Coming Together in Faith -- On her journey to New York for the Holy Father's visit to Ground Zero, Monitor freelance writer Lois Rogers, second from left, met a group of faithful from throughout the Diocese and various parts of the country who were there to witness the interfaith service and pray for those who were lost in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Schmidt Saldebar
Coming Together in Faith -- On her journey to New York for the Holy Father's visit to Ground Zero, Monitor freelance writer Lois Rogers, second from left, met a group of faithful from throughout the Diocese and various parts of the country who were there to witness the interfaith service and pray for those who were lost in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Schmidt Saldebar

By Lois Rogers | Correspondent

For so many pilgrims journeying to Manhattan Sept. 25 in hopes of spending even a minute in the presence of Pope Francis, the day began in the early hours of the morning.

Click here to see photo gallery on this story.

Some, such as Middletown's Lisa Ventura, her daughter Jessica and their cousin, Rosalie Holland, Hamilton, who had “lottery” tickets to the Pope's Central Park drive though later in the afternoon, boarded a New York Waterway Ferry in New Monmouth as the commuter rush was winding down.

There they would sit with Spring Lake's Linda Walls, also on her way to Manhattan to see the Pope.

Like so many Walls would encounter in her journey, she had no tickets, only hopes of glimpsing Pope Francis entering or exiting an interfaith prayer service at the 9/11 Memorial Museum in lower Manhattan.

The women gravitated naturally to each other, settling in for a ride over choppy waters. Instead of focusing on the rising and falling waves, the four spent time anticipating what was to come. Ventura, a member of St. Leo the Great Parish, described her daughter, a senior in St. John Vianney High School, Holmdel, as a “very big fan of Pope Francis.”

Her mother related that from the time word of the pope's visit was announced, Jessica, 17, kept saying “we have to go.”

They were thrilled when a friend gave them Central Park tickets. “We just love him,” Lisa Ventura said. “Everyone seems to love him.”

She and her cousin credit Francis with bringing many people into and back to Church. “He's so humble and relatable,” said Holland, a member of St. Gregory the Great Parish, Hamilton Square. Holland, who described the Pope as a “peaceful, calm connection” to the God, said these qualities were inspiring her on what was her first papal pilgrimage. “I've never been to Rome,” she said. “I've never been to the Vatican. This is a first for me. A lifetime experience.”

It was also a first for Walls, a cradle Catholic, who received her sacraments at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, now a worship site of Mother of Mercy Parish, Asbury Park.

Walls was hoping to turn a melancholy day into a wonderful memory. She wanted to spend the 49th birthday of her late son, Brian, in a place that mattered very much to him, where he had been able to channel his artistic gifts into healing stone.

When The Monitor invited her to travel along to Ground Zero on the chance of seeing the Pope, she knew that sharing the atmosphere generated by Pope Francis, even if she couldn't see him, would be more than enough.

As they parted, the pilgrims wished each other the very best of experiences, exchanging contact information in hopes of linking up if possible later on.

Meeting at Ground Zero

Laurence Harbor's Bob Pastoressa was also seeking a lifetime experience as he headed over to Manhattan's financial district on his Harley Davidson Low Rider that morning. Pastoressa, among the first responders to Ground Zero on 9/11, also had no tickets for the interfaith service with the pope there. He could only pray that his wish would be fulfilled.

In the course of the day, that desire would be realized only with small, tantalizing glimpses of the Pope's motorcade and the tiny Fiat so emblematic of Francis' emphasis on sustainable simplicity.

Though he would not get to see Francis, he came away with something precious as well: the gift of shared expectations, hopes and beliefs; the comfort drawn from standing for hours among a throng of pilgrims who reflect the universal nature of the Church. There were joyous memories to take away from the new-found fellowship of people linked by faith and the inspiration they take from Pope Francis.

Pastoressa, a member of Blessed Sacrament Parish, South River, had become one of a little band of pilgrims from across the country within the throng of thousands who congregated spontaneously on a corner across from the World Trade Center. There, right up against the barricade and within close range of watchful Secret Service Agents, they focused their eyes on the West Side Highway for a lot of the time, hoping to hear the rumble of motorcycles and the whirr of helicopter blades that would signal the Pope's arrival.

Gathered with Pastoressa were Walls, Elizabeth Saldevar, San Marino, Ca., the Rev. Mr. Rafael Majano, recently ordained transitional deacon for the Archdiocese of Omaha, and Bonnie H. Reiner, of Massachusetts and Manhattan.

After scoping out the neighborhood, they had each gravitated to the spot as a likely area for the Pope to pass by.

Over the next four hours, they would come to know each other by name and share insights about why they were willing to stand for hours with no guarantees in hopes of making visual contact with Pope Francis. Like the family trio on the ferry, each expressed deep regard for the “People's Pope” and looked to him for inspiration in a troubled world.

