Sister Anne Shepard reflects on Papal Mass

Sister Anne Shepard and Novice Jodi Hart at Papal Mass

By Sister Anne Shepard, OSB

How does one begin to put into writing a summary of the experience of attending the Celebration of the Holy Eucharist, the Canonization Mass of Blessed Junipero Serra with His Holiness Pope Francis? My reflections are about gratitude for being a religious leader and gratitude for being called in baptism to be a member of a universal church. 

The theme of the day was “Share the Joy, Walk with Francis.”

From the moment we stepped off the metro-rail at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., joy was in the air. Five Benedictine women ventured together, four prioresses of monasteries and one novice, our own Novice Jodi Hart. The sky was clear, brilliantly blue, and the heavy humidity of the DC area was absent for the day. (God, by the way, got an A+ from me on weather!)

Many volunteers were on hand to direct traffic and help us find the color coded entrance gates that were listed on our special tickets. We were invited to sit in special places in the assembly of the Mass (four of us were six rows from the front and one was in the eighth row) as the planners of the event recognized the desire to affirm the important role of heads of religious orders.

Since we had to be seated an hour and a half before Mass started, we had plenty of time to visit with sisters seated near us. I visited with Mother Agatha from New York, a member of the Sisters of Life, about John Cardinal O'Connor since I did a personal interview with him for my research at Columbia. He was the founder of their congregation. Others joined me in wishing Mary Catherine Wenstrup happy birthday, a special birthday that she will remember, I'm sure. The Sisters of Mercy and I swapped stories of how they influenced me at Holy Trinity High School in Washington, DC. The time passed quickly. While we were warned that Mass would be late in starting, it began only ten minutes later than scheduled.

The face of the Holy Father, though at times looking weary, was joyful. He loves the common people. He is unafraid to speak the truth of the gospel as he knows it and lives it. The 30,000+ in attendance sang with all of our hearts and prayed reverently and wholeheartedly.

Although I had attended audiences with popes in the past, I had never attended a Mass where a saint was canonized. I loved the simplicity of the ritual, a ritual that is familiar to Benedictines. We all sang the Veni Creator Spiritus, the come Holy Spirit hymn sung at monastic professions and at my installation. We heard a brief biography of the life of Saint Junipero Serra read, and a litany of saints chanted, so familiar to us from numerous liturgical occasions.

After the proclamation of the saint, I reflected on the person of Junipero. Some people have protested his canonization because of his treatment of Native Americans. I thought of Saint Benedict. He, too, received mixed reviews. Twice, as recorded by Pope St. Gregory the Great, his monks tried to poison him. Many saints have checkered pasts. But according to many, Junipero loved Native Americans and tried to hide them from the abuses of the day.

The other parts of the Mass reflected many cultures. Hymns were sung in Latin, Spanish and English. The prayers of the faithful were given in six languages, including sign language.  And one of my favorite parts was listening to the second reading proclaimed by a young special needs woman. How brave of her; how beautiful the gesture.  

So what was it like? It was like a gift I had never had before. I love Pope Francis. I love my community and my vocation. I love the Church in which I was raised and to which I belong.  And I am so grateful I went to the historic event on September 23.