Imagine 80,000 to 100,000 people jammed into an area not much bigger than Wilkes-Barre’s Public Square. Now imagine all those people standing around in orderly, reverential calm, craning for a glimpse of Pope Francis.
“It was just unreal,” the Rev. Andrew S. Hvozdovic said of visiting St. Peter’s Square last week with a group of Northeastern Pennsylvania Catholics on a pilgrimage to Italy as part of the church’s “Year of Faith.”
Hvozdovic, a Wilkes-Barre native, is pastor of Epiphany Catholic Church in Sayre and coordinator of diocesan pilgrimages for the Diocese of Scranton. He is part of a pastoral group, including Bishop Joseph C. Bambera, leading more than 100 pilgrims from across the 11-county diocese on a tour of visits to holy sites across Italy.
“This has been an amazing experience, from purely a faith-based thing to a cultural extravaganza,” said Bob Gan, a Honesdale resident who is on the pilgrimage with his wife, Mary.
Gan was close enough to the pope to snap photos of Francis riding past in an open car during Wednesday’s papal audience at St. Peter’s Square.
“Heaven meets human meets earth; it’s been something I will never, ever forget,” Gan said. “From clergy to churchgoer, this has been an amazing experience, and I’m thankful that I was able to be here!”
The “Year of Faith,” which began on Oct. 11, 2012, runs through Nov. 24. The local pilgrimage kicked off Oct. 19 and continues through Tuesday. It was organized through John Madden of Travelworld, which has offices in Kingston and Scranton.
In addition to the Vatican — where Bambera and the diocesan vicar general, the Rev. Thomas M. Muldowney, met the pope personally — the trip has included liturgies and visits to the birthplace of St. Padre Pio; Assisi, the native land of St. Francis; and Gubbio, sister city of Jessup, in Lackawanna County.
“These days have provided great opportunities for all of us to celebrate our faith, from the audience with Pope Francis with 100,000 faithful souls in attendance to today’s celebration of Mass at the basilica of St. Francis,” Bambera said after Friday’s activities in Assisi. “The Diocese of Scranton and our parish communities are truly blessed with with such wonderful, committed and faithful parishioners.”
Saturday’s visit to Gubbio held special significance for Italian-American Catholics. For more than a century, Jessup has hosted annual St. Ubaldo Day festivities, paralleling the yearly La Festa dei Ceri held in Gubbio — ancestral home of many Midvalley families — to commemorate Ubaldo Baldassini, a medieval bishop of Gubbio.
“We had Mass in the Basilica of St. Ubaldo and had a group picture taken,” Gan said. “Gubbio was very nice, their bishop met Bishop Bambera and all of us and presented him with the key to the city.”
For the Rev. Bill Petruska, a Hazleton native and retired Navy chaplain, the pilgrimage gave him a chance to retrace steps he took a generation ago. Italy may have changed since Petruska visited in the 1970s, but he said the ambiance of its holy sites remains unchanged.
“I’m feeling the same peacefulness of Assisi,” Petruska said.