Check in: Karen Willoughby couldn’t see or hear the pope, but felt the love envelope the crowd

PHILADELPHIA—“I just feel more alive!”

Those were Karen Willoughby’s words in the midst of hurried packing Monday morning as she and granddaughter Kaiya Willoughby prepared to board buses to take them back home to Myrtle Beach.

After seven days in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ visit, battling a grueling schedule and huge crowds, the entire experience left her more enthusiastic and excited about her faith than ever before.

“I feel very charged, like I’m bringing something back to my family,” Willoughby said. “I feel very inspired to be able to provide for them the light I received being here. I want them to see and feel the joy and excitement I got from just being here this week.”

Being there for Pope Francis’ Saturday speech on Independence Mall and Sunday’s huge papal Mass was unforgettable for two reasons: being in the Pope’s presence, no matter how far away he was, and encountering the remarkable atmosphere of kindness that enveloped the crowd.

“If you had had so many people together in one place for any other kind of event, like a concert or ordinary festival, you would have had some fights,” Willoughby said. “There was such a huge crowd, and you would have people walking over others or accidentally stepping on someone else’s stuff, and nobody minded. Everyone was so accepting, so Christian, everybody trying to get along and be kind.”

She said it was a joyful experience to see Pope Francis even for a few moments. Willoughby got a good look at him as he rode by in his motorcade both days, and said just hearing his words was important.

Like a few others in the group from South Carolina, she had to use a wheelchair on Sunday, and from where she was sitting she could not see the translations of Pope Francis’ homily that appeared on Jumbotron screens set up around the area.

“I could not a see a thing and had no idea what he was saying, but I felt the love, I felt the commitment,” she said. “And I felt joy of seeing so many pilgrims there.”

She was also overwhelmed with the kindness of a young man from Poland who had befriended some people in her group. She said the man pushed her wheelchair through the crowd and helped her in and out of it when she went up for communion.

“He was basically a stranger to me and he helped me so much,” she said. “That’s the kind of spirit that was there on Sunday — I get goosebumps thinking about it. It was a complete spirit of giving and love.”