When Sara Slaughter, a lifelong Catholic, was younger, she didn’t consider seeing the world leader of the Catholic Church or “some guy off in Rome doing stuff,” in person as a big deal.
Slaughter, now 15, said when she learned that her school planned to take a busload of students to see Pope Francis during his first visit to the U.S. this week, she was like “Let’s do it.”
The reason, said Slaughter, one of 51 high school students at St. Joseph’s Catholic School heading to Philadelphia to see the pope this week, is she feels this is the first time decisions made by the pope “actually affect us.”
“It affects the community I’m living in,” said Slaughter, of Spartanburg. “He’s the leader of the community. I can’t follow blindly in his footsteps, so this is really important to me to go and learn. I feel like older people know what the pope is to them. For me, this is sort of a discovery.”
It’s also a mission of discovery of sorts for Emily Pares, 16, also a student at St. Joseph’s.
“I’m going for my family and for all the people who are not able to go,” she said. “I’m going to pray for them and I’m going to see what I can find.”
The “heart journey” to Philadelphia, one of three U.S. stops for Pope Francis this week, is a different kind of discovery for Gabriel Lewis, campus minister at St. Joseph’s.
Lewis, 30, lived in Italy for two years. He’s had the experience of seeing popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI in person. This will be his first live view of Francis, who became the 266th pope on March 13, 2013.
“During the later years of John Paul II, he was very tired, very worn. He was leading the church, but he had been through so much suffering,” Lewis said. “Pope Benedict was not quite as charismatic. He was more intellectual. So, as someone who has been following the pope pretty consciously for 15 years, I really sense energy and the renewal coming from Pope Francis.”
Francis is likely the first pope many students at St. Joseph’s have known, Lewis said.
On Saturday, they’ll attend the Festival of Families in Philadelphia, at which Francis and a host of celebrities are scheduled to appear.
They’ll camp out for good seats for mass with the pope on Sunday, prior to his departure to Rome.
It’s not a vacation but rather a true pilgrimage, said St. Joseph’s headmaster Keith Kiser.
“We are traveling a far distance by bus, sleeping on the floor in a community center and planning to walk miles to get to and from the gatherings with the pope, yet from past experiences I know that we will be filled with the joy and peace that only come from gathering like this,” Kiser said.
Kiser said he’ll turn 50 next month but wants to be forever young in his faith, which is why he’s going on the pilgrimage.
The pontificate of Pope Francis, he said, “has taken me by surprise, something unexpected yet so good and demanding. For me, Pope Francis is a unique sign of the mercy and love of Christ and his words make me want to be more selfless, compassionate and forgiving.”
A few decades ago, as a youth minister, Kiser led three different trips to World Youth Day gatherings with Pope John Paul II.
“Those were life-changing experiences, as I expect this trip to Philly will be for the high school students and the chaperones,” Kiser said.
It also may be a life-changing experience for Bon Secours St. Francis Sisters Gabriela Ruiz and Rosa Sanchez, who came to Greenville from Peru four months ago. The sisters view the opportunity to see Francis, the first Latin American pope, as a gift.
They plan to see him on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., for a mass that will be conducted in Spanish.
Sanchez is hopeful that the pope will talk about respect and ways people can best help each other. She hopes the message that everyone gets is that families should love each other, parents should love their children, and children should love their parents.
The two told The Greenville News through an interpreter they are excited about the pope’s message of mercy to everyone and unity among all.
Ruiz said she hopes the pope will spread the unity message here in the U.S, especially given recent “news about immigrants and how some people feel about them.”
The Hispanic communities see the pope as a spiritual leader but also as hope for a policy for them to become legal in this country, she said.
She also notes that the pope’s message to young people — don’t cease from learning spiritually — is strong and young people are listening.
Students at St. Joseph’s are among the young people paying attention.
“We have so many issues, and he’s been working really hard to try to make sure we’re aware of these issues. I praise him for that,” Slaughter said.
Slaughter said she agrees with the stand the pope has taken on Planned Parenthood and abortion.
“He’s not condemning anybody, which I feel is really important for those people who have been through that experience and who aren’t Catholic,” she said.
“Many people see the Catholic Church as a condemning institution that wants to tell everybody they’re going to hell, but the pope has made it very clear that that’s not our mission,” she said. “He declared a year of mercy and in this year of mercy, he actually granted priests the right to absolve people of the sin of abortion, which I think is really important.
“That’s such a main issue right now and it’s heartbreaking but at the same time he’s not fighting a battle, he’s helping the wounded,” Slaughter said.
Francis is helping to change negative perceptions of the church, said Jackie Curry, a 15-year-old student at St. Joseph’s who is among the group going to see the pope.
“A lot of the times, other Christians or other denominations see us as overbearing, but a lot of my non-Catholic friends have come up to me and said, ‘I like a lot of what Pope Francis is doing.’ I find that pretty amazing,” Curry said.