A great cheer and applause went up among the audience of 3,600seminarians and novices when the closed circuit television screens showed Pope Francis's motorcade, with the pontiff riding in the pope mobile.

Pope Francis entered the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception through the basement, known as the lower church, and took a key-operated elevator to the ground floor or upper church.

Security was tight, as at least five Secret Service snipers were stationed among the various balconies.

Known as the national church for U.S. Roman Catholics, the basilica is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and features more than 70 chapels honoring her and other saints on both levels. It ranks as the largest Roman Catholic church in the United States and North America, and one of the ten largest in the world.

Banners featuring both the pope and Blessed Juniper Serra graced the basilica's front façade. Inside, brightly colored mosaics featuring important events in the life of Jesus Christ decorate two of the basilica's three domes, while the underskin of the Great Dome is yet to be decorated.

All audience members stood and turned toward the basilica entrance, cell phones raised in anticipation, as they waited for Pope Francis to enter.

When the pope appeared, all broke into cheers, as those on the aisle reached out to touch him, past the grasp of Secret Service guards. When he reached the steps to the sanctuary, the crowd cheered louder.

At the top of the stairs, Pope Francis turned to face the audience, and made the sign of the cross in three directions, in order to bless all in the basilica. 

Amid a single shout of "Viva Papa!", he then walked to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel located along the basilica's west side, where he knelt to pray. Pope Benedict XVI and Saint John Paul II also prayed at this chapel when they visited the United States. The chapel features a bronze tabernacle evocative of the Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament. A canopy of gold hangs above the tabernacle, with a wide mesh of thin gold rods streaming down, representing manna from heaven.

When he made the sign of the cross after his prayer, the audience followed suit.

Pope Francis walked to a room on the east side of the basilica to change into vestments for the outside canonization Mass held on the east portico.

Sister Mary Gabriel of the Sisters of Life in New York brought 18 novices to the basilica to watch the canonization Mass.

"We are really looking for the shadow of Peter to fall on us," she said.

Marta Bento, 76, of Miami got a ticket to view the Mass from inside the basilica

Although Bento is Jewish, she said Pope Francis holds a special place in her heart.

"He is the most important thing in my life right now," she said. "He is changing the world."

Sister Mary Gabriel, director of novices for the Sisters of Life of New York, brought 18 novices with her. She was grateful when Pope Francis paused briefly near to where they were seated.

"The look in his eyes said 'thank you -- you're beautiful,'" Sister Mary Gabriel said. "I felt like a community of saints was here."

Sister Maria Christina is a novice in the same order. "It felt like the gaze of a loving father," she said.

Mary Rose Nwadike got a ticket from the Nigerian Catholic Community, in Hyattsville, Maryland, and was lucky enough to touch Pope Francis.

"He knew I touched him," Nwadike, 53, said. "And I felt the power in me."

Chad Green, a 39-year-old seminarian from Mount Angel Abbey and Seminary in Oregon, said Pope Francis seemed overwhelmed by the reaction from the crowd inside the Basilica.

"He looked surprised and so happy yet humble," Green said. "He was very touched by us, as we are by him."

Sr. Kim Nguyen, a novice with the Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in Houston, Texas, reached out her hand and found the Pope's hand.
"I thought, 'I'm touching Jesus,'" Nguyen, 43, said.

Robert Rossi, 77, of Scranton, Pennsylvania, was overwhelmed when he got a seat in the front pew, courtesy of his son, Msgr. Walter R. Rossi, who serves as Rector of the Basilica.

But he was stunned when his son brought the Pope over to him and his wife, Loretta. He both touched and kissed the pontiff.

"He's just a phenomenal person," Rossi, 77, said. "He's not just the Pope of the Catholics, but the Pope of everybody."


Filed by: Mary Massingale