WASHINGTON — Javier and Yolanda Valdez and their two daughters are packed to board a red-eye out of McCarran International Airport on Monday, heading east to join more than a million pilgrims hoping to receive a blessing next week from Pope Francis.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us,” said Javier Valdez, a parishioner at St. Anne Catholic Church in Las Vegas.
“It’s been a lot of work for us,” Valdez said. Since February, his family and others sold religious books, conducted raffles and held Mexican food sales to raise funds for the trip, “but I think it’s going to be well-spent money.”
Valdez, a pool technician, and Yolanda Valdez, a hairstylist, hold workshops at church to help other couples understand their children. On this trip, daughters Samantha, 18, and Angela, 12, will be coming along.
“We’re talking with our daughters about the experience of seeing Pope Francis in the United States, and they’re happy, too,” Javier Valdez said.
The Valdez family is among a small yet fervent number of Southern Nevadans traveling to share the experience of seeing the pope and receiving Holy Communion that he will have consecrated.
Among others making the trip, the bishop of Las Vegas is preparing for an audience with Pope Francis along with U.S. church leaders. A half dozen priests and deacons from the Diocese of Las Vegas have been selected to distribute Holy Communion alongside the pope at one of the four holy Masses he will celebrate during his six-day stay in the United States.
And some who are fortunate to have scored special passes will witness the pope making history by becoming the first pontiff to carry a message to a joint session of Congress.
Bishop Joseph Pepe, the leader of the Diocese of Las Vegas, has met with Pope Francis three times through his work on a foundation that supports the pope’s charitable endeavors.
“When he meets me, he laughs because nobody thinks of Las Vegas as a diocese,” Pepe said in an interview. “Every time they say, ‘Here is Bishop Pepe of Las Vegas,’ he goes ‘ha ha ha!’ So I have great pictures of him laughing when he’s been told I’m the bishop of Las Vegas.”
Church activities next week will be based out of Philadelphia and the World Meeting of Families, an international conference held every three years on a different continent. After arriving Tuesday, Pepe and other U.S. bishops will be escorted by the Secret Service aboard an Amtrak train to Washington.
The bishops will meet with Pope Francis on Wednesday morning, then attend Mass in the afternoon at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the campus of Catholic University. There, Pope Francis will confer sainthood on Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Franciscan friar who founded missions in California. He will be the first saint canonized on U.S. soil.
Pepe said neither he nor most other bishops will be attending papal events at the White House or in Congress. “The Secret Service said it was too disruptive to have all these people — more than 200 — moving back and forth,” he said.
Other Las Vegans will dot the crowds in Philadelphia and Washington.
Monsignor Gregory Gordon, pastor of St. Anne Catholic Church, is leading 18-20 parishioners to Philadelphia and Washington, including the Valdez family. Several other families from Las Vegas are traveling separately, he said.
Las Vegas clergy were selected as concelebrants or to distribute Holy Communion at the canonization Mass before an expected audience of 27,000. Gordon will share an altar with Pope Francis, with St. Anne associate pastors the Rev. Gregorio Leon, the Rev. Paul Oye, Deacon Santiago Guerrero and also the Rev. John McShane, the pastor of parishes in Ely and Caliente.
“It is an emotional blessing to concelebrate Mass or receive a blessing from the one who we believe — who our faith teaches us — was chosen by the Holy Spirit to succeed in the chair of Peter as the vicar of Christ on Earth,” Gordon said.
“These are occasions of a lifetime,” he said. “I am sure there will be some tears of joy before, during and after the events we will participate in.”
On Capitol Hill
Pope Francis flies into Washington on Tuesday afternoon and leaves on Thursday evening for New York. On Saturday and Sunday, he will be in Philadelphia, capped by a celebration of Holy Mass on Benjamin Franklin Parkway late Sunday afternoon before an audience expected to be around a million worshippers.
Said to be a stickler for keeping to schedule down to the minute, Pope Francis is set to spend exactly 100 minutes on Capitol Hill on Thursday, an occasion that has been compared to a presidential inauguration and a State of the Union event rolled into one.
The elaborately timed visit will include a short gathering before his address where he will grant an audience to the leaders of Congress, including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Reid in recent Senate speeches has exhorted the pope’s views on climate change, immigration and social issues, invariably contrasting them to positions held by Republicans.
“We sure do like this new pope,” Reid said in the fall.
Given a chance to address Pope Francis personally, Reid said he plans to keep it low-key.
“There will be a lot of people there,” Reid said. “I’ll just say it’s a pleasure to meet him. He’s such a spiritual guy. I look forward to it, but I am not going to engage in a long conversation. There won’t be an opportunity to do that.”
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., planned to take part in a welcoming ceremony at the White House when Pope Francis arrives to meet with President Barack Obama on Wednesday, his office said.
Each member of Congress was given a single ticket to the visitors gallery that will overlook the House chamber and the pope speaking below.
Lawmakers also were given outdoor passes to the West Front of the Capitol, where the address will be shown on jumbo screens stretching to the National Mall.
Ticketed or not, thousands will gather on the Mall. It is expected that at the conclusion of his speech, Pope Francis will step out onto a balcony overlooking the crowd and extend a blessing.
Tickets to the House gallery quickly became prized.
Reid has invited Deacon Tim O’Callaghan of the Diocese of Las Vegas, according to his staff. O’Callaghan is the son of the late former Gov. Mike O’Callaghan, who was Reid’s best friend. Tim O’Callaghan is coordinator of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, Catholic Relief Services, and Respect Life ministries for the diocese.
Rep. Mark Amodei invited Michael Britt of Las Vegas, a vice president at Zuffa, UFC’s parent company, who the lawmaker’s office said was a personal friend.
Rep. Joe Heck did not receive a request for the pass by a Sept. 4 security deadline, so he held a lottery for staff members, according to spokesman Greg Lemon. Legislative aide Michael Lisowski won the drawing.
Rep. Dina Titus gave her ticket to a friend in Washington her office declined to identify. Heller’s office did not comment to a query about his gallery ticket.
Rep. Cresent Hardy, a Republican, offered his ticket to Las Vegas City Councilman Bob Coffin, a Democrat. Hardy spokeswoman Sonia Joya said the two were friends from when both served in the Nevada Legislature.
Coffin, who studied for the priesthood briefly as a young man, said he was stunned to receive the invitation, and also appreciative.
“I almost dropped the phone when I got the call,” Coffin said. “This speaks volumes, that Cresent Hardy would reach across the aisle and invite a Democrat. I am very lucky.”
Bad timing for Heck
Each of the Nevada lawmakers plans to attend the pope’s address, except Heck, an apparent victim of bad timing.
Heck, the only Catholic in the state delegation, is attending a military reserve function next week and will miss Pope Francis’ visit to Washington.
Heck, a brigadier general in the Army Reserve, said the House schedule released early this year called for lawmakers to be in recess during the week, so he signed up for the duty and plans to keep to it.
“Unfortunately I already made my commitment to be somewhere else,” Heck said. He said he was disappointed, “but it’s a balancing act between having multiple responsibilities.”
Contact Review-Journal Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Find him on Twitter: @STetreaultDC.