Marylanders to mark papal visit with celebration, service

Melissa Pelaez had just finished praying at Mass one recent morning when she was startled by a tap on her shoulder.

Her pastor, the Rev. Robert Wojtek, had a question: "Is your work schedule flexible?"


"Pretty flexible," she said.

"Flexible enough for you to see the pope offer Mass?"


Pelaez, 35, gasped and wiped tears from her eyes. It was a dream come true: She had scored one of the 325 passes reserved for members of the Archdiocese of Baltimore to attend the Mass to be celebrated by Pope Francis in Washington on Wednesday.

About 25,000 ticketed guests are expected to attend the service outside the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, a highlight of the Holy Father's six-day visit to the United States, which begins Tuesday.

As Francis, the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics and possibly the most popular man on Earth, prepares for his first visit to the United States, believers across the region are getting ready in myriad ways to greet him. They're seizing the opportunity to draw attention to church teachings, celebrate the pontiff's ministry or just revel in the joy of an experience they say comes along too rarely.

"Everyone's just happy that the pope is coming to our country and to our neighborhood," says Archbishop William E. Lori. "The Holy Father is not only enormously popular; he speaks with a credible voice. ... For Catholics and non-Catholics alike, this is a moment of great happiness and enthusiasm."

Lori, who will greet the pope when he arrives at Andrews Air Force Base on Tuesday and concelebrate the Mass on Wednesday, says he'd "have loved it" if Francis had decided to stop in Baltimore. The pontiff will visit Washington, New York and Philadelphia before returning to Rome. Lori says he's grateful Americans will have a chance to show their appreciation for his "warm, personal and loving" pastoral mission.

The trip will be the 10th U.S. visit by a pope and the third to Washington. John Paul II was the only pope to visit Baltimore, the first diocese in the United States. He celebrated Mass at Camden Yards in 1995.

Pope-related activities in greater Baltimore will be many and varied during Francis' visit, ranging from the solemn to the celebratory and involving Catholics and non-Catholics of all ages.

Many have been organized around a theme the pope has stressed: reaching out in kindness to the oppressed and the marginalized.


On Monday night, the interfaith Iraqi Christian Relief Council plans a candlelight vigil in Mount Vernon for victims of genocide and religious persecution, especially Christians in the Middle East. Francis has compared the killing of Christians by terrorist groups such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State to the persecution of the church in the first century.

The next morning, weather permitting, hundreds of students, teachers and staffers at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson will tie colored ribbons to trees in a ceremony symbolizing "prayers for our world and each other"— and evoking Francis' favorite painting: "Mary, Undoer of Knots," by the Baroque artist Johann Georg Schmidtner.

Students will untie the ribbons in religion classes later in the week, school spokeswoman Cami Colarossi says, "symbolizing their potential to ease pain and suffering and transform the world."

Catholic Charities, the service arm of the Baltimore archdiocese, is promoting "Serve Like Francis," an inviation to volunteer in the charity's more than 80 local programs, and 24 institutions have signed on to participate in "Feet For Francis," a regionwide shoe drive for developing countries.

The students at Our Lady of Hope/St. Luke School in Dundalk already have donated dozens of bags, a spokeswoman said, and more than 40 of its second- and sixth-graders have created their own "Flat Francis" — the pope in cardboard — to share with friends and family and stimulate talk about serving the poor.

Lori, who met Francis in Rome in 2013 and continues to correspond with him, says the efforts reflect the heart of a man he says "continually calls to mind those who are in need [and] moves us, in a joyous way, to do the works of mercy."


For other groups, the pontiff's visit provides a platform on which to promote causes.

A group of 100 women in a campaign called "We Belong Together" passed through Baltimore last week as they walked from York, Pa., to Washington in support of Hispanic immigrants.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national advocacy group, has staged protests urging Church leaders to name "predator priests" they say have never been publicly identified.

Interfaith Power & Light posted on its website dozens of comments in support of Francis' encyclical calling for action against climate change.

"I hope the #encycical will hold up our economy to the light of the Gospel and help us recognize that consumerism is a false god," wrote Sister Joan Marie Stief of the Benedictine Sisters of Maryland in Baltimore.

