Enjoy this first-hand account of Pope Francis' visit to Bolivia (July 8-10), as told by Fr. Patrick Hayden, pastor of Maria Reina Parish in La Paz!
These are truly wonderful days of grace for Bolivia, and for the whole Church. Just yesterday (Sunday), while I was celebrating our 10:30 a.m. Mass with our parishioners, Pope Francis was concluding the Eucharist celebrated in Asunción, Paraguay, with more than a million people in attendance. With this celebration, he also concluded his 8-day Apostolic Visit to Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, where he experienced extremes of heat (104 deg F in Guayaquil, Ecuador, during the Mass he celebrated there last Monday; temperatures in the upper 30 deg F range here in El Alto y La Paz), but everywhere the same warm affection and lively faith. Shortly before he travelled to visit us, he filmed a brief video message in which he told us that he wanted to bring us the loving, tender caress of God and God's love for all, without exception.
In his messages and homilies during this past week, he has encouraged all families and all of God's family to love and care for every member without exception (homily in Guayaquil), insisted that the Eucharist is Christ's example to us of how God's blessing received moves us to share this same blessing, so that all may know God's blessing and that we may never forget how God has always blessed us (homily in Santa Cruz de la Sierra last Friday, on the Gospel of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes), spoken of himself as a sinner forgiven when he visited the famously violent jail of Palmasola in Santa Cruz, telling the prisoners that their incarceration did not exclude them from God's mercy, forgiveness and love, reminded us that Our Lady is the mother of "yes" to God, she who proposes no other plan of obedience to God and of following Jesus other than being attentive in the Spirit to what God in Christ asks of us (homily at the Mass celebrated at the National Shrine of Our Lady of Caacupé, in Paraguay, on Saturday) and warned all leaders that ideologies all too often lead to oppression and dictatorship. These are just some of the highlights of Pope Francis' legacy of word and deed upon which we will be reflecting during the months and years to come. Oh, yes, one more important note: during his meeting with the clergy and religious in Santa Cruz on Thursday afternoon, he gently, but firmly, reminded all of us of how we are to be good, loving, joyful shepherds of God's flock, rather than overbearing, even harsh or unhappy, taskmasters of God's people.
The Holy Father's visit to El Alto and La Paz was to be very brief...it became even briefer because of the 1+ hour delay in his departure from Ecuador. So, instead of a four-hour visit, it became something a little more like just three hours. The weeks beforehand were filled with many different meetings, especially for the 3,000+ volunteers who were to be part of the Papal Guard upon Pope Francis' arrival to the downtown of La Paz. The preparation of the volunteers included workshops on first aid and crowd control, a day of mission to communicate the joy of the Holy Father's approaching visit and an evening public prayer service (with more than 1,500 people in attendance in a plaza in the downtown area). The two pictures below, taken last Tuesday afternoon, July 7th, at our St. Jerome Major Seminary, are of the first of the 3,000+ volunteers waiting to receive their vests and credentials, plus a group of our confirmation youth, with their catechist, after they had received their materials for the following day.
From Monday, July 6th, banners over our parish church invited "María Reina" parishioners and neighbors to "announce, with Francis, the joy of the Gospel". (Orange banner hanging over the entrance to our parish church).
As dean of our Gran Poder deanery, I was responsible for organizing the presence of the four parishes of our deanery at the beginning of the highway from El Alto to La Paz along which Pope Francis would be travelling
in his arrival and departure. With some faithful arriving as early as 5 a.m. at our designated place, and our own parishioners arriving by just before 8 a.m. (part of the way by bus, and part of the way on foot), we together began the day with prayer (picture below).
From there, we worked to install our different banners, since later in the morning the highway was to be closed and pedestrian traffic in the area was to be restricted for reasons of security. Around 10:30 a.m., we moved across the highway to take up our places along the center-line guard rail to begin our long wait for the arrival of the Holy Father. The mood was one of joyful expectation, neighborly, friendly sharing and visiting among the parishioners of the four parishes, as well as with many others who joined us or who passed by us (looking to find their own places farther along the same guard rail). By radio, we were able to follow the conclusion of Pope Francis' visit to Ecuador; at midday, we again met to pray, now a much larger group of people, to accompany the Holy Father on his flight to Bolivia. With joy we received the news that he was flying over the Madidi National Park (an area of virgin forests and abundant flora and fauna) and the National Shrine of Our Lady of Copacabana, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. As you can imagine, the expectation of his impending arrival to Bolivian soil was palpable, bringing almost a reverent silence as we thought we might see his plane arriving at any moment (in the end, his plane landed from the west, escorted by two jet fighters of the Bolivian Air Force)...with the news of his landing, cheers went up all along the highway. We all then got ready for the moment of his passing by us on the highway. At approx. 6:40 p.m. on Wednesday, July 8th, Pope Francis passed by us on his way to meet with our President Morales at the Presidential Palace and diplomatic and civil leaders, with a select group of faithful, at the Metropolitan Cathedral of La Paz. What an exciting moment that was! It certainly made our 12+ hour day of expectant, joyful waiting worthwhile.
You also see Fr. James Michler with a group of our parishioners, under the beautiful blue sky of our Andean winter.
Also, the parish-in-formation of "St. Barbara"-"St. Ignatius" was present with its people and their identifying banners.
On a rather interesting note, a number of our youth and young adults spent a good part of the day selling the hats which our Archdiocese of La Paz had commissioned to help underwrite some of the expenses related to the Holy Father's visit. Here, you see Ariel and Wilson going about their mission of selling with lots of creativity and enthusiasm (they even made a WhatsApp promotional jingle for the hats...!!!).
Finally, the picture of Pope Francis in the Pope Mobile: some have said that the driver was in competition with the actors of the "Fast and Furious" movie franchise...!!!
God bless you all! God bless Pope Francis, who should be arriving just about now back to Rome...may he enjoy a few days of well-deserved rest after his days with us here in South America...as I said before, tremendous days of grace and joy for us and for the whole Church.
Fr. Patrick Hayden