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Alaskans head to D.C. for papal visit

  • Author: Erica Martinson
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published September 22, 2015

WASHINGTON -- Alaska's congressional delegation and visitors from the state were getting ready Tuesday for an unprecedented visit from Pope Francis as he embarks on a tour of the Eastern Seaboard, including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City.

Pope Francis arrived in the Washington area Tuesday afternoon and was greeted by President Barack Obama and his wife, daughters and mother-in-law.

On Wednesday, Obama welcomed the pontiff at the White House, and Washingtonians were to be treated to a papal parade. The pope will then meet with bishops from across the U.S. and celebrate Mass. On Thursday morning, the pope will address a joint session of Congress, the first time the leader of the Catholic Church has ever done so.

While Alaskans recently got a taste of D.C. motorcades and presidential traffic, Washington, D.C., is getting its own dose this week, with widespread street closures and expectations of hours-long transit backups.

Nevertheless, the pope will get a warm welcome from the Alaska delegation. Sens. Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski are both Catholic. Rep. Don Young is not, but his wife Ann is, and he regularly attends Mass with her at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Fairbanks, according to his spokesman, Matt Shuckerow.

Each lawmaker got one ticket -- a "date" -- to take someone to the joint session. Murkowski and Young will bring along their spouses.

Sullivan will attend with his local parish priest, the Rev. Tom Lilly of Anchorage's St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish.

That wasn't the only viewing spot for the pontiff's address. Some scored tickets to see Pope Francis arrive at the White House on Wednesday morning. Others are headed to Mass, and still more will gather on the West Lawn of the Capitol, where the address to Congress will be broadcast on large screens, and many hope the pope will emerge to greet the crowd.

There are a few tickets still available from the Alaska delegation, which has had a bit more trouble finding takers than some with closer constituents. The senators each received 200 tickets, and Young had 50 to start.

The 50,000 people expected outside the Capitol bring to memory a visit to Alaska by Pope John Paul II in 1981, when he held Mass on the Delaney Park Strip in Anchorage before the same number of people.

Alaska's bishops will be in D.C. for the visit: Fairbanks Bishop Chad Zielinski, a former U.S. Air Force enlisted man who was appointed to his position by Pope Francis; Anchorage Bishop Roger Schwietz, appointed in 2001 by Pope John Paul II, and Juneau Bishop Edward Burns, appointed in 2009 by Pope Benedict XVI.

Burns arrived in Washington, D.C., last week for meetings with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services and returned Monday after a weekend visit with family in Pittsburgh.

He'll be greeting Pope Francis at St. Matthew's Cathedral after he departs the White House. Pope Francis is "going to meet with all the bishops of the United States, so I look forward to that and look forward to his address to us," Burns said Tuesday.

The bishops will also head to the next stop on the tour for the canonization of Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan friar.

"That's exciting too," Burns said. He noted that there is already a likeness of Serra in the Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

From the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Mary Gore and her sister Ann are traveling to Washington, D.C., to see the pope arrive at the White House.

That meant arriving at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue at 5:30 a.m. Eastern time and a long standing wait for the pope's arrival at the White House.

"It's going to be a long day," Mary Gore said, noting that tickets are standing room only.

Then they'll make the long trek across town to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where they'll go through several layers of security and wait some more, until the pope arrives to celebrate Mass before thousands of people after 4 p.m.

"I'm sure it'll be an adventure," Gore said.

On Thursday, Joan Wilson, an attorney from Anchorage who attends the same church as Sullivan, will be on the Capitol lawn with her sister, who lives in D.C., and several other relatives, during the pope's address to Congress.

Wilson originally only requested two tickets, but found out there were extras available from both Sullivan and Murkowski's offices. "I wish people knew about that," she said. "I think a lot of people would have come this far to see the pope. He's a pretty magical guy."

Wilson, a lifelong Catholic, said the pope's visit has added importance for her.

Her mother, Mary Nockels, 83, is very ill and may not live past the weekend, she said. Nockles asked her daughter to bring her rosary to be blessed by the pope.

Like many Catholics, Wilson has had her own troubles with the church. Her brother was sexually abused by a priest when they were children in Chicago, she said.

The long history of abuse and silence from the church is not unknown to Alaskans. In 2008, the Fairbanks diocese filed for bankruptcy after being unable to settle lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by priests and church volunteers.

Wilson said she wouldn't have come for a visit by the previous pontiff. "I had no interest in Pope Benedict's version of the Catholic Church," she said.

But Pope Francis "seems to be less about image and more about every individual's ability to have a personal connection to God. It's not about dogma; it's about what you hold in your heart," Wilson said.

Pope Francis has gathered the world's attention since he took the helm of the church in 2012 and began shaking things up -- from Vatican finances to his penchant for simplicity to his treatise on the environment earlier this year, which called for action on climate change.

"Our Holy Father has expressed in word and in action how simple he is -- the message of simplifying our lives, in particular so as how to serve others, in particular the poor," Burns said. Pope Francis has "entered into shanty towns in Italy" and established "showers for the homeless" at the Vatican, and he "goes to detention centers and washes the feet of down-and-out young people on Holy Thursday," Burns said.

Wilson said she's heartened by Pope Francis' efforts to reach out to lesbian, gay and transgender people, and his attitude toward women in the church.

"He's done some pretty good things," she said. "It's so nice to hear priests get excited about him when they preach."

The bishops will watch the address to Congress in a space provided in their hotel in Arlington, Virginia.

Soon after the address, the nation's bishops will head to Philadelphia together by train, Burns said. Several people from Southeast Alaska will also be in Philadelphia for the pope's visit, Burns said.

The visit is a big deal for the church, Burns said, calling the address to Congress "a historic moment."

"It's exciting to see our Holy Father come to the United States and I look forward to his words. In particular I look forward to the opportunity to digest his words, to listen and reflect on what he has to say to us," Burns said.