Two buses from the Diocese of Charlotte left Charlotte and Greensboro in the early morning hours of Sept. 23, filled with pilgrims hoping to see Pope Francis and to attend Mass with him that following Sunday in Philadelphia.
Of those 65 pilgrims, only one family and two people accompanying them made it through the crowds of more than a million, slipping in to Pope Francis' last Mass of his U.S. apostolic visit and receiving Communion. The rest of the diocesan pilgrims, who had come together through their shared pilgrimage experience in Philadelphia at the World Meeting of Families, cheered that family's success afterward.
Pictured: Joe Rybak and his son Nathan receive a blessing from a priest before Mass at the tomb of St. John Neumann.
Joseph Rybak, his wife Diane and four of their six children had hopes of somehow meeting Pope Francis.
The family attributes their fortune in getting through to three "angels" they met along the way on the final day of the pilgrimage, as well as to prayers and support of their fellow pilgrims.
They also got through because of the reaction the pilgrims had, and those "angels" had, to their 16-year-old son Nathan.
Nathan is wheelchair bound, suffering from a rare global developmental disability.
On Sunday, Sept. 27, as the pilgrims moved along 21st Street toward Benjamin Franklin Parkway where more than a million people were gathering for the papal Mass, "a woman came from behind us and asked, 'Is this your son?'" said Joe Rybak.
100715-pilgrims-1Lisa Hobbs and her daughter Arial of St. Matthew Church in Charlotte pray during Mass at a local church celebrated just after the pilgrims arrived in Philadelphia Sept. 23.The woman then disappeared into the crowd, reappearing a short time later with a National Guardsman who asked how many people were in the family. They answered six, then eight, because they were traveling with fellow parishioners Claire Feldmeth and her grandson Logan. The Guardsman departed, then a third volunteer with a "very kind face" approached them, Rybak said. The woman assured the family she would get them through, and she led them to the front of the line.
Nathan ended up being the last disabled person allowed in to the Mass.
As the Rybaks moved ahead of the crowd, the others became bottle-necked along with tens of thousands of others trying to get into the Mass.
Standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the street crammed between concrete and metal barricades, the pilgrims inched along, covering only four blocks in the five hours leading up to the Mass because of the enormous crowd and security delays.
A resident took pity on the crowd stranded outside her front door, bringing her TV set out onto the front steps, so some could watch the Mass. Others in the crowd pulled up the Mass on their cell phones. When it came time for the Our Father, everyone joined in singing along. At the sign of peace, people turned to the others standing next to them – at that point resigned to the fact they weren't going to see the pope – shook hands and smiled.
By the time the last of the crowds cleared security, the Mass had ended, the pope had departed, and the exhausted pilgrims had no choice but to turn around and head back to their buses.
As the pilgrims began the 10-hour overnight journey home to North Carolina after the papal Mass, Joe Rybak expressed his family's gratitude to their fellow pilgrims, and the significance of Nathan getting into the Mass became clear.
100715-pilgrims-2Erma Griffin of St. Mary Church in Greensboro pauses at the tomb of St. Katherine Drexel, one of the first American-born saints."You did us a great service and a great gift," he told the pilgrims. "On our way, because the crowds were so big, people came and gathered Nathan and our family up and we were able to get into Mass. Like the paralyzed man, who couldn't get in because of the crowds, was dropped through the roof – you have helped accompany us and get Nathan dropped in by Jesus there and receive the Eucharist in the most beautiful Mass I've ever been to ... I just want to say thank you, thank you."
For some pilgrims, at that moment the journey changed from being about a trip to see the pope to a true pilgrimage undertaken as a diocesan family. They might have come from Asheville, Charlotte, Franklin, Salisbury, Hendersonville, Linville, Sparta and elsewhere, but over the course of the five-day trip they came together on a shared mission of faith.
They responded to the Rybak family's witness – and especially to Nathan. Even though the boy did not say a word, he sparked compassion and cheerfulness from those who encountered him.
Some pilgrims offered to push Nathan's wheelchair, others said silent prayers as the group returned to the bus each day, watching with respect as a smiling Joe Rybak gently lifted Nathan out of the wheelchair and onto his back to board the bus.
Every time Nathan and Joe had to head off to find an elevator or handicapped ramp, the pilgrims would stop and wait, cheering each time the two rejoined the group. A hint of a smile would cross Nathan's face each time when the pilgrims erupted into applause at their arrival.
The pilgrims prayed along as the Rybak children led the group in the rosary each morning on the bus ride into Philadelphia. Others, even strangers they encountered at the World Meeting of Families, asked if they could pray for Nathan or with the family.
101015-pilgrimageFor the Rybaks, it shows what they have come to believe firmly.
"Nathan is a blessing," Diane Rybak said. "Nathan is a blessing to us and he's a blessing to everyone. I'm not saying that when he was born that we looked at it like that. It's growing for us."
Nathan has taught them "to recognize the simplicity of life and what is really important," she said.
And, even more, raising Nathan has given the family a special calling.
Families are given children to raise, Diane said, but in their case, "we were given Nathan to raise other people outside my family – to bring other people to Christ."
The Rybaks have gone on their own pilgrimages before, including to Lourdes and Medjugorje, but this is the first time they joined other families for such a trip.
Journeying with others of the same faith "was beautiful," Diane Rybak said. "The support of the everyone else in the group – (that) carried us."
"I don't think things would have turned out the same way if we hadn't gone in the group," she said.
When they finally got home from the pilgrimage, Nathan got hooked back up to a device that helps him communicate and basically told the family he was frustrated. And he wasn't the only one.
"My children cried the next day," Diane Rybak said.
Emily, 12 – "almost 13" she insists – was folding some laundry when she started crying.
"We were like, 'Why are you sad?'" recounted Grace, 14. "I don't know," Emily replied.
They all agreed that they wish the pilgrimage hadn't ended so quickly. Charles, 12, said he wishes they could go again, tomorrow.
100715-pilgrims-3Seeing – or, in the case of most of the pilgrims, not seeing – Pope Francis marked the end of what was a busy diocesan pilgrimage. They attended some of the World Meeting of Families and visited the Philadelphia-area shrines of St. John Neumann, St. Katherine Drexel and Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal. Each stop provided a moment of prayer, a shared feeling of awe at the beauty and history of the Church in America, and most of all, a renewed appreciation for family.
The photos, videos and souvenirs are one thing, said Father Michael Kottar, who organized the pilgrimage. He told the pilgrims during their final Mass together at the Shrine of St. Katherine Drexel, one of the first American-born saints, that what is really important is how the pilgrimage influences their lives, he said.
100715-pilgrims-4 Father Michael Kottar, pastor of St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Shelby, celebrated Mass for the pilgrims throughout the five-day trip."This pilgrimage bears fruit if your love for Christ in the Eucharist will increase and (it) bears fruit in your families. Then this pilgrimage will have been well worth it."
"Our purpose in this life is to give glory to God," Father Kottar emphasized.
We don't have to be impossibly perfect, he said, but we should strive to reach out to the weak, the vulnerable and the poor – starting with the members of our own families.
"We don't have to go to Africa, we don't have to go to Central America – we start with our own families," he said.
"There's your weak, your poor, your opportunities to be saints."
— Stephen and Patricia Guilfoyle, Catholic News Herald. Photos by Patricia Guilfoyle
At phillyandfrancis.tumblr.com: Lots more photos, videos and audio clips from the World Meeting of Families pilgrimage.