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

Elsa Gonzalez and her children, Dulce Maria, Christian and Edwin, holding three tickets for Pope Francis' visit to Washington.

Elsa Gonzalez and her children, Dulce Maria, Christian and Edwin, holding three tickets for Pope Francis’ visit to Washington.

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Ofelia Neri knows a thing or two about getting face time with the pope — even if it’s from a distance.

In 2002, she 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,” said Neri, of East Los Angeles. “Who can I call? Who can I ask? I prayed and prayed that someone could help me.”

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In a waiting game that some describe with Willy-Wonka, golden-ticket excitement, a number of California Catholics spent the last seven months hankering to be one of the lucky ticket recipients. Only an estimated 1,800 passes — allowing entry to the pontiff’s canonization Mass on Wednesday of missionary Junipero Serra in Washington — were available statewide.

Access to every other ticketed affair was offered only on the East Coast.

In California, the church parceled out the passes across the dioceses, leaving each bishop to decide who to give them to. In Los Angeles and Stockton, it was first-come, first-serve. In San Francisco and Orange County, big pilgrimages were organized, with passes split among the travelers.

In Sacramento, Bishop Jaime Soto, who got 100 tickets, gave some to a few high schools, which organized an essay contest. He also held a lottery, picking 30 winners from a glass bowl filled with 242 hopefuls.

“This woman from Davis won,” said diocese spokeswoman Carla Hass. “She’d never won a thing in her whole life and her lifelong dream was to see the pope.”

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For many fans, the task turned into a logistical leap of faith: they worked the phones, sent emails, lighted prayer candles and reached out to their local Bible group leaders, priests and bishops.

Some bought plane tickets, booked hotels and mapped out routes around the capital without any guarantee they’d make it to the east portico of the basilica.

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

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For the record

12:05 p.m.: An earlier version of this story reported Elsa’s last name as Rodriguez. Her last name is Gonzalez.

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

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

“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.

Last week, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which had already doled out its 280 tickets, managed to find a few for Gonzalez.

The Koreatown resident was so overwhelmed with nerves when she received the call, 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 more work at the last minute.

Mario Martinez of San Bernardino began organizing a pilgrimage to Philadelphia for 80 parishioners late last year. 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 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.”

Martinez, who’s traveling with a thick binder full of schedules, contacts and rules — had to figure out how to transport his flock — ages ranging from 4 months to 81 years old — 130 miles south to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

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

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

While Serra is a California figure and interest for tickets has been high statewide, the demand hasn’t compared to what’s been seen on the East Coast.

There, 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 DiBlasio told Fox News last week that the city is working with the federal government to remove the scalper posts.

In California, the distance and crowds may have deterred some faithful, said Steve Pehanich, director of advocacy and education for the California Catholic Conference.

The statewide organization was in charge of distributing the canonization tickets to the dioceses.

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

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

By Saturday, Neri, in East L.A., had packed her bags for her third papal event. Tickets for her and three girlfriends came in the mail Sept. 12 from the archdiocese.

The four women plan to brave the crowds, expected to exceed 2 million, to attend every event possible in Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

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

But the canonization is the event they’ll looking forward to the most. The 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.”

For more California news, follow @LATbermudez.

MORE ON POPE’S VISIT TO U.S.:

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

A crisis of conscience as pope’s visit falls on Yom Kippur

U.S. Catholic Church at a crossroads: Pope Francis appeals to competing currents


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