Pittsburgh pilgrims take part in pope's general audience

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VATICAN CITY -- It was a day of back to one pope again, three days after a historic ceremony that riveted attention backwards on the previous half-century of papacies.

Large banner portraits still hung Wednesday morning from St. Peter's Basilica of the history-shaking late Popes John XXIII and John Paul II -- newly sainted by Pope Francis in a Sunday ceremony that drew up to 800,000 pilgrims as well as yet another pontiff, retired Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

But despite that reminder of the day of four popes, and the lingering of thousands of pilgrims from Pittsburgh to Poland and beyond, Wednesday's papal audience beneath a brilliant sun riveted attention away from papal legacies and firmly back to the present.

Pittsburgh presence felt at papal audience

Pilgrims from the Diocese of Pittsburgh joined a congregation of thousands from around the world beneath a brilliant sun in St. Peter's Square for Pope Francis' general audience. (Video by Peter Smith; 4/30/2014)

At center stage again was the current rock-star pope, Francis, emerging to the cheers of thousands who had waited for hours, beaming with his now-familiar smile and continuing to show his determination to present a gracious face of a simple church connected to the people, particularly the sick and needy.

He rode slowly in his open popemobile through aisles in the crowd, stopping frequently to kiss babies and playfully swapping white skullcaps with audience members who arrived equipped with replicas (before trading back).

About 90 Pittsburgh pilgrims, in their last full day of a weeklong pilgrimage anchored around the canonizations, arrived about three hours before the start. And unlike on Sunday, when even as pre-dawn early birds they were unable to get near the square amid the crush of pilgrims, this time they got advantageous seats.

The Pittsburgh pilgrims were at the front in the second section, just feet away from Pope Francis as he rode by in his open popemobile.

Although Pope Francis turned to look in another direction as he passed, many snapped photos, and Upper St. Clair native Nicholas Carosella tossed a baseball cap bearing the name of his alma mater, Villanova University. Attached was a note saying, "You can wear it if you come to Philadelphia" and urging him to accept that city's invitation to visit next year during a large Catholic conference. The cap fell short of the popemobile, but one of Pope Francis' aides put it in the vehicle.

Even though the scenes are by now familiar from televised images of Pope Francis' audiences in his year-plus papacy, Amy Michaliszyn of the Pittsburgh group said she was surprised to find herself moved to tears.

"To be so close to the Holy Father -- I love him to pieces, but I had no idea the emotion I would feel," she said.

"We all feel like we know him and there's an old friend passing by," added Mary Lou McLaughlin of Pittsburgh.

"He certainly seems to enjoy and gain energy from the people in the audience," said Nick Carosella of Upper St. Clair, Nicholas' father.

The pilgrims are on the last full day of a weeklong pilgrimage to various holy sites, from ancient catacombs to Baroque monuments, led by Bishop David Zubik and centered around the canonization ceremony Sunday.

The pope sent greetings to the pilgrims and their families, particularly children and the sick and suffering. He collectively blessed the crowds and the prayer cards, crucifixes and other holy items they brought. In the only time everyone was working from the same language, he led them in a Latin recitation of the Our Father, the text of which was printed on the pilgrims' tickets for the benefit of the post-Latin generations of Catholics.

In a short homily, Pope Francis cited a post-Easter account in the Bible of two disciples who were joined by Jesus while walking down a road but who didn't recognize him until afterward. Like them, "we often fail to recognize the Lord walking at our side and the working of God's grace in our lives and the world around us. Yet thanks to the Spirit's gift of understanding, our eyes are opened and our hearts burn within us as we recognize the risen Lord's presence and view all things in a new light."

Ms. McLaughlin said the pope's message matched his demeanor -- "no ruffles and flourish, very simple."

Jack Miller of the North Side, sitting near the square afterward, said he was struck by the history represented in the scene, with an ancient Egyptian obelisk at the center of the square having stood in Rome since pagan times when Christians were martyred.

He was impressed to see the center of Roman Catholicism so close to where Christians "died right by that obelisk, the people who were willing to die for what they believed."

The pilgrimage, he said, gives "perspective you don't get otherwise."

Nick Carosella agreed: "I don't think any of us will notice the fatigue until we're on the plane, but we've seen an enormous amount and done an enormous number of things in a short period. Seeing many of the features of the church from a perspective that's different from what you get at home is certainly well worth it."

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416 or on Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. First Published April 30, 2014 10:34 AM

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