Mom, and waving her Terrible Towel for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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