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Mercyhurst students make papal pilgrimage

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

When Mercyhurst University Campus Ministry Director Greg Baker started signing up students last spring to travel to Philadelphia this month for the first U.S. visit by Pope Francis, he warned them: “This is a pilgrimage, not a road trip.”

Despite the fact that they will travel all night by bus, make their way through an entourage of 40,000 other buses, backpack to Philly’s Ben Franklin Parkway to witness the pope celebrate Mass, and then wait their turn to get on the highway for the eight-hour trip home, the Mercyhurst pilgrims came gladly.

“Seeing the Holy Father in the United States is a rare opportunity, so when I was given the chance to be a chaperone for the Mercyhurst trip, I knew I had to take it,” said senior graphic designer Jeremy Hewitt, whose wife, Kristin, is also making the pilgrimage. “When I was in high school, I was one of the leaders from the Erie Diocese who helped take a group of young people to see Pope John Paul II at World Youth Day in Canada, and it was one of the most spiritual journeys of my life. Celebrating Mass with the pope and the Mercyhurst community will be an experience unlike any other.”

The Hewitts, Baker and his wife, Jennifer, and Deacon Ray Sobina of the North East campus will chaperone the 51 Mercyhurst students making the journey. They will leave the Erie campus at 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 26, and return home Monday morning. Baker said he has been advised that traffic in downtown Philadelphia will be shut down on Sunday until the pope’s plane has departed. Ideally, he said, they are hoping to get on the road by 9:30 p.m., but it could be much later.

“We started taking reservations in spring and set aside a few places for incoming freshmen, so we have good representation from each of the classes, including a healthy number of students from Latin America, who were very eager to go,” Baker said.

Michelle Ahrens of Erie, a senior majoring in social work and religious studies, is one of the Mercyhurst students looking forward to making the trip. “Since Pope Francis began his papacy my freshman year, I've been so inspired by his constant dedication to service and social justice that is present in his faith and in everything he does,” she said. “As a Catholic who is concerned with social justice, I find Pope Francis to be such an inspiration in my life, and there is no way I would be able to pass up this opportunity to see him.”

Sergio Cortes, a sophomore political science major from Nicaragua, put it simply: “I want to go see the pope because it will be a great experience and because the pope rocks!”

The pontiff is expected to visit the Festival of Families Saturday night in Philadelphia followed by an outdoor mass Sunday afternoon before wrapping up a trip that began in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22.

“We called this a pilgrimage from the beginning,” said Baker, who has been sending students a daily e-mail to update them on plans and share the collective anticipation. “There will be challenges, but far more incredible opportunities. I’m telling people to bring their prayer requests and be open to whatever might happen.”