by Maureen Pratt
I was thrilled to learn I would be one of the people from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Calif., to attend the Sept. 23 Mass outside Washington’s Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception where Pope Francis would canonize Blessed Junipero Serra.
I had researched and written about the 18th-century California missionary, and now my journey would come full circle. But there was a hitch. My ticket placed me outdoors in a standing section.
My disabilities would not allow me to endure the long hours in the sun required by that location, so I contacted the office charged with accommodating the many with disabilities who also would attend but needed help.
After some discussion, I was given a place inside the basilica, which turned out to be perfect in many ways and a refreshing surprise in one particular way.
Also inside the basilica were more than 3,000 seminarians and religious-order novices who were invited there specifically to have a closer encounter with Pope Francis.
As soon as I walked into the building, there was a palpable buzz in the air punctuated by laughter, hugs, selfies and especially, smiles. I had a sense that many of these men and women never had met but were familiar to one another – family, in fact – because of their decision to enter a holy calling.
A free-wheeling joy circulated as more arrived, mingled and settled in.
As the time approached for Mass to begin, ushers walked down the center aisle, installing blue rope to prevent us from moving into the space where Pope Francis would walk.
He was scheduled to enter from the basilica’s main door. The plan was for him to go down this path lined with future priests, brothers and sisters.
The buzz quieted as we watched on the jumbo TV screen as Pope Francis arrived outside. Clicks were heard throughout the vaulted basilica from last-minute camera checks. Most kept looking back at the tall basilica doors soon to open.
When they did open, a roar went up that might well have lifted the basilica’s main dome. Most climbed up on the pews to get a better view and precious photos.
This wasn’t the aggressive surge I’ve seen at other photo opportunity sites. It lifted a joy and enthusiasm that spoke volumes of holy commitment – willingness to both follow and lead – and expressive love.
When Pope Francis completed his entrance, he walked into the Blessed Sacrament Chapel for private prayer. The basilica fell still as we inside also prayed. Then the pope walked across the sanctuary and into the vesting area. When he re-emerged, vested for Mass, the excitement erupted again.
When researching Blessed Serra I found myself wondering, “What kind of devotion will St. Junipero inspire?” I heard several possibilities, but one kept being repeated: He would be associated with prayer and support for vocations.
I familiarized myself with Serra International, an organization dedicated to supporting priestly vocations. But perhaps because Junipero Serra represents a completely different time when the world of vocations was administered differently, I still wondered – until I stepped into the basilica.
The connection running from Pope Francis to Junipero Serra to all those seminarians and religious-order novices gathered to celebrate the canonization of our newest saint was tangible in joy, eagerness to serve and delight in meeting new faces and faith-graced love. I have a feeling that the energy generated in the basilica will be a potent force for good as St. Junipero’s new status settles into the Church.
Maureen Pratt is a syndicated columnist for Catholic News Service.