Several Alaskans made personal, cross-country trips to see Pope Francis during his recent visit to the United States in late September. Among them were Father Tom Lilly, Mary Gore and her sister Annie Gore and Joan Nockles. These pilgrims recalled their trip to with much joy and fondness.
On September 22, Pope Francis began his historic five-day apostolic visit to the United States. He started in Washington, DC, where he met with President Barack Obama, addressed Congress and canonized Saint Junipero Serra — the first saint to be canonized on American soil.
From there, he went to New York City where he addressed the United Nations, attended an inter-religious service at the 9/11 Memorial and celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden. His trip culminated in Philadelphia, where he attended the World Meeting of Families.
Father Lilly, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage, was deeply moved by his experience of seeing the pope address the U.S. Congress in the Capital Building. In particular he said he was struck by how the nation’s powerful political leaders encountered the humility of the church’s leader.
“There are a few moments in life when, as you’re experiencing them, you know you’ll remember the moment for the rest of your life,” he recalled.
Father Lilly witnessed the historic address thanks to an invitation and ticket from one of his parishioners — U.S. Senator Dan Sullivan.
Father Lilly marveled that the Holy Father was a clear voice of moral conscience rather than of political persuasion, and that he clearly touched the hearts of all present, whatever their political party.
“His address did not shy away from real points of disagreement, but he did not wag a finger at anyone,” Father Lilly recalled. “He spoke as a pastor and a shepherd.”
He added: “On televised congressional sessions, I commonly see one side or the other standing to applaud. With [that] session, there was an undeniably spiritual air to the gathering. Everyone stood and applauded and seemed to recognize that the pope was calling everyone to a more radical embrace of the Gospel, regardless of one’s political persuasion.”
Mary Gore, executive director for the Alaska Catholic Conference of Bishops, attended both the White House welcoming ceremony for the pope and the canonization Mass for Saint Junipero Serra. Her sister’s desire to see the Holy Father, and Mary’s desire to share that once-in-a-lifetime experience is what prompted them to make the long journey to Washington, DC.
Gore described the White House ceremony as “unique.” They arrived at 7:30 a.m., and were standing near an off-duty CBS cameraman who was able to give them updates and commentary for the event. When Pope Francis finally arrived, there were 15,000 people gathered on the White House lawn to welcome him.
“For me, the most amazing thing about the event was when our Holy Father spoke,” Gore said. “It was so quiet that you could have heard the proverbial pin drop. It seemed as if the wind ceased to blow, the ambient traffic noise ended, and all creation listened. Cheers and clapping erupted at times during his short talk, but quickly quieted as people hung on his words.”
Gore’s next stop was the canonization Mass, a mere six hours later on the lawn of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. Because the Mass was celebrated in Spanish, of which Mary has limited knowledge, she focused on simply being present and taking in the sacred celebration through her senses.
From their section, the Gore sisters had remarkable views of the procession, and of the faithful eager to be in the Holy Father’s presence.
“It was amazing to take in the devotion this pope inspires in people from all walks of life and faith traditions. The feelings [inspired by this event] are hard to describe and name — they are forever imprinted on my heart and soul.”
Gore’s trip to the nation’s capitol was short – a mere 55 hours, but she will remember the time spent living the faith with her sister.
“Ultimately, there is something about spending time with family that makes every waking moment blessed and holy,” she said.
Mary’s sister, Annie Gore, was so grateful that Mary made the trip with her.
“The day started at 4:50 a.m. to get moving toward the White House. It was cold in the morning, hot in the afternoon, and it was windy,” Annie recounted. “Sometimes we could see and hear, and sometimes we couldn’t. But, in the end, it was just being a part of the experience of being on a pilgrimage with so many other people who were there for the same reason. Since I don’t speak Spanish, the Mass itself was a time to sit and take in the sounds of the words, without knowing what he was saying, but knowing that they were something beautiful and sacred. Being able to pray to the sound of his voice was probably something that I’ll never be able to do again in my lifetime.”
Annie wrote about their upcoming trip on her Facebook page, and her friend from Anchorage, Joan Nockles responded that she was also in Washington, D.C., giving a speech to the National Indian Health Board. The Gores had extra tickets to the canonization Mass, which they were able to give to Nockles.
“On my way to Washington, I visited my mother in Chicago, who was in hospice,” Nockles told the Catholic Anchor. “She was a life-long Catholic, and sent her rosary with me to be blessed by Pope Francis. I held that rosary all through Mass, praying for her. Being there felt like a mission — I was there in her place. We buried my mother with that rosary that had been blessed by Pope Francis, whom she loved. I had already had tickets to see the pope at Congress, but the Mass was more special. There were so many people there, but it felt like being home with family.”