‘Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again, rejoice!” Pope Francis began his homily with these words, quoting Saint Paul in the second reading for the Canonization Mass of St. Junipero Serra. And rejoice is what we did! The seminarians and religious who filled the inside of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception erupted into a frenzy as we welcomed the Vicar of Christ into the Blessed Mother’s home. After months of anticipation, the Holy Father was finally in our nation’s capital.
My brother seminarians from Saint John Paul II Seminary and I were blessed not only to attend the Mass, but also to have the Holy Father visit our home.
The seminarians at JPII had been looking forward to this day for months. When Pope Francis first announced his trip to D.C., Cardinal Wuerl told us that he would suggest our seminary as one of the “must see’s” in Washington. When it became evident that this suggestion would become reality, my brothers and I found it difficult to talk about anything else! What made the experience more real were the frequent visits by the Secret Service. That was truly when we knew this was really going to happen!
On the day of the Mass and visit, we made our way down to the basilica escorted by Secret Service. After spending some time in prayer, greeting our friends inside the church, and watching some of the coverage of the Pope’s visit, the moment finally arrived when Pope Francis walked inside the shrine.
A wave of cheers and applause! Seeing the Vicar of Christ in person is indescribable. Many of us in the room had only seen him in the news, on prayer cards, or as a toy figurine. But before us was Peter himself. Even though he was flanked by security, Pope Francis took his time down the center aisle, smiling and greeting the crowd. When he made it to the top of the steps of the sanctuary, Cardinal Wuerl, who was accompanying him, invited him to turn around so that he could take a good look at the future of the Catholic Church in America. We roared into another round of cheers and applause for our pope, but we quickly quieted ourselves as the Holy Father made the sign of the cross and gave us his blessing. The Holy Spirit’s presence filled the entire basilica.
The Mass itself was so beautiful, and to be a part of history for the first-ever canonization on American soil was a “once in a lifetime” experience. Following Mass, my brothers and I were again escorted by Secret Service back to the seminary where we awaited Pope Francis’ arrival.
We gathered on the front steps, and one by one, motorcycles and police cars rounded the corner. Finally, the Fiat 500 we were waiting for came into view. The Holy Father pulled in front of the seminary and was greeted with chants of “Francisco! Francisco!” by his future priests. He stepped out with the biggest smile on his face. You never would have thought that he had just come from celebrating a Mass with more than 25,000 people in attendance.
With the help of his translator, Pope Francis shared a few words with us in Spanish, nothing prepared but straight from the heart. He told us that he was so happy to see young men listening to God’s call and answering it. What he said next, however, caught me off guard. He asked, “Do you adore Jesus? I know you love Him. You pray to Him; you worship Him; you serve Him – but do you truly adore Him above everything?” What a profoundly simple, yet important, question the Holy Father himself posed to us. Pope Francis was reminding us that having an incredibly deep relationship with our Lord is the key to a fruitful priesthood.
Another key to a fruitful priesthood? Tired priests. Pope Francis told us that a good priest is one who works and works and works and goes to bed each night tired (and without the help of medicine!). We had an example of this kind of priest before our eyes in the Holy Father. He could have returned to the Apostolic Nunciature immediately after Mass, but the leader of 1.2 billion Catholics chose to spend a few minutes at the end of a very busy day with 49 seminarians. Blessed does not even begin to describe how my brothers and I felt.
In true “Francis” fashion, he concluded his remarks by reminding us that he too is a sinner and asked us to pray for him as he promises to pray for us. He, along with Cardinal Wuerl, joined us on the front steps to take a few pictures. Before he departed, we sang “Lauda Jerusalem” as he blessed a few articles and left us with the following handwritten message: “May the seminarians of Saint John Paul II Seminary grow daily in their love for Jesus and be his witnesses to the world. And please, pray for me. Don’t forget!! – Francis”
We won’t forget, Your Holiness!
(Patrick Agustin is a second year pre-theology student at the Archdiocese of Washington’s St. John Paul II Seminary.)