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Pope’s East Coast visit is the hottest ticket in California

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcome Pope Francis.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcome Pope Francis.

(Olivier Douliery / Pool / EPA)

Ofelia Neri knows a thing or two about getting time with the pope.

In 2002 the East Los Angeles resident got to see Pope John Paul II in Mexico City, and in 2005 she flew to Rome to witness a Mass by Pope Benedict XVI.

When she heard earlier this year that Pope Francis, her favorite pontiff, was visiting the U.S. for the first time, she immediately began to hunt for tickets.

“Oh my God,” Neri thought. “Who can I call? Who can I ask? I prayed and prayed that someone could help me.”

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She wasn’t alone. Stubhubbers scrambling to see Taylor Swift could have learned something about devotion from the California Catholics who entered lotteries or wrote essays or simply rushed to the front of a line to score a ticket to see the pope.

Tickets for most events connected to the pope’s visit were offered on the East Coast. But the church in California had an estimated 1,800 passes to Wednesday’s Washington, D.C., Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, when the pontiff will canonize missionary Junipero Serra.

It parceled out the passes across the state’s 10 dioceses and two archdioceses, leaving each bishop to decide who should receive them.

In Los Angeles and Stockton, it was first come, first served. In San Francisco and Orange County, big pilgrimages were organized, with passes divided among the travelers.

In Sacramento, Bishop Jaime Soto, who received 100 tickets, gave some to high schools as prizes in essay contests. He also held a lottery, picking 30 winners from a glass bowl filled with the names of 242 hopefuls.

Diocese spokeswoman Carla Hass described the excitement of one winner: “She’d never won a thing in her whole life, and her lifelong dream was to see the pope.”

Many fans unleashed their powers of prayer and persuasion, lighting candles while working the phones and email to reach Bible group leaders, priests and bishops.

Some made a calculated leap of faith. They bought plane tickets, booked hotels and mapped out routes around the capitol without any guarantee that they would have a pass to the east portico of the basilica.

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“It was a huge risk,” said Elsa Gonzalez, 48. “But we had to take it.”

The caregiver from Guatemala began asking for tickets around her church, St. Thomas the Apostle, in February, soon after she learned the pope was coming.

She has longed for her son, Christian, to be in the presence of a pontiff for more than 20 years. The 28-year-old has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair.

“I have so much hope that if I can just get him to the pope, God will grant us a miracle and help him heal,” Gonzalez said.

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The Archdiocese of Los Angeles had already distributed its 275 tickets. But last week, it managed to find a few for Gonzalez after another parishioner canceled a trip.

The Koreatown resident was so overwhelmed with nerves when she received the call that she had to have her daughter drive her to the archdiocese. There, in the lobby office, she screamed and cried with joy when she saw the envelope.

“I startled the nuns. I startled the security guards,” she said. “I could hardly believe it.”

For some, scoring passes led to last-minute work.

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Mario Martinez of San Bernardino began organizing a pilgrimage to Philadelphia for 80 parishioners late last year, long before the pope announced his visit. They planned to go to the World Meeting of Families Congress, where the pope has since scheduled an appearance.

Then, a month ago, the diocese of San Bernardino offered all 80 travelers tickets to the Washington, D.C., event.

“We said, yes, of course,” said Martinez, a marriage coordinator for the diocese. “But it’s been an exhausting challenge and this gave us more to do.”

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Martinez, who is traveling with a thick binder full of schedules, contacts and rules — had to figure out how to transport his flock — with ages ranging from 4 months to 81 years — 130 miles south to the Mass.

In the end, he chartered two buses — and his travelers, he said, couldn’t be more pleased.

“This is the closest they’re going to be to Pope Francis.”

Although interest in tickets for the Serra canonization has been high statewide, it doesn’t compare to the frenzy of East Coast Catholics for other events. Scalpers have attempted to sell tickets to the pope’s Sept. 25 procession through Central Park on EBay and Craigslist for thousands of dollars. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio told Fox News last week that the city is working with the federal government to remove the posts.

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Steve Pehanich, director of advocacy and education for the California Catholic Conference, the statewide organization that distributed the canonization tickets to the dioceses last week, said that so far he is not aware of any scalping in California.

If anyone locally has tried to resell California’s tickets, which did not come printed with names, “it has not been sanctioned by the church,” Pehanich said.

“In the spirit of St. Francis, I hope all these scalpers give all their profits to the poor,” he said.

By Saturday, Neri had packed her bags for her third papal event. Tickets for her and three girlfriends came in the mail from the archdiocese.

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The canonization is the event the four women are anticipating the most. This Mass, with 25,000 people, promises to be the most intimate setting.

“Maybe,” she said. “Some people will not make it because it’s too cold and we can get good seats — right up front.”

The women also plan to brave the crowds, expected to reach more than 2 million people, to attend every other possible event in Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia.

“We’re the pope’s groupies,” she said, laughing. “We want to follow him around wherever he goes.”

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esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATBermudez

MORE ON THE POPE’S U.S. VISIT

Pope Francis arrives in the U.S.

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Pope gets ready to make Junipero Serra a saint, but not in California

California Catholics spent months trying for tickets to see pope in U.S.


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