In many ways, Pelaez, a Baltimorean from Guatemala, exemplifies themes Francis has stressed during the first years of a papacy that has garnered worldwide attention for challenging long-standing tradition.


Most notably, she's a member of the fastest-growing contingent of Catholics in the United States and the world: Hispanics.

Francis, born in Argentina of Italian immigrant parents, has proved a magnetic figure for a population that has accounted for 70 percent of the growth in the U.S. Catholic population since 1960, and continues to grow in the Baltimore archdiocese.

Pelaez received one of ten tickets made available to her church, Sacred Heart of Jesus — Sagrado Corazon de Jesus — in Highlandtown, the largest Spanish-speaking parish in the 226-year-old archdiocese. She says it feels like a double blessing.

"I didn't even realize [our church] had some of those tickets," she says. "It took me a while to understand that Father Bob wasn't joking. I love Francis! And the fact he'll be doing Mass in my first language makes it even more special."

Nothing has engaged the 266th Pope more than the mission of reaching out to the hundreds of millions of Spanish-speaking Catholics around the world.

Analysts believe the future of the Roman Catholic Church — whose clergy and share of the English-speaking population have been shrinking — depends on this group, whose numbers are rising locally, nationally and internationally.


Francis has made this outreach a centerpiece of his trip.

During the Mass on Wednesday at the Catholic University of America, he'll canonize Junipero Serra, an 18th-Century Spanish missionary who brought the Catholic faith to California.

Serra is not believed to have performed the two miracles required of most saints, and some historians say he mistreated Native Americans. To Francis, he was an inspiration to an oppressed minority.

"[Serra] was one of the founding fathers of the United States, a saintly example of the Church's universality and special patron of the Hispanic people of the country," the pope said in a homily last May.

He asked the Archdioceses of Baltimore and Washington to ensure a robust Spanish-speaking presence at the Wednesday Mass.

The Baltimore archdiocese honored the request. Officials sent dozens of the 325 passes they received for lay members to largely Hispanic parishes.


The number of Catholics who attended Mass in Spanish in the archdiocese jumped 64 percent between 2005 and 2014 to more than 7,200, according to a spokesman. Eighteen of the archdiocese's 154 parishes offer Mass in Spanish.

Wojtek, who received 10 tickets for his church, chose recipients on the basis of their records of service. He'll drive the group down Wednesday morning and attend the event himself.

Some Catholics will be heading in the opposite direction. The Rev. Jack Lombardi, a Hancock priest, has begun leading 20 pilgrims on a seven-day, 108-mile walk from Baltimore to Philadelphia, where Francis is to celebrate Mass on Sunday.

Staying in parishes each night, the group plans to reach Philadelphia just before the Pope's 4 o'clock Mass. The event is expected to draw more than a million people.

Lombardi, who has led similar walks in Europe, says such hikes can force participants out of their regular lives and into an embrace of larger common goals — the kind Francis pursues whatever the pushback or personal discomfort.

"It may not always be fun to press on, to be away from your friends, your iPhone or your TV," he says. "But you're being lifted up to a higher purpose."


And at Mercy High School in Northeast Baltimore, students and staff see Francis' visit as serendipitous.

Thursday is Mercy Day, when the school's founding order, the Sisters of Mercy, celebrates its founding in 1827.

It's also the day the seniors will receive their class rings and when Francis will give his televised address to Congress.

Students and staff plan to hold up signs and banners along Northern Parkway that morning in silent witness to peace, mercy and justice.

"It's exciting to have Pope Francis in the area," says Catherine Zuzarte, a 16-year-old junior. "He's a celebrity, but he's a simple man who puts his words into action, and that's what we do here."

Hundreds of people are expected to attend the "Mass On Grass" at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on Sunday, the last day of the papal visit. The event is to feature food trucks and live broadcasts of two events: the Ravens' game at 1 and the papal Mass at 4.


"We'll be doing some tailgating for the pope," Lori says, and laughs.

The festivities will be open to the public — unlike Wednesday's Mass.

Pelaez says it's "almost surreal" and "a true blessing" that she has one of the coveted tickets, but her good fortune also proved a test of her selflessness.

When her boyfriend asked if he could go, too, she reminded him there was only one ticket — and his name wasn't on it.

"That Mass could be the event of a lifetime," she says. "I'm not going to miss it."