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Our family’s papal pilgrimage: A little hunger, a little crankiness, and the Vatican City flag man

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Photo credit Benjamin Perry.
Photo credit Benjamin Perry



It took five hours of travel, five hours of “martyrdom by boredom,” and one really persistent flag salesman, but our family finally got to see Papa Francisco for thirty seconds. Was it worth it? Yes . . . because on a pilgrimage, it’s all about the journey.


by Jennifer Schlameuss-Perry

My little family and I went to see Pope Francis in Central Park yesterday. As you can see from the picture, we were blessed with a pretty good spot in the crowd (thanks to my husband’s cousin, Tim, who got us the tickets!).

This was no casual day trip to the city. This was a pilgrimage, with all that that word implies.

‘Flags, flags, flags . . . ‘

It was a super-long day. We left our house to catch a train to NYC at 7:00 a.m. (my husband led us in a quick prayer as we set off), and when we got to the train station later than we wanted, tensions were running high. The train ride was better—it was a first for both of my boys—and everyone relaxed and watched the sights (mostly run-down buildings with interesting graffiti).

As we walked through the city, it was discovered (through whining and grumbling) that everybody was hungry and needed to find suitable “facilities.” We found a neat-looking restaurant and everybody was happy.

We re-started our trek, observing the beautiful architecture, vendors selling all sorts of ridiculous Popaphernalia, a cute old dude wearing a homemade hat with a spinning pope on top, and other city sights that were surprising and sometimes scandalizing to my 12-year-old. TV crews, SWAT teams, police, and pilgrims were everywhere.

A man selling Vatican flags on the line into the park seemed to be following us droning (and I do mean droning), “Flags, flags, flags, banderas, banderas, banderas…” which eventually became a sort of battle cry/joke with the kids. It was also an opportunity for me to teach them the significance of the symbols on the Vatican flag (they could care less, but I wasn’t letting it go!).

What do you do on a curb for five hours?

We arrived at the spot that would be “ours” at around noon. It was approximately three minutes later that my 12-year-old discovered that the Pope would not be by until around 5:00. Horror, exasperation, and disillusionment set in, along with all five stages of grief, simultaneously. Was this worth a day off school?! Why were we there so early?! Why were we doing this to him?!

We passed the time by chatting and playing games, interspersed with varied expressions of the sentiment, “I’m soooooooooooo boooorrrrrreeeedddd….” My teenager, too, was feeling aggravated, and expressing it in the normal teenagery ways. It was not entirely unpleasant, but my Mom’s ancient curse—“I hope you have children just like you when you grow up!”—certainly came to fruition…again.

This was not what I imagined the day would look like. We are a family who enjoys each other’s company. We have fun together. God and the Church are important to us. I just kept trying to keep perspective as I distracted the kids until Papa Francisco’s arrival. Sometimes I wondered if everyone was going to make it, because I was not untouched by aggravation, either. We were all hungry, dehydrated, and sore from sitting on a cobbled curb and asphalt for so long.

A rainbow for the pope (and us)

pope rainbow
You can’t see the rainbow really well, but it was there!

At about 4:30, a little rainbow appeared above us. This diversion seemed to snap us all out of our funk, and we knew the Pope would be arriving soon, so our spirits were lifted.

After a few more security sweeps, and we saw the Popemobile scooting along. Pope Francis finally rode through, waving and smiling—and it was over.

Ten hours’ prep for a 30-second event.

As soon as he was out of sight, we were on our way, grabbing on-the-go refreshment from a halal hot dog cart before getting on the subway (two more firsts for the kids) to catch the train.

My mom had more food for us when we got home, so we were able to share good food as we told our story amid much laughter (the kids really focused on the guy selling flags). Shortly after, the kids conked out on the couch, one by one.

A pilgrimage is an act of prayer

My husband and I briefly reflected on the lack of spiritual connection we felt throughout the day. Trudging through the crowds, all we did was try and keep from losing each other. The time we spent sitting and waiting was occupied mostly by distraction and suppressed frustration. The trip home was all about finding rest. The overall feeling was not particularly prayerful.

But, the pilgrimage itself was an act of prayer. We spent the day as a family going through various difficulties—the travel itself, attitudes, fatigue, discomfort—in order to get a glimpse of a holy man, and we did it as a family. It did not feel prayerful at the time, but I experience it that way in retrospect.

It would have been completely different without the kids—and we did consider not bringing them at one point (knowing what could go wrong). But it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it really wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the World Meeting of Families to leave the kids behind. We knew it might not mean more to them than a day off from school right now, but we figured that the experience had the potential to become more important to them later in their lives.

Life is a pilgrimage. Families, little churches that we are, are on a journey toward holiness together. It’s not always comfortable or convenient, and the purpose of our side trips might not always be clear. We may not always recognize the beauty that God is trying to reveal to us when we see it. But as we seek to become holy families, we continue in the messiness (and sometimes, aggravation), as rainbows, popes, and hot dog stands break in, offering surprising joy, inspiration, and refreshment.


Follow Jerry Windley-Daoust:

Publisher, Gracewatch Media

Jerry Windley-Daoust is a writer, editor, and father of five. He writes essays and stories at Windhovering and is the show-runner for Gracewatch Media, a small Catholic publisher. You can follow his latest publishing projects at gracewatch.org.

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