Arizonans recount ‘beautiful’ experience of seeing pope in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA – They sang, they danced, they cheered through the streets of Philadelphia this weekend as Pope Francis made the last stop on his U.S. tour.

The visit, coming at the culmination of the World Meeting of Families, had a decidedly different vibe than the pope’s policy-oriented visits to Washington and New York last week. And that was just fine with the Arizona residents who made the trip here.

“(It’s) really just a great atmosphere of everybody just smiling and having a good time,” said Kimberly Robinson, a Mesa resident who was there with her mom, Dotty, who got the trip as a birthday present from her kids.

Dotty Robinson echoed her daughter’s description of “good spirits all over.”

“It’s just an honor to be here and meet all different kinds of cultures, different kinds of religion, you don’t have to be a Catholic,” said Dotty Robinson, who said it was “just exciting” to be around the people.

Hundreds of thousands of people were on hand Sunday as the pope celebrated an outdoor Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the heart of the city. His visit shut down much of central Philadelphia for the weekend.

Pope Francis began his tour more than a week ago with a three-day visit to Cuba, followed by three days in Washington where he was hosted at the White House by President Barack Obama and addressed Congress – the first time a pope has done so.

On Friday, he arrived in New York where he addressed the U.N. General Assembly before heading to Philadelphia, where his appearances took a more pastoral turn. Pope Francis met in Philadelphia with people who had been sexually abused by priests and others, visited a prison and addressed a gathering of bishops.

– Cronkite News video by Elizabeth Blackburn

He also cruised through the city in the Popemobile, giving Phoenix resident Maria Duran a chance for an unexpectedly close encounter with the pontiff.

Duran was in Philadelphia with a group of volunteers from Promise Arizona who hoped to deliver a gift to the pope – a scroll-like document in Spanish that asked the pope to “hear the claims of the people” in the U.S. who have been affected by immigration and deportation. It had pages of signatures attached from people like Duran.

“We brought him a gift with a message where we thank him for supporting us as immigrants and for bringing up issues that are affecting us,” Duran said in Spanish. “I’ve suffered a lot for being undocumented, because 20 years ago, I left my daughter in Mexico and I have not seen her since.”

But Duran said Pope Francis’ recent addresses to national and international lawmakers has given her new hope.

Brian Sanchez’s family situation also brought him to Philadelphia with Promise Arizona.

“This is important for my family because it’s me and my mom,” said Sanchez, who was in Philadelphia with his mother. “It’s just me and her. She left her sisters 17 years ago just so I can have a better education,”

During one of the pope’s trips through town, Duran came tantalizingly close to delivering their message. As the motorcade passed, “even the police moved to the side so that I could give him the gift,” she said. “I even saw Pope Francis extend his hand waiting to receive it” but the motorcade moved on.

For Sanchez, being that close to the pope, alongside his mother, “was exciting and a little bit uncomfortable because people were pushing trying to see. But it was exciting watching him pass by.”

Michael and Sharon Phelan traveled from Phoenix with their six kids for the World Meeting of Families, and stayed for Sunday’s Mass to get the pope’s blessing – a blessing they hope will spread beyond Philadelphia.

“To be here to experience the World Meeting of Families with our own family, then with our Catholic family and brothers and sisters from around the world is really overwhelming,” Sharon Phelan said. “And to be with our pope today who loves us, and is teaching us at every moment is really overwhelming.”

Elizabeth Nance of Gilbert had long planned to bring her family to see the pope this weekend – and was excited to get tickets at the last-minute for all of them to attend Sunday’s Mass.

“I was so overwhelmed, I’m still overwhelmed,” Nance said after the Mass. “It has been such a blessing and it has been so surreal to see him so close.”

Her 13-year-old son, Angel, said he was sorry to see the end Sunday of what he called “probably one of the best days of my life.”

“I am just really blessed to have this experience,” Angel said. “I never thought that I would ever be able to see the pope. I’m just really happy that I did.”

And even though Duran was not able to deliver her gift to the pope, she said she will still remember the weekend as a “beautiful experience.”

“It has been a beautiful moment with a lot of emotions,” she said. “What a beautiful experience, and memories that I will never forget.”

– Cronkite News video by Adriana Barajas