A planned pilgrimage led to an unexpected encounter with Pope Francis for about a dozen seminarians from St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia last month.
Aaron Lynch, a seminarian of the Diocese of Harrisburg, and his Theology III classmates were in Italy on pilgrimage as part of a formation program made possible by an endowment from the late Auxiliary Bishop Louis DeSimone of Philadelphia, who died in October of 2018.
The pilgrimage took the seminarians to Milan, Assisi and Rome in early January.
“It was a really wonderful experience for myself and my classmates,” said Lynch, of St. Patrick Parish in Carlisle.
“Being that my class was the first to benefit from this program, it took a lot of figuring out how it was going to go and what to expect,” he said.
No one planned for an encounter with the Holy Father, though.
As the group was preparing to depart from Pope Francis’ Wednesday Audience on Jan. 8, they were approached by a member of the Papal Household, who urgently directed that they follow him.
“We were kind of bewildered at the request, but then he repeated himself and said, ‘No, stand up now and follow me,’” Lynch said.
The seminarians were led up to the stage in the Paul VI Audience Hall, and soon realized what was to come, as Pope Francis made his way down the line of various groups – including Mexican diplomats, Argentinian soldiers and circus performers next to the seminarians.
“We certainly weren’t expecting it, but it was a great blessing,” said Lynch.
“He has a certain joy about him,” he said of Pope Francis. “It’s hard to not have a big, dumb smile on your face when you’re standing next to him. When he was talking to us, he was animated, and had a happiness about him that was really contagious. It was just wonderful to be in the presence of the Successor of Peter.”
The pope presented the seminarians with Rosaries and shook their hands.
“He remembered his visit to St. Charles Borromeo (for the World Meeting of Families in 2015),” Lynch said. “He said, ‘Oh! San Carlo Borromeo! Belissimo!’”
“He spent a few minutes with us, and was very generous with his time. We were very blessed to have him speak to us,” he remarked.
Currently in Third Theology, Lynch is just a few months from his diaconate ordination, God willing.
He said the pilgrimage to Italy was a spiritual experience that took him “to where the giants of Christianity walked.”
Among the sites the seminarians visited were the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, where they saw the pulpit from which St. Ambrose preached; and the Crypt of the Nativity, where they participated in Mass celebrated in front of fragments of the Holy Crib.
The pilgrimage also included Mass for the repose of the soul of Bishop DeSimone, whose generosity and vision made the experience possible.
“The seminary is trying to make this pilgrimage an annual thing,” Lynch said, “so pray for the classes after me, that they have just as incredible of an experience.”
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness