Orange County faithful hit the road for Pope’s visit

Alex Zamudio has only heard about what it is like to be in the presence of a pope, the Vicar of Christ.

“I’ve heard from so many people what a great experience it is,” he said. “That it’s not something you can explain, but have to experience for yourself.”

Zamudio will get that chance Wednesday when he goes to Washington, D.C., along with 249 others from his congregation at St. Anne Catholic Church in Santa Ana.

In all, at least 1,000 Catholics from Orange County are expected to head east this week to get a glimpse of Pope Francis, said Diocese of Orange spokesman Ryan Lilyengren. Among those on the road trip will be Bishop Kevin Vann and other diocese officials.

Last week, after St. Anne congregants participated in a liturgy and confessional in preparation for their pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia (the pope’s route), Zamudio won one of 100 raffle tickets given out to attend the pope’s canonization Mass for Father Junipero Serra.

The tickets were made available through the diocese, said Ivan Rodriguez, one of the church members leading the traveling contingent.

While many members of the group will witness Serra’s canonization at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, they also hope to see the pope after his address to Congress on Thursday. If not then, they’ll try to see him later in New York City and Philadelphia, where Vann will hold a Mass for the Orange County group. They also will see the pope at the World Meeting of Families on Saturday in Philadelphia.

Vann said an opportunity to see Pope Francis is a potentially momentous event for local Catholics.

“There is a lot of excitement,” he said. “This is the Holy Father’s first visit to the United States. And to add to that, one of our own is being elevated to sainthood.”

For Lorena Mendoza of Anaheim, no sacrifice is too big to be in the presence of divinity. She has seen Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, as well as Pope Francis two years ago in Brazil.

“I live paycheck to paycheck,” said the St. Anne’s congregant. “But I give up what I can – my cup of Starbucks coffee or going to the movies. The experience is worth it.”

Mendoza describes the feeling she has in the presence of a pope as “an immense sense of peace and hope.”

“Whatever you are going through in your life, you know it’s going to be OK and that you are loved, no matter what,” she said.

She recalls attending World Youth Day in 2005 Cologne, Germany, where she saw Pope Benedict.

“It was so hot there that firemen were throwing buckets of water into the crowd,” she said. “There were thousands of people there and, still, I felt like I was the only one there. It was an amazing, peaceful feeling.”

Alma and Juan Martinez of Santa Ana plan to take their three sons – Andy, 12; Alex, 11; and Abraham, 5. They’ll bring clothes and themselves, but no electronics, their mother says.

“This is not a vacation,” Alma Martinez said. “I want my sons to be more present and take in the experience. They are not happy we’re taking their games away from them, but I think they’ll appreciate the experience more when they are not distracted.”

She said she is inspired by Pope Francis.

“I like that he is candid,” Martinez said. “The truth is the truth, and it’s refreshing to hear it. I feel that Pope Francis can be blunt, but always loving.”

Celso and Rosa Calderon will take the trip with their two daughters, son, sons-in-law and grandchildren. “We’re a large group,” Celso Calderon said with a laugh. “We are 14 of us.”

For Celso Calderon, the trip is an affirmation of faith, which he says brought him back to his family after a life of violence.

“God made me the man I am today, and I will forever feel his love,” he said. “The pope, for me, is God’s representative on Earth.”

Anthony Tran and Brandon Dang, seminary students from Orange County, will be able to afford the trip to see Pope Francis thanks to a basketball game last month at St. Jeanne de Lestonnac School in Tustin. The game, which pitted priests against seminarians, raised thousands of dollars so seminarians could make the trip.

“He seems like the people’s pope,” Tran said of Pope Francis. “He brings the human side of himself to every situation. I love that he places an emphasis on helping the poor, always reminding us not to forget those in need.”

Dang is looking forward to the Serra canonization and traveling with his fellow seminarians.

“Witnessing a canonization is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.

“And traveling with my fellow seminarians is a wonderful opportunity to build a fraternity as future priests.”

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