He's their pope.
The first priest from the Jesuit order to hold the Catholic Church's highest earthly role, Pope Francis has a special bond with the Jesuit-run St. Joseph's University.
It was only fitting that the 78-year-old pontiff passed through the Philadelphia university’s campus several times as he headed back and forth from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and Center City. Students lined up each time to catch a glimpse at the man they call Papa — cheering and waving as he rolled by in his iconic Fiat.
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But Sunday afternoon, Pope Francis made an unscheduled detour into the heart of the campus thrilling more than a thousand young Catholics who rushed to a campus quad after rumors spread that he might take a stroll through their school.
“He’s transforming the church in such a positive way,” senior Kathy McGee said wiping away tears moments after the pope left. The Bucks County-native, who has such a strong connection with the Jesuit tradition she has a gesu tattoo on her ankle, cried as the pontiff shuffled by 10 feet from her.
“He’s making such an incredible changes and centering the Catholic church around what it should be; about people and making the world a better place. Every transformation he’s making is only doing such incredible things for our church,” she said.
Students began swarming a statue behind the university’s chapel around 11:30 a.m. The stone and bronze monument “Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time" was dedicated a week ago and honors the school’s Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations. The institute is utilized as place to facilitate dialogue between the two regions, which are intertwined in their history.
For three hours the crowd swelled, excitement built and the police presence grew in anticipation of the pope’s arrival. Shortly before his motorcade pulled up, the crowd hushed — anxious over what was to become a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many.
When he stepped out of his car, countless smartphones went into the air with students jockeying to document the experience for their families and social followers.
Pope Francis spent about seven minutes greeting guests, university staff and his longtime friend Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Buenos Aires as well as saying a prayer and blessing the statue with holy water.
Moments after the pontiff pulled away to celebrate Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the students rushed the statue to touch it and wipe up the holy water.
Michael Geraci, a senior from Newtown, Bucks County, dabbed the water on the silver cross hanging around his neck.
“This was a huge surprise. A huge deal with the national security and he still came. On like the last minute they were like pushing us back and we still got through,” he said. “I feel extremely blessed right now to have such a great experience.”
“He kind of does what he wants to do for everybody,” said Gina Pontarelli, a senior from Churchville, Bucks County, in an admiring tone. “I’m so happy he came.”
Freshman Sara Rankin, from Springfield, Delaware County, was at a loss for words after the experience. “It was crazy. I don’t know! Like, the pope!” she exclaimed.
“His presence was just a strong feeling for all of us,” said McGee who smiled wide as tears continued to flow. “It was one of the most incredible experiences in my life.”