Sister Lynn Marie Ralph arrived at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul more than two hours before Pope Francis’ Mass and sat in a center pew 15 rows back from the altar.
“I’ve been praying,” said Sister Ralph, a member of the Pennsylvania-based Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for nearly three decades.
“I’m scared. So far, no one has asked me to move.”
Moments later, a cathedral volunteer walked up — shuffling papers in her hands — and said, “I’m going to have to ask you to move. This section is for the clergy.”
As the volunteer continued to the back of the vast cathedral, the nun said, “The sisters are all sitting on the side and we have the clergy here.”
Francis, she said, would not approve.
At mass Saturday before more than 2,000 mostly priest, women religious and deacons, Pope Francis invoked the name of Katharine Drexel, who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament. He called her “one of the great saints raised up by this local Church.”
Francis praised the “efforts of all those dedicated priests, religious and laity who for over two centuries have ministered to the spiritual needs of the poor, the immigrant, the sick and those in prison.”
He spoke of “the hundreds of schools where religious brothers and sisters trained children to read and write, to love God and neighbor, and to contribute as good citizens to the life of American society.”
Earlier, however, as Sister Ralph, 55, awaited the arrival of the pontiff, she was wiping tears from her eyes after being asked to move from the center pews of the 150-year-old cathedral.
“I get emotional,” she said. “That hurts. The religious have just as much honor as the clergy. If Pope Francis knew, he would say, ‘No. Let her stay.'”
Still, Sister Ralph eventually moved about 20 rows back but remained in the middle section, where she felt she was assured a good view of the pope. The volunteers stopped by again and reminded her that she may need to move.
Sister Ralph ministers to the parishioners of St. Martin de Porres Church in North Philadelphia.
She knelt and prayed to “Mother Mary, Mother Katherine and my mother,” Sister Ralph said.
“I’m cool now,” she said, as the basilica began to fill.
As the white-robed clergy filed into the sanctuary, another nun stepped out from the folding chairs set out for the religious on the each side of the church. She, too, wiped tears from her eyes and told a group of reporters, “Pope Francis would not like this.”
Indeed, a couple of nights earlier, Pope Francis expressed his “esteem and gratitude to the women religious of the United States” at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.
“What would the Church be without you?” Francis said to applause.
Saturday’s Mass was the Pope’s first stop in Philadelphia.
Later, Francis will give an address on religious freedom and immigration, before making an appearance at the Festival of Families.