When the parish council asked me to take the teenagers to Denver to see Pope John Paul II, I nearly swooned. The tiny farming community of Umbarger,Texas had been my home for just a couple of years, and I couldn’t believe they trusted me with what they held most dear.
They also asked two grandmas to come along. Later I realized that World Youth Day fell right smack in the middle of the harvest, so the grandmas and I were the only expendable adults. Still, I felt honored, and had no intention of letting them down.
My children were too young, according to the age requirement, so I took them home to my parents.Then I rounded up thirteen strapping teenagers and two grandmas, and we headed for the big city of Amarillo. The diocese chartered buses, and we joined a group who turned out to be inner-city gangsters, or at least the closest approximation that West Texas had to offer. They pretty much held my farm kids in contempt, and an invisible line of demarcation kept us apart for the entire ride to Denver.
A pilgrimage is not a vacation, and the accommodations made that quite obvious. We spent the first two nights sleeping in an auditorium with hundreds of other young people and their sponsors. I slept with one eye open because a dewy-eyed gangster from Amarillo carried a torch for one of my farm girls. I caught him several times doing a slow motion crawl to our side of the room, and each time, I managed to make myself fierce and shoo him away.
Probably the high point of the trip occurred on the second day, when we assembled in Mile High Stadium for a meeting with Pope John Paul II. He had such an amazing ability to communicate his love for young people, and it was enthusiastically
reciprocated. The trip would have been a huge success for my little band of pilgrims if we’d headed back home that night.
The next day featured a twelve-mile pilgrimage to Cherry Creek State Park. The entire Amarillo contingent, heavily influenced by their sponsors, opted out. Instead, they planned to spend the day at the mall, and arranged to be bussed to the site in air-conditioned comfort.
I gathered up my little group and explained the choice before us. We could join the pilgrimage, where we’d meet kids from Europe and third world countries, sing songs and have a generally fabulous time. Or, we could take the wiener bus.
I was thrilled when they picked my favorite option. Still, there was the problem of the grandmas. They needed to ride our bus alone and direct the bus driver to deposit our gear at the park gate, which they agreed to do. (In retrospect, a stunningly flimsy plan.)
For the first few hours, the pilgrimage exceeded my expectations, which is saying a lot, since I’m pathologically optimistic. I never saw one drop of bad behavior. All the young people we met were cheerful, open and helpful to each other. The people of Denver stood outside in their yards, cheering us on and spraying us with refreshing water from their hoses.
Things fell apart toward the end. There is no way we only walked twelve miles. The last hour felt like a re-creation of the Bataan death march. We had been warned about dehydration, and there were water stations all along the way, but we thought they were exaggerating. Turns out, they weren’t. When we neared the finish line, kids were falling down all around us, and volunteers loaded them onto golf carts and hauled them off to medical tents. One of my girls said, “I wish I would fall down and get a ride on a golf cart.”
Finally, finally and finally, we arrived at the gates of the park. There was no gear. There were no grandmas. But thanks be to God, there was a smitten Amarillo gangster who sniffed out my little farm girl immediately. When he saw me, he started to run for his life, but I caught up with him. “Wait! I’m glad to see you! Take us to the Amarillo camp site.”
I deposited the kids, then started my rounds hunting for the grandmas. I returned, unsuccessful, from my first search mission as the sun was setting. The mall rats were all cozy in their sleeping bags, while my kids were huddled together, clutching industrial strength trash bags and our church banner as their only protection from the cold. My weariness evaporated at the sight, and I marched off in search of our gear with the ferocity of a mother lion. As an after-thought I called over my shoulder, ordering them to pray that my mission would be successful.
A nice policeman drove me to the bus parking lot. (I think he was a little afraid to refuse me). Since all the buses looked exactly the same, he had no hope, but I convinced him that I could find it if he would just drive me around. Thankfully, the Amarillo gangsters had decorated the bus, misspelling a couple of words, so I knew it when I saw it. And amazingly, the luggage compartment was unlocked. I threw backpacks and sleeping bags over my shoulder like a mad woman, and loaded them into the police car.
The cop dropped me off at the park gates, where I commandeered a golf cart. (I must have looked scary, because that guy was afraid of me too.) All those sleeping bags and backpacks wobbled and periodically fell off, so I ran along behind, scooping up the droppings.
The golf cart ran out of gas about half a football field away from my kids, so I loaded up what I could carry, making my way sherpa-style to my charges. I’ll never forget their faces, as they rose up in their trash bags, crying, “It’s a miracle!” A couple of the boys helped me collect the rest of the gear, and I was just about to sit down when one of the kids threw up on my shoes. A hallmark sign of dehydration. Two of them were afflicted. On the bright side, only one needed IV fluids.
I spent the rest of the night traveling between our campsite and the medical tent. In spare moments I searched for the grandmas, but still no luck. The next morning, we celebrated an outdoor mass with the Pope, but I couldn’t really concentrate. Worry gnawed a hole in my stomach. Finding the grandmas seemed impossible in the immense crowd. I became more anxious by the minute. I fully expected to be tarred and feathered by my community if I returned without them.
Finally, it was time to go, and the bus driver gave me a deadline. I had learned that there were three “lost people” stations in different locations of the city, but there
was only time to check one. The kids were all on the edge of their seats as I stood paralyzed with indecision. Finally, one of the gangsters took action. “Come on, people. Let’s pray up them grandmas.” He led a rosary. Actually, he just said, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” over and over, but the other kids went along.
There was no time to deliberate, so I just picked a location and we were off. When we got to the lost people station, I went inside expecting to come up empty-handed again. Just inside the door, looking hopeless and abandoned, sat the grandmas. (Turns out they’d spent the entire time in the handicapped tent, getting waited on hand and foot!) When we boarded, the bus rocked with cheers.
The trip home was uneventful. I don’t think I spoke at all. My community trusted me, and I failed them. Technically, I did a pretty good job of watching the kids. How was I to know it was the grandmas who needed watching?
I avoided eye contact with my fellow parishioners for the first couple of days after we returned home, still stinging with embarrassment. Then one of the mothers called to thank me for chaperoning the kids.
“But it was a disaster!” I cried.
“Oh, no,” she said. “My daughter had an incredible spiritual experience. She said that every time they needed something, you made them pray for it, and the prayer was always answered.”
So, in the immediate aftermath, the grandmas were found, the kids learned the power of prayer and I lost ten pounds. (Since my clothes fit the same, I had to believe it was mostly pride). It seemed to qualify as a successful pilgrimage.
And today? I can only guess at the long-term effect of the World Youth Day experience on those kids, who are now grown-ups. They were already good when we jumped on that bus. They kept saying, “Can you believe we’re going to see the Pope?” and I kept saying, “Can you believe the Pope is coming to see you?” He had bigger expectations of their generation than any of the grown-ups had the courage to dream. You should have seen their faces as he called them to greatness.
Of my tiny band of pilgrims, one is a consecrated Religious. I have faith in every last one of them, including the former gangster wannabes. And I believe that Blessed John Paul the Great is still in their corner, pulling for them every step of the way.