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For Miami pilgrims, trip to see Pope Francis was memorable and — so far — smooth

Teresita Gonzalez and Monica Lauzurique prepare for the arrival of Pope Francis in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2015. Both were part of a group, organized by the Archdiocese of Miami, that rode a bus through the night to be in position for the pope's visit.
Teresita Gonzalez and Monica Lauzurique prepare for the arrival of Pope Francis in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2015. Both were part of a group, organized by the Archdiocese of Miami, that rode a bus through the night to be in position for the pope's visit. TNS

Maybe somebody at a higher level was looking out for them.

A bus of pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Miami left South Florida around 11 a.m. on Tuesday, eased onto Interstate 95 and then rolled north for more than 1,000 congestion-free miles, hitting nary a slowdown on a highway legendary for them.

They had two quick pit stops — no lingering dinners — and watched two movies. Some people slept; most found it hard to do so.

And by 5 a.m. Wednesday, the group was in Washington, staking out prime territory along Constitution Avenue. The South Lawn of the White House was in front of them, the Washington Monument behind. For the first group photo of the day, the sky was still dark.

And then they waited.

Pope Francis wouldn’t come for another six hours. The group of 46 people from the Archdiocese of Miami was nestled firmly behind the metal barricades that separated the masses from the pontiff’s route. They joked with the police officers protecting the route. They arranged their sign, “We Love You! Welcome Pope Francis.”

But they didn’t budge from their prime papal real estate.

Sister Iliana Aponte of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Charity — known as La Ermita de la Caridad — has seen popes before: John Paul II and Benedict XVI, both at World Youth Day events. She made certain to be right at the front and had one of the best spots on the street.

“After so many hours,” she said, “it better be good.”

All around the Miami group, well-wishers, observers and a few rabble-rousers began to stack the parade route several people deep. Street vendors worked the crowd with constant chatter: “Pope T-shirts! Get your Pope T’s!”

“Flags for a dollar!”

And, as the wait neared its end: “Flags: Two for a dollar!”

For the Miami group, it was a fun event on a beautiful fall day. But it carried deep meaning as well.

Teresita Gonzalez , who does mission work for the archdiocese, has also seen the previous two popes, including a Miami visit by John Paul II during which it poured rain. The message and style from all three popes has been different. With Francis, she said, his message of simplicity and harmony is much needed.

“We’ve been missing tenderness in our public leaders,” she said. “This gives us an opportunity to revisit that.”

The message of simplicity was particularly telling for Bishop Fernando Isern, who was the pastor at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the West Kendall area until 2009. He then became a bishop in Pueblo, Colo., before retiring in 2013 and returning to Miami.

As a bishop emeritus, Isern could have participated in the pope’s visit with far greater access than riding a bus and staking out street space with thousands of others.

He found the experience “exhilarating.”

“I decided in the spirit of Pope Francis to be with the folks, with the masses,” he said. “The important thing is just being with others, and sharing in their enthusiasm. It was worth every minute of the bus ride.”

After more than six hours of waiting — and about 24 hours after their departure from Miami — the crowds started to buzz. Cameras and iPhones were hoisted over people’s heads as the pope whizzed by in his special vehicle.

It was over in a flash. The Miami group instantly started inspecting and sharing photos. Monica Lauzurique had one of the best ones — and somebody took a picture of her digital picture.

The day was far from over, however. Over the next 24 hours, the group was scheduled to view or observe two other papal events. The bus won’t head home until 3:30 p.m. Thursday. It’ll ride through the night and is due back in Miami at Friday noon.

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