Paul VI students make pilgrimage up I-95

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Ten students from Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, three chaperones and Father Michael J. R. Kelly, Paul VI chaplain, made a pilgrimage to Philadelphia Sept. 26-27 for Pope Francis' visit to the World Meeting of Families.

"It really stood out to me that so many people, both Catholic and non-Catholic, came out to see (Pope Francis), especially for the Mass," said senior Claire Rudden. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and I don't think I will ever be able to forget it."

The pilgrimage began with a bus ride Sept. 25 to Sandy Hill Camp and Retreat Center in North East, Md., where the students met up with other youth groups from around the diocese. Many of the students woke early the next morning to watch the sun rise over the Chesapeake Bay before celebrating Mass and heading for Philadelphia.

Met by crowds numbering in the thousands trying to enter the city, the students waited a long time at the security checkpoint. They finally were able to enter just in time to see Pope Francis ride through the streets.

"The moment the crowd started screaming and cheering, I knew that Pope Francis was riding down the street," said junior Peter Braun. "When I saw the Holy Father, I felt incredibly lucky and blessed."

Following the parade, the Paul VI group gathered near a Jumbotron to watch Pope Francis' evening address at the World Meeting of Families.

Thanks to a generous donation from a parishioner of Church of the Nativity in Burke, the Paul VI group received tickets to Sunday's papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

"My first thought was, 'Thank you, God, for being merciful to us,'" said Father Kelly. "It was an unexpected gift, and I hadn't even thought to ask because I thought there was no way we would get one ticket, let alone 14."

In an effort to avoid some of the longer lines waiting for admission to the Mass, the group decided to try another security entrance on the opposite side of the altar. Their gamble was worthwhile, and they were able to see the Holy Father from their seats.

"Having to part a crowd of thousands of people to get … to another entrance to see Pope Francis was an experience that will stay with me forever," said senior Tim Newell.

After boarding the buses and beginning the journey back to Fairfax, the Paul VI pilgrims had the chance to reflect on what the trip meant to them.

"When our group departed for Philadelphia, we had absolutely no idea that just the sight of Pope Francis would impact our lives so much," said senior John Mullen. "Seeing the large crowds all in Philadelphia for the sole purpose of being with the pope was inspiring."

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015