April 18, 2008

Catholics celebrate faith on basilica lawn, greet Pope

After fires, San Diegans there for blessing

By Jennifer Rios
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON - To see Pope Benedict XVI, 15-year-old Shannon Gilmore had to tell a small lie.

Shannon, of Laurel, Md., who suffered an aneurysm in November and was in a coma for three weeks, neglected to mention to her doctors that she would be missing her physical therapy session Wednesday afternoon.

Juanita Rodriguez, 73, with daughters, Yvonne and Loretta Rodriguez at Catholic University, holds her souvenir poster. Juanita and Loretta paid for Yvonne’s plane ride from San Diego, where wildfires destroyed her home. SHFWire photo by Jennifer Rios

“Well, I didn’t ask,” she said quietly, “I’m just playing hooky.”

On the blanket she shared with her family rested the homemade birthday sign she made for the pope, who turned 81 that day.

On the lawn in front of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, thousands of Catholics and members of other denominations waited all afternoon. The pope met with U.S. bishops in the basilica at 5:30 p.m. and took part in vespers, an evening prayer service.

Pope Benedict returns to the campus of Catholic University, which includes the shrine, after Thursday’s Mass to meet with Catholic educators and members of other faiths at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center across the street. The campus will host a fair for students, faculty and staff who will watch the Mass on a giant TV and see other entertainment.

Around Shannon, thousands other spread blankets, opened coolers and prepared their own banners for the few minutes Pope Benedict would be in their presence.

Luze Marina Saavedra, 56, was one of those in the front row when the pontiff descended from the popemobile before he headed inside the basilica. She and her family, who flew in from their home in Armenia, Colombia, made it to campus after seeing the motorcade drive by the White House.

“Just amazing,” Saavedra said, patting her heart. “It was fantastic.”

Saavedra, who saw Pope John Paul II twice, once in New York in 1979 and once in Rome for Easter Mass, said it remains “very much an event.”

All different languages rang out once police lights signaled that the pope’s motorcade was nearing the basilica. Mixed with the screams and scramblings were also silent prayers of gratitude.

For Yvonne Rodriguez, of San Diego, that she was there was a miracle itself.

Rodriguez, 45, flew in for the chance to spend time with her mother and sister, who paid for her trip, including the ticket they bought on eBay to get on the campus.

After the devastating San Diego wildfires last year that took her home, Rodriguez said she felt she needed to see the pope for a good reason.

“I’m here for a special blessing for me and my family,” she said.

She, her husband, Jason Schmitt, and daughter, Halle, 8, lost their home, their pets and an RV that contained all the computers and legal documents for their dry-cleaning business. The important thing to her is they all escaped unharmed, driving through the blazes in the family car and van.

“You realize all those things don’t matter,” Rodriguez said.

Through her crisis, Rodriguez said she has grown in her Catholic faith, witnessing the kindness of the people who prayed for her family and donated items.

“Our faith in God, that’s what’s helped us on this journey,” she said. “We’re getting closer to him.”

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