John Diaz bought a plane ticket from San Francisco to Washington Tuesday on a last-minute whim, assuming his best chance of seeing Pope Francis would be on a big-screen outside the Capitol Thursday when the pontiff addresses a joint sesson of Congress. Instead, he snagged one of the last tickets available for the Mass Francis will celebrate at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception to canonize Junípero Serra.
Diaz, an Air Force Reserve member who works in finance, landed Wednesday morning in time to scramble to the Mall for a obstructed glimpse of Francis’s parade following the pontiff’s White House audience with President Obama. Following the three-block parade, Diaz hopped on Metro and rode to Brookland, and figured he’d get no closer than standing on the far side of the heavy security perimiter around the basilica and Catholic University. But when he came up the escalator to the plaza wrapped by the blocks-long line for Mass, Diaz encountered a volunteer from Catholic Charities distributing the last batch of tickets to get inside.
“It’s once-in-a-lifetime,” Diaz said, flashing his standing-room pass. “He’s canonizing Father Serra and I went to his high school.”
Serra, an 18th-century Spanish missionary who traveled throughout what today is Mexico and California, is credited with introducing Catholicism to Native American populations. While many Catholic schools and other institutions across the Western United States bear his name, Francis’s choice to make Serra a saint—the first time a canonization will be performed on US soil—is not without controversy. In some native communities, Serra is remembered for imposing Christianity and eroding indigenous culture.
Diaz, 28, sounded as excited to see the pope in action as he was for a service canonizing his high school’s namesake. “[Francis] is a real humble guy, and it’s a good motto, ‘work hard, stay humble,’ ” said Diaz, who added that he didn’t feel the urge to fly across the country in 2008 when Francis’s predecessor, Benedict XVI made his one US visit.
Still, it was the coincidence—some might say minor miracle—of traveling on a whim and getting a last-ditch ticket that had Diaz grinning. “Isnt’ that amazing? I’m pretty stoked,” he said. “I was just trying to get a good seat for the Jumbotron.”