‘An overwhelming blessing': Religious novices, seminarians in presence of pope

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Like the newly sainted Father Junípero Serra whose great faith inspired long treks, thousands of seminarians and religious novices traveled vast distances to attend the Franciscan friar's canonization Mass and see Pope Francis.

Their pilgrimages to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington Sept. 23 varied in length and effort, but the journeys all culminated with a soul-moving experience.

"It was surreal, really," said Sister Stephanie Gabriel, a novice with the Sisters, Servant of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, who grew up a parishioner of All Saints Church in Manassas. She is also a former editorial assistant for the Catholic Herald. "The experience of being so close to the pope, to Peter, was beautiful," Sister Stephanie Gabriel said.

Prior to the late-afternoon outdoor Mass, the pope briefly went inside the shrine, blessed those in the pews and prayed in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel. Approximately 3,600 U.S. men and women in religious formation were inside the shrine, the largest Roman Catholic church in North America.

"It is such an overwhelming blessing, a great privilege to be there today," said Sister Peter Catherine, a Dominican Sister of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist. With her fellow novices, Sister Peter Catherine made the 11-hour drive from their convent in Ann Arbor, Mich.

As a native Californian, she felt a special connection to the brand-new saint, who traveled up and down the California coast spreading the Gospel.

Though there's been concern about how he treated native peoples, Sister Peter Catherine said that the more she's learned about the Spanish saint, the more she appreciates his approach to ministry.

"He loved those he ministered to and did all he could to defend the native people from brutal soldiers, and he taught them agriculture, as well as the faith."

Seminarian Joseph Hubbard beamed before Mass as he spoke about the experience. He'd come from Boston with a group of seminarians from St. John's Seminary.

Along with prayer, Hubbard had been studying the pope in preparation for the trip to the nation's capital. "I didn't want this to be just about fanfare; I wanted it to be about encounter," he said. "Pope Francis' message of mercy really resonates with the human heart."

After leaving the motherhouse in Immaculata, Pa., at 5 a.m. via car, riding the Metro to D.C. from Virginia and waiting nearly four hours to get inside the shrine, Sister Stephanie Gabriel was ready to be in the presence of the Holy Father. Yet that dream almost dissolved into disappointment.

"When we got in, there were no seats available," said Sister Stephanie Gabriel. She thought she and her two fellow sisters would have to sit outside. "It was very disheartening," she said.

Just as they were giving up, Sister Stephanie Gabriel saw a novice she knew from a different order in Philadelphia, who offered her a spot. "She was so generous and kind," said Sister Stephanie Gabriel. The other two sisters also eventually found seats nearby.

When the pope finally walked up the center aisle of the basilica, Sister Stephanie Gabriel was just feet away.

"I had this impulse to reach out (and) to be close to him," she said, her face glowing.

She'd been to Masses with Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but she'd never been that near a pope. "To be so close, you see this love that just radiates from him," she said.

It also was the first time she'd been in the presence of the Holy Father as a religious.

"Our mission as religious is in the heart of the church," she said. "We are called in a special way to make present the light of Jesus in the world."

Thus, seeing the leader of the church provided "an even deeper joy this time."

And it was that joy, along with the grace it brings, that made the journey and wait so worth it.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015