Editor's note: This is a firsthand account from Times staffers Damian Rico and Vanessa Renderman about their trip to see Pope Francis.
When you learn the word "pilgrim" in grade school, it's usually the day you trace your hand on brown construction paper and cut out the resulting turkey shape. Pilgrims were people who came over on the Mayflower in black clothes and buckles on their hats, we're taught.
Today's pilgrims are more likely to be dressed in layers, wearing comfortable walking shoes with beef jerky and granola bars stuffed in their fanny packs. At least, that's what I saw. My co-worker Damian Rico and I counted ourselves among the pilgrims who traveled to Philadelphia last weekend to see Pope Francis.
A few hundred or more were from the Diocese of Gary, bused east to see the pontiff during his stops in Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia. A few minutes after 4 a.m. Sept. 25, we were en route to Philly.
Over the course of 12 hours, we talked, snacked, we sang Billy Joel songs and church hymns like, "Glory and Praise to Our God," and, "Be Not Afraid."
That night, we arrived at Damian's friends' house in Drexel Hill, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia. We plopped down our belongings, exchanged pleasantries and got back in the car to head into the heart of Philadelphia.
Night had fallen and a 10 p.m. street closure crept closer. Locals were told to prepare for the type of traffic jams that come with a foot of snow on the ground. Not so.
A group from St. Mary in East Chicago was staying at a building that used to be a Catholic school in Philadelphia. After navigating some one-way streets, we saw boys playing soccer in a parking lot and other people milling about. And we saw a mutual friend, Alfredo "Pepe" Flores. He showed us around.
The activity was on the third floor, with kids playing foosball and pool and mariachi players rehearsing in the hallways. The vibe was of joyful anticipation. The next day, those young mariachi players stood along a downtown Philadelphia street to perform and hopefully catch the eye of the pope as he passed.
We left Philadelphia and passed emergency vehicles with their lights flashing, poised on expressways ready to close the arteries promptly at 10 p.m.
The next morning, we drove to Cherry Hill, N.J., for Mass with Northwest Indiana Catholics at Christ Our Light Catholic Church. Diocese of Gary Bishop Donald Hying was celebrating Mass, with a few clergy con-celebrating.
After Mass and before the bishop offered reflection on the pope's words during his U.S. visit, we chatted with locals, some of whom were familiar faces. It was surreal and moving to see so many members of the Catholic family from Northwest Indiana on the East Coast, celebrating Mass together.
Then, Damian and I headed to Philadelphia. Their sports stadiums are clustered, so the parking was dedicated to pilgrims. We parked at the Wells Fargo Center and walked to the nearby subway stop.
People sang and laughed. They carried flags, snacks and bottles of water. Philadelphia city workers — from police to transit staff — were helpful and friendly, guiding us every step. The subway car was full but not overcrowded. In fewer than 10 minutes, we arrived in the heart of the city. We walked up the subway steps and into the crowded street where a Jumbotron played video of people singing and dancing.
At the security checkpoint, people laughed and chatted as they waited for TSA agents to screen every person and inspect every bag. We made it through and walked one block until we saw people lined up along a parade route. Damian had scored a ticket to an event, so we split up.
We agreed to meet six hours later at the Washington Grays Monument. I found a place along the route and pulled out my notebook. A man whisked past and I looked up to see why he was rushing. It was television journalist Anderson Cooper.
I returned to my writing. The day got colder, the wind whipped more harshly, the sun sank lower and my battery kept draining with every Twitter and Facebook post. Five hours later, I was down to 7 percent battery on my phone and the pope had yet to arrive.
Babies started crying, setting off a domino effect of other crying babies. The friendly, jovial vibe was turning antsy. Police in the streets initiated "the wave" to keep people energized. The clock inched closer to the time I was supposed to meet Damian.
Then came a flurry of emergency vehicles. People aimed their camera phones toward the street as we had done at least a half-dozen other times earlier that were all false alarms.
"It's him!" a tall man who could see above the crowd confirmed.
I grabbed my phone, turned the camera to the video setting and hit "record." I didn't want to see the Pope through my phone. I wanted to see him with my own eyes. My footage was shaky but my eyes saw him slowly roll by in his pope mobile. He waved and smiled, turning to face each side of the street. We screamed and cheered as he passed. In 40 seconds, he was gone.
Meanwhile, Damian was having his own experience.
"As I trekked through the streets of downtown Philly for over 1 mile, carrying about 30 pounds of camera equipment, you can imagine my devastation when I found out I had been misinformed and in all actuality I just came from the exact location that I needed to be," he said.
"After I was able to breathe and let go of the frustration and anger I was originally feeling, I was able to reflect and transform discouragement into a state of grace," he said.
"As I headed back, I thought about Jesus' plight carrying his cross and falling time and again, and it became increasingly easier to forget my minor inconvenience," he said. "As I started back on my journey, I ran into this disheveled character selling tickets for the event about to happen in minutes just a block away. He sold me a complimentary ticket for $30 as a woman asked me not to give him a dime, 'Because he's trying to make money off this papal visit.'
"Although, I told her she was exactly correct, I couldn't help to think about the amount of money I paid for Billy Joel tickets just weeks prior," he said. "This was $30 to see the Holy Father, and quite frankly, I couldn't even purchase a concert T-shirt for that amount.
"The woman asked me what I would do if it was a bad ticket and I told her that I would continue to pray for those that prey on others," he said. "I also told her the man will be back hustling some other event in a few days and no matter how much money he made that day or any other, it probably would not make his life better off. She agreed and told me that she didn't think of it that way. I really appreciated her looking out for me as if I was her own son."
What happened next was one of the most inspiring moments in his life.
"As I found a spot on the parade route and set up my cameras, folks asked me about the size of my lenses and asked if I would be able to send them a photo or two," he said. "About six women kindly took it into their own hands to encourage those around us to not block my view. The faithful onlookers emphatically obliged and showed great enthusiasm and encouragement, allowing some wonderful shots on this perfect overcast afternoon.
"Thousands of people, for the next 15 to 20 minutes or so, lived and loved in perfect harmony and exhibited great compassion and value for their neighbors," he said. "Not once did those experiencing Pope Francis' visit talk about religious affiliation, yet embraced each other's commitment to their faith.
"As Pope Francis came around the corner waving, smiling, kissing babies and blessing onlookers, I realized he was not an ambassador for Catholicism, but an ambassador for humanity," he said. "I couldn't stop the tears from falling behind my camera and all of my ups and downs, failures and blessings instantly ran through my mind. I looked around and I could see others shared the same sentiment.
"Pope Francis' presence was one of the most inspiring experiences I have ever been part of," he said. "I couldn't help but think the reaction people exemplified had to be similar to those of The Beatles coming to America in 1964. In no way, shape or form am I comparing the Holy Father's beautiful spiritual presence to that of The Fab Four, but I do recognize his message is strikingly similar — all you need is love."