Tony and Kelly Butler figure it’s been more than 20 years since the two of them took a weeklong vacation without at least some of their eight children along.
Just such a rare trip — a “splurge,” as Tony Butler calls it — will happen later this month. The New Glarus couple is among area Catholics heading to the East Coast in hopes of seeing Pope Francis during his first U.S. visit.
Some of the travelers have guaranteed access to the pontiff, others are leaving it to faith.
As of Friday, Butler, 49, a lifelong Catholic, did not have tickets to any specific event but said he’ll seize whatever public opportunities present themselves.
“My personality is such that I’m going straight to the front (of the crowds),” he said. “I hope to shake his hand.”
Pope Francis is scheduled to be in the U.S. Sept. 22-27, a much-anticipated visit by a widely popular religious figure. He will start in Washington, D.C., then travel to New York City and Philadelphia.
His appearance in Philadelphia will coincide with the World Meeting of Families, held every three years and billed as the world’s largest Catholic gathering of families. Several Madison-area Catholics said they were leaning toward attending the conference anyway but that the pontiff’s presence in the city sealed it.
“He’s certainly the draw,” said Beverly Hartberg, 69, of Verona, who will attend the conference with her husband, Tom.
Hartberg said it is unlikely she will ever get to Rome, so this is her best shot at “seeing such a special person.” She is undeterred by the expected crowds and logistical challenges. “We go to Badger games,” she said.
All of the active and retired Catholic bishops in the U.S. — well over 300 — have been invited to a midday prayer service with the pope Sept. 23 at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. Madison Bishop Robert Morlino, who is planning to be there, said only a bishop in ill health would miss such an opportunity.
“Bishops love the Holy Father, whoever he is,” Morlino said in an interview. “We love Pope Francis. He has so many unique gifts.”
This will be Morlino’s fourth time in the presence of Pope Francis. He has seen the pontiff twice in large settings and met him personally at the Vatican in 2013.
Morlino said he hopes the pope will spend some time in the U.S. talking about the recent papal encyclical on the environment. While many people have come to think of it as a document primarily about climate change, Morlino said it more broadly addresses how respect for the environment “must flow out of respect for the ecology of human nature.”
That means respect for the sacredness of life, respect for marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, and respect for the fact that “God created each person with his or her own gender, and he didn’t make mistakes,” Morlino said.
“I know Pope Francis is convinced that if there isn’t respect for human ecology, respect for the environment is superficial and lacks credibility,” Morlino said.
On the morning of Sept. 24, Pope Francis is scheduled to address a joint meeting of Congress in Washington. Each member of Congress received one guest ticket.
U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, said he invited Sister Maureen McDonnell, 71, of Madison. She is a member of the Sinsinawa Dominican Congregation based in southwestern Wisconsin and a retired member of the clergy ministry staff at Edgewood College.
Pocan said he has long admired McDonnell’s work aiding the poor and promoting peace.
“In many ways, she epitomizes what this pope has talked about, which is really connecting the values of the church with social justice values,” he said.
Secondarily, Pocan, who is not Catholic, said he chose McDonnell because of the difficulties she has weathered in the diocese. In 2012, McDonnell was one of two local Catholic nuns Morlino banned from holding workshops or providing spiritual direction or guidance at any Catholic churches in the 11-county diocese.
At the time, Morlino said he had “grave concerns” that the two sisters had strayed too far from Catholic teachings because of their work with a spirituality center that drew inspiration from multiple religious and spiritual traditions.
“When I think about the actions Bishop Morlino took,” Pocan said, “I think they fly in complete opposition to the approach Pope Francis takes. I think that’s all the more reason that she’s the perfect person to share this experience with.”
Morlino, asked about McDonnell’s current status in the diocese, said the prohibitions against her remain. As for Pocan’s invitation to McDonnell, Morlino said it stirs no negative feelings in him.
“I’m happy for Sister Maureen that she’ll have this opportunity,” he said.
McDonnell said the invitation was unexpected, as she does not know Pocan well. She said she anticipates the pope will have some “challenging, prophetic, difficult” things to say, and that she will welcome those comments.
“I hope he will bring his knowledge of the world and mainly of the poor to us, and present that to us in a way that moves us to ask ourselves what more we should be doing in regard to the world and the Earth,” she said.
A representative for U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin said the Madison Democrat has invited as her guest the Rev. Willie Brisco, president of Milwaukee InnerCity Congregations Allied for Hope, a multiracial, interfaith organization. Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Oshkosh will be taking his wife, Jane, according to his office.
Other Catholics from the area heading to the East Coast include Cathy Lins of Prairie du Sac, who will be covering the pope’s visit as a freelance journalist for the Madison diocese’s Catholic Herald newspaper, and John Huebscher, executive director of the Madison-based Wisconsin Catholic Conference. Huebscher has been invited to the welcome ceremony for the pope at the White House on Sept. 23.
One opportunity for the general public to hear the pope in Philadelphia will be a large outdoor Mass on Sept. 27. It does not require tickets, as long as people don’t mind being blocks away.
The Butlers said they plan to be in the crowd, likely watching the pope on a Jumbotron. Tony Butler said that if he somehow does get to shake the pope’s hand, doing so would only fortify his strong Catholic faith.
“It would be a small reward for being a pro-life family in a culture not really built for it,” he said.
The Butlers will be traveling on a bus chartered by a group of Catholic sisters in Waukesha affiliated with the Schoenstatt Movement, a worldwide movement of prayer and sacrifice. Forty-three people have signed up, most of them church laypeople from Wisconsin and Illinois, said Sister Marie Day, who is coordinating the trip.
The group members will attend the conference in Philadelphia, then take in whatever events they can luck into with the pope.
“He’s such a gift God has given us,” she said.