In fact, Reiner's words, spoken hours later, echoed those of Ventura and Holland. “He's inspiring me to go back to Church, to give back, to volunteer, to carry his message. In his message you see the possibility that if everyone starts to act, you can change the world.”

The Rev. Mr. Majano shared how he was so inspired by the Pope, he followed Francis every leg of his itinerary, with tickets or without. Sometimes, as in Washington, D.C., he had been fortunate enough to receive tickets, but here, he was on his own. Rev. Mr. Majano planned to continue on his pilgrim path with the Pope, going on to Philadelphia.

“We are both from South America and seeing him is a real pleasure,”said the transitional deacon. “I hope to see him many times more.”

For Pastoressa and Walls, it was more complex. He had hoped to see Pope Francis the night before when he arrived for the Vesper service at St. Patrick's Cathedral but that plan was set aside when he and his wife learned of the death of one of her close friends.

When, as the bond between the pilgrims began to coalesce, he spoke of his connection to Ground Zero – how he had worked at Twin Towers during their construction and returned to them immediately on 9/11 to volunteer his skills non-stop as an electrician. When he explained that his goal had been to help “bring the lights back” in order to facilitate work around the clock – you could see in their faces that they hoped against hope his prayer would be answered.

It was the same when Walls shared how she'd hoped to celebrate the birthday of her late son, Brian who lost his battle with lung cancer exactly a year before. Brian, a noted artist in glass and stone, had created the original cornerstone for the Freedom Tower, re-situated to an off-site location when the design for the tower changed.

Even though the stone was no longer at the World Trade Center site, the project meant so much to Brian, she said, that coming to Ground Zero on this day would bring her close to him on this very special day.

Saldebar, New York raised and mindful of the lessons she had learned as a child at Marymount School for Girls, made it a point to try to see Pope Francis at Ground Zero on her visit here. So much of a point in fact, that she risked missing her flight back to California to hang in at Ground Zero.

Unlike Philadelphia where Jumbotrons had been set up around Center City to keep pilgrims up to date on the pope's progress, there were no screens – giant or otherwise – to keep the Ground Zero pilgrims apprised of the pope's comings and goings.

At one point a convoy of motorcycles and big black SUV's escorting a small, black Fiat was barely visible moving along the West Side Highway but whether Francis had really arrived was impossible to say.

Though thousands upon thousands awaited him, no roar ever went up from the crowd to signal his arrival and it was left to Saldebar, assisted by Reiner to try to keep everyone in the immediate area informed.

Saldebar gave out bulletins from what she could pick up on her iPhone while Reiner made sure her own power chord stayed plugged into the device.

When Saldebar reached out to her father, Bob Schmidt in Northern Michigan for help, the texted answers came fast: yes, Pope Francis was on site leading a powerful service of hope and reconciliation. Schmidt's ongoing texts enabled the group and everyone around them to enter into the prayer, to join in the sign of peace simultaneously with Pope Francis and the leaders of world religions assembled with him inside the 9/11 memorial's foundation hall.

It was the crowning moment of the day.

The hoped for closeup of the pope did not materialize but the gifts of his spirit certainly did.

The group stayed together for some time – “we have no idea if we're gonna see him … but no one's moving” said Reiner. They only decided to depart when the Secret Service silently and suddenly vacated the area.

Before separating, they vowed to keep in contact.

They walked through the vast crowd at the World Trade Center with uplifted spirits. Here, in the financial center of the world, they were part of a vast Catholic community lingering along with so many. Savoring the atmosphere, it was clear they enjoyed the communal experience.

Looking around, Walls smiled and said that while she didn't get to see the Pope, she did get to meet a wide variety of people inspired by him at the edge of Ground Zero. It was, she said, a celebration her son would have loved.

In Central Park

Walls continued her journey into midtown savoring sites Pope Francis had or would soon visit, while more than 50 city blocks away, the Ventura's and Holland waited five hours and got their fleeting glimpse of Pope Francis. They had spent some time in St. Patrick's Cathedral enjoying the newly restored sacred space before joining the queue Central Park. The queue would swell to 80,000 before the Pope's drive through was underway.

Hours later, Holland described the scene, noting cheerfully while it is indeed hard to stand for five hours, especially for children, every time sections of the teeming throng got restive, a gentle wind would sweep through the area calming every one down. When it finally came, the drive-through happened so fast that there were only two choices: whip out your cell phones and cameras and take a photo or look, really look at the Pope, Holland said.

She chose the later, seeing all too briefly, the man of the God she envisioned in his plain, pared down vestments and walking shoes, smiling broadly as he waved at the adoring crowd.

Holland came away completely uplifted by this “lifetime experience” and hopeful that the “Francis effect” would last and be passed down among the generations.