A group of 38 priests, deacons and seminarians from Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora were among the congregation when Pope Francis celebrated Mass in Washington, D.C.
Father Robert Wozniak, director of priestly formation at Christ the King Seminary, along with Deacon Samuel Giangreco, a Williamsville native ordained a transitional deacon the week before the papal visit, and Mario Racho, a seminarian who came to the United States from the Philippines, said their experience was one they will not forget.
Racho recalled how Pope Francis visited the Philippines in January, but he was not able to see the pope then. His wish came true in a different way when he received an email from Father Wozniak this summer.
"It seems that God is truly present in this pope," Racho said. "This summer, I received an email from Father Rob. All of the seminarians received that email telling us about coming to Washington, D.C., and that is how all of that excitement began."
Deacon Giangreco said the bus ride to Washington, D.C., was enjoyable because of the conversations and the jokes shared by the seminarians. After arriving in Washington, the group looked for the place they were supposed to be.
"That was our only objective: to see the Holy Father and celebrate Mass at the canonization of Junipero Serra," Father Wozniak said. "I was the leader of the group, so I put all of the pieces together."
Although the group was hungry after the eight hour trip, Giangreco said spirits were high because of the anticipation. Once through security, the group was directed to the front of the basilica with others. Giangreco was directed to go near the altar to wait for the pope.
"I had, probably, one of the closest seats you could have to the pope that wasn't in the sanctuary," Giangreco said. "It was just really cool. I had a clear view of his chair, and I was only sitting with 10 other deacons at the time. There were very few of us who were sitting so close. There were big screens, but I was sitting so close, I was actually in front of the big screens. I could tell whenever they showed the pope's jeep, the crowd started roaring, and it was just so exciting to hear that."
When Pope Francis arrived, priests and deacons began standing on their chairs to get a view over the crowd. They saw the pope sitting in the jeep, waving back and forth to the crowd, to the sounds of thunderous applause. Deacon Giangreco could only see Pope Francis' cross bobbing up and down behind the row of priests, but he knew the pope was there. Father Wozniak said when Pope Francis walked inside the basilica, he could hear the crowd screaming its approval from outside, with all of the windows closed.
"Inside the basilica were the seminarians and novices of all across America," Father Wozniak said. "It was an opportunity for the Holy Father to see the future of the Church in America, so it was a privilege for me; it was the first Mass of the Holy Father in the United States, and to see that universal Church there, people from all over coming together to celebrate around the Holy Father and to be inspired by him."
Giangreco was given the task of giving Communion to the priests, and he happened to give the host to Father Ryszard Biernat, secretary of Bishop Richard J. Malone.
"He was just ordained the Saturday before, so within the first week, he's already serving at the altar with the pope," Father Wozniak said. "The five guys from here all had the same experience."
"It was really cool to finally see him. He had a very humble demeanor about himself. He was just acting how he usually does, just very humble and normal," Giangreco said.
Racho said he was joyful to see how the pope called Catholics to encounter Jesus. He said he wasn't just watching something on the Internet.
"That was a real experience for me," Racho said. "It made me recall how when I was young, I really wished to go to Rome to experience this thing. Then I realized this was the fulfillment of my dream. I could not go to Rome, but Rome came to me."
Over 80 sponsors contributed toward the trip, including parishes the seminarians served over the summer.
"We were very blessed on this pilgrimage, because a lot of people supported us to be able to do this," Father Wozniak said.