Michigan pilgrims travel to see Pope Francis

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Amy Pereira said the idea came from a flier she saw from the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids about a pilgrimage to Philadelphia for the outdoor Mass led by Pope Francis during his first visit to the United States.

John and Laura Ashmore visit Our Lady of Consolation Catholic Church Sunday with daughter and son-in-law Amy and Clive Pereira, and their sons Caleb, 8, and Nevin, 6. They’re heading to Philadelphia to hear Pope Francis.

That was four months ago. This week, she packs her bags in Rockford and boards a bus bound for Philly with three generations of her family: husband, Clive; sons, Caleb, 8, and Nevin, 6; and parents, John and Laura Ashmore.

“We want to take our kids somewhere outside of the city, in order to hopefully meet some other families from around the world,” Pereira said. “Really, we’re looking at it as a family adventure together — a family pilgrimage.”

The Pereiras and Ashmores are among hundreds of Michigan pilgrims bound for Pennsylvania this week to witness part of the pope’s historic trip. Pope Francis’ travel ends in Philadelphia on Sunday, where he celebrates Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway before an expected crowd of 1 million Catholics, marking the closing of the week-long World Meeting of Families.

Michigan’s pilgrims range in age from 8 to nearly 80, and hail from parishes around the state, organizers said. Many said they’re excited to take part in a historic gathering of the universal church, where an estimated 150 countries will be represented.

Pope Benedict XVI, in April 2008, made the last papal visit to the United States, visiting New York City and Washington, D.C.

Michigan’s last papal visit was 25 years ago in 1987, when Pope John Paul II’s itinerary included stops in the heavily Polish enclave of Hamtramck, and a Mass attended by nearly 100,000 in the now defunct Pontiac Silverdome.

In her 20s, Pereira attended a World Youth Day gathering in Toronto, where she recalled feeling “a part of something bigger,” standing amid thousands of other Catholics at a Mass celebrated by John Paul II.

“Sometimes, when you’re not always around people who believe the way you do, you can feel alone,” she said. “But everyone together, millions of members of the church in one place, really inspired me in my faith.”

More than 420 pilgrims from the Metro Detroit, Lansing, and Saginaw areas have made trip arrangements through Dearborn Heights-based Corporate Travel, which is overseeing seven or eight busloads of travelers, in addition to reservations for those flying into Philadelphia, said Jean Chase, international sales account manager for the travel agency.

Pope Francis

Many of the buses are traveling 10 to 11 hours through the night Friday, then leaving after Francis’ Mass on Sunday night, she said. Chase has warned group members that they shouldn’t be thinking of the trip as a vacation.

“You have to be prepared for long bus rides, long lines and lots of walking,” said Chase, who will serve as an official tour manager in Philadelphia for a group traveling from Orange County, California.

“It’s a historic moment for Catholics and Christians across North America. At the same time, this isn’t a luxury trip.”

One hundred and fifty-four pilgrims are loading up three buses to make the trek from the Catholic Diocese of Grand Rapids for the weekend, in addition to a vanload of travelers leaving Monday for the entire week’s worth of festivities at the World Meeting of Families, said Mark Mann, director of family youth and young adult ministries.

The diocese began a waiting list for interested pilgrims three months ago.But some people who committed later realized the trip is not for them.

“Going to an outdoor papal Mass is like extreme sports for Catholics,” Mann said. “It’s an incredible experience, but it can be rigorous. There’s lots of walking involved. Others are very excited to be part of the crowd, and to really be a part of history in our church and in our country.”

Many routes into downtown Philadelphia will be closed for security purposes, so the buses will drop off pilgrims near sports stadiums and they will travel the rest of the way by subway and on foot, Mann said.

For those who can’t make the trip to Philadelphia, the diocese has designated several parishes where the papal events will be live-streamed for those interested.

For security purposes, people aren’t allowed to bring chairs or umbrellas inside the security perimeter up and down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

Patty Hubbard, coordinator of the youth ministry at Holy Family Parish in Novi, who is traveling with a group of 22 to Philly, has advised her group to pack plenty of snacks, sunblock and comfortable shoes.

“It’s just part of the experience,” Hubbard said. “This is a time for the church in the U.S. to be excited and greet him with joy, and hope that his visit will draw people back to the church that have fallen away.”

Florence Parent of St. Anastasia Church in Troy is packing about a hundred medals of Pope Francis for him to bless during the Mass. She plans to give them as gifts to family members, friends and students in the confirmation and religious education classes that she teaches.

“There will be a time during the Mass when the pope will ask people to hold them up,” she said. “When you’re in the presence of the pope, it takes you aback, because you know he is praying for every Catholic, leading us all.”

The pilgrimage of Bill and Diane Thelen of Pewamo has special significance to them as they are making the trip to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this week at the World Meeting of Families. They’ve attended other Catholic eucharistic conferences, including one in Quebec in 1976.

“It’s just a blessing to see all the different people and different nationalities,” Bill said.

“When you go to these things, you just open your world up and get out of your comfort zone, and start to see a bigger picture of what God is doing in not just your own life but in the world. It’s a World Meeting of Families, after all.”

Terry Walsh, the CEO and president of Catholic Charities of Western Michigan, is traveling to Washington to attend a Mass at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at Catholic University on Wednesday, where Pope Francis will canonize the Junipero Serra, who will be the first Hispanic-American saint.

Walsh admires Francis’ emphasis on welcoming the “stranger among us,” urging Catholics to get outside the church walls and care for the hungry, sick, the imprisoned and the poor.

“It’s so cool because it mirrors what we do at Catholic Charities,” Walsh said. “For Catholics, it’s really inspiring because it gets people in touch with their faith, and reminds Catholics why we are catholic in terms of serving those most in need.”


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Pope Francis in the U.S.

Tuesday: Arrives in the U.S. from Cuba, landing at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, where he will be greeted by the president.

Wednesday: Meets with the president at the White House; participates in a parade along the Ellipse and National Mall; prays with American bishops; celebrates a Mass of Canonization of Junipero Serra.

Thursday: Addresses Congress; visits St. Patrick in the City and Catholic Charities in Washington; flies to New York City, where he participates in vespers at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Friday: Visits the United Nations; participates in a multi-religious service at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum; visits a Catholic school in East Harlem; processes through Central Park; celebrates Mass at Madison Square Garden.

Saturday: Flies to Philadelphia for Mass at Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul; visits Independence Mall; visits the Festival of Families.

Sunday: Meets with bishops in Philadelphia; visits a prison; celebrates mass at the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families; visits with festival organizers and volunteers.

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops