Pope Francis was still hours away, and Modesto, Calif., resident Pam O’Brien needed some sunscreen.
The furniture store owner was one of the San Joaquin Valley residents who trekked to Washington to see the pope, or at least, traces of him. Joined by her husband and father-in-law, both named Francis, O’Brien arrived early at the church where the pontiff late Wednesday afternoon would canonize Father Junípero Serra.
O’Brien had secured her ticket to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception from the Stockton Diocese. The sunscreen she sought belatedly from a nearby CVS pharmacy. Her regard for Pope Francis came from deep within.
“I just think he’s absolutely wonderful,” O’Brien said. “He’s just what the church needs.”
Like a presidential inauguration, Pope Francis’s first-ever visit to Washington drew the faithful and the curious from across the country. Like an inauguration, some got choice seats. United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez and Paul Chavez, president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, were among the elect at the White House for the pope’s arrival ceremony Wednesday morning.
And, like an inauguration, congressional offices played pivotal roles.
I just get him. I think he’s right on. He’s speaking to me.
Pam O’Brien of Modesto, Calif.
O’Brien, for instance, received through the office of Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., tickets to see the pope Thursday at the West Front of the Capitol following his address to a joint meeting of Congress.
Each Senate office received 200 outdoor tickets to distribute and each House office 50, and one ticket each for a seat within the Capitol. Jumbotrons were set up for those outside to remotely experience the papal address.
Several Fresno Pacific University students and Karen Cianci, dean of the university’s School of Natural Sciences, received their tickets from Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. The university’s contingent just happened to be in town to receive an award from Excelencia in Education; others made the journey strictly for the 78-year-old Pope Francis.
The Rev. William McDonald III, widely known as “Father Bill” when he served at Modesto’s St. Stanislaus Catholic Church, came down from his current university post in New Jersey. From Merced’s Sacred Heart Catholic Church, the Rev. Jesus Reynaga was invited to the mass on Wednesday. The expected delegation from the Fresno Diocese included the Rev. Dan Avila, director of vocations.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Visalia native Daniel Sepulveda, a junior at American University who got a ticket to see the pope Thursday. “Like most Catholics, I like him.”
On a semi-cloudy day that turned balmy with a touch of breeze, the crowds lined up early.
“Oh my gosh, who wouldn’t want to see the pope? He’s the people’s pope,” said Patty Hughes, a consultant from Riverbank, Calif. “I feel like I won the lottery.”
Hughes arrived in Washington on Tuesday night, part of what she called a “pilgrimage” with a 21st century twist. Hughes, for one, has been filing live updates on her experiences through her Twitter handle, @PattyandPope.
“What an experience!” Hughes said.
Still, for all the social media shine and high-security apparatus that surrounds it, the pilgrimage has featured traditional elements; including, not least, obstacles to overcome.
Sepulveda, for one, figured he’d have to reach the Metro rail station near his campus by 5 a.m. Thursday to secure a good place near the Capitol. Donna Roeck, a Riverbank resident who works as a manager at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto, missed her 9:20 a.m. flight Tuesday out of San Francisco. She ended up wearily arriving in Washington at 11 p.m.
By Wednesday morning, though, Roeck was energized and readying herself for the Junipero Serra canonization. She knew the drill, at least in part. Last year, she was in Rome for the canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII.
“It’s a thrill and blessing to be here for this historic event,” Roeck said.