Haskell group plans road trip to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia

Pope Francis give the thumbs-up from the popemobile during a parade around the Ellipse near the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015.

Connor Veneski was raised Catholic but only recently started to get more involved in the church.

His inspiration, he said, has been Pope Francis, the “humble,” proletariat-friendly Latin American pope who took over the papacy in 2013.

“Seeing him sparked it in me,” said Veneski, a Haskell Indian Nations University junior and Cayuga Nation of New York tribe member from Yuma, Ariz.

“You look at Mother Teresa, she had her own time, so now I was looking for some kind of leader.”

Veneski is part of a two-van cohort of Haskell students and affiliates who plan to hit the road Friday afternoon and drive nearly 20 hours to see Pope Francis Sunday in Philadelphia. Haskell Catholic Campus Center is sponsoring the trip for the students and a handful of other church family members.

Philadelphia, where the pope is scheduled to hold a public outdoor Mass, is the last stop on his U.S. visit, which began Tuesday in Washington, D.C.

Former Haskell Catholic Campus Center director Monica Olivera, who helped organize the trip, said she expects a total of 12 travelers, including seven Haskell students to see the pope.

“He’s very, very inspirational to the young people, which is why I’m so excited taking them,” Olivera said. “He does talk a lot about living life with joy, and today’s world is so negative.”

Olivera saw Pope John Paul II in Denver as a college student, she said, and it was a “one of a kind” experience.

“You can’t replicate it,” she said. “You can see it on TV, but that’s not the same.”

Not everyone making the trip is Catholic.

Veneski’s roommate and fellow Haskell junior Alec Peehler, a Seneca tribe member from Atlanta, said he usually attends a nondenominational church but was interested in different viewpoints and learning more about Catholicism — while getting to see such an influential leader.

“I just thought it’d be a really neat opportunity,” Peehler said. “The pope doesn’t usually come to America very often.”

Lawrence’s two Catholic churches aren’t planning group trips but do have representatives at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, which culminates with the pope’s Mass on Sunday. Church representatives said John and Shannon Rasmussen from St. John the Evangelist and Sister Doris Engeman from Corpus Christi would attend.

KU’s St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center does not have an official trip planned, leaders said, but some students may be going on their own.

Father Mike Scully, administrator of the Haskell Catholic Campus Center, said the center was glad to help give the Haskell group an opportunity to connect with the pope.

“What I hope for the young people and our permanent community is that they will grow in their love of Pope Francis and the message he is trying to give the world, but especially the United States,” Scully said.

Growing up just a few miles from Mexico and being familiar with south-of-the-border conditions, Veneski said he was first drawn to Francis because he hails from Latin America.

Veneski said he’s inspired by the pope’s calling to help others and his commitment to economic systems that foster equality. Veneski is majoring in business at Haskell, hopes to go on to get a master’s degree in social work and ultimately work with Latin American immigrants and advocate in general for immigrants and refugees worldwide.