Antigo — It started, for some, as an admittedly selfish desire to see a rock star pope, to be able to brag that “I was there” when Francis came to America.
It ended, for all, as a call to humility and a vow to work toward the betterment of their community.
Antigo sent an eight-person contingent to Philadelphia as part of the Green Bay Diocese’s pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ inaugural visit to the United States Sept. 23 to 27. They called it a life-altering experience.
“I started with a selfish reason, to see the pope,” said Tom Bradley, who attended with his wife, Laurel. “I came home with a new sense of humility. This, for me, was more fulfilling than any trip I have ever made.”
“This wasn’t like a normal trip where, when you get home, you unpack your belongings,” Laurel Bradley added. “After this, you have to unpack all the experiences. It continues to grow on you, the need to share it with others.”
Joining the Bradleys on the pilgrimage were fellow St. John the Evangelist parishioners Lynne and Brad Henricks and Fr. Charles Hoffmann, who now serves St. Joseph-Holy Family Parish in Phlox after decades at St. John’s. Also on the trip were Srs. Dolores Demulling, Jean Bricco and Adele Demulling, members of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph.
Each member of the group came away with unique impressions.
Henricks, Langlade County’s emergency management director, stressed security, the need to protect the pontiff and handle a crowd estimated at 1 million.
“Think of the time and effort needed to plan that event,” he said. “Just the logistics of shutting down major highways, or coordinating and parking the buses and using the subway as the only means of bringing people in and out.”
An army of extra emergency medical services and law enforcement personnel were on hand, with snipers on the rooftops, he said.
“They had cases and cases of free water for the crowd,” he said. “And all of it was done with a friendly, positive attitude by everyone around us.”
His wife echoed her husband’s enthusiasm, reflecting on the diverse crowd, ranging from the very young to the elderly, all anxious to catch a glimpse of the pope.
“Once we were through security, the streets became silent as Pope Francis spoke from Independence Hall via the Jumbotron,” Lynne Henricks said. “Then he made his way down the streets of Philly. You saw a white light coming down the street and it was our Pope Francis. … It was a privilege to be there.”
“I wanted the whole experience to go slower, so I could experience more,” she added.
The Antigo group managed to secure a location with a view of the altar as Francis led the papal Mass. Over 500 priests and deacons were on hand to distribute Communion.
“I was awed by all the people and the various nationalities,” Fr. Hoffmann said. “The word ‘Catholic’ means universal, and to see all the people who gathered together brought out the universality of the church.”
Brad Henricks agreed.
“We really saw the scope of how universal the church is, with all the different nationalities there and the papal Mass being said in different languages,” Henricks said. “Yet everyone understood the significance of the celebration.”
The sisters were also impressed, calling it “the experience of a lifetime.”
“The Holy Father truly has the ability and charism to excite people and give us hope, especially that things in the world can be better,” Sr. Adele said. “There was tremendous enthusiasm and interest.”
“The experience was very humbling and one realizes God’s love,” Sr. Dolores added. “I felt tremendously blessed to see Pope Francis and receive his blessing directly from the popemobile.”
The event was closely followed — and attended — by many outside the Catholic community. The World Meeting of Families was a Catholic event but people of varied faiths used the visit as an opportunity to see and hear Francis.
“I think it is the man’s humility that draws people to him,” Tom Bradley said. “There were quotes from Francis hung on lamp posts all around town, and all the statements were about how we should live by trying to learn humility.”
“You don’t have to be Catholic, with a capital C, to be catholic, with a small C,” Laurel Bradley said.
That ecumenical spirit remained evident after the group returned to Antigo. Numerous friends quizzed them about the outing and Fr. Hoffmann got a surprise when he stopped by the local coffee shop on Tuesday morning, after a Green Bay Packer Monday night football win.
“When I sat down at the counter, there wasn’t a word about the Packers,” Fr. Hoffmann, an ardent fan, said. “It was all about the pope. Now that’s unheard of.”
The pilgrimage to Philadelphia lasted only a few dozen hours, but those attending said the results will be long-lasting.
“We prayed for all of our community in Antigo and our families and for us, our religious sisters,” Sr. Jean said. “It is impossible to express in words the essence of the experience. I can only thank God and all who were responsible for the event.”
“I have more work to do to evangelize,” Bradley said. “I feel a call to action and carry his message back to the community.”
“There are things we can do to spread the call to duty that Francis gave us,” Lynne Henricks said. “I have a calling to dig deeper to help as Francis has helped.”