Looking for the Pope in Philadelphia
On this overcast, blustery fall day I made a lone pilgrimage on foot two miles from my South Philly home to Center City for a chance at glimpsing Pope Francis, “the people’s Pope,” in person. All the way up Broad Street, Army or National Guard soldiers — I’m not sure which — in green fatigues hung out casually in pairs on every other street corner. They’d been there since last night but I’m not sure why as no Papal events are planned this far south and barely a soul was out. The city seems apocalyptically deserted.
Eventually I came to barricades personed by police and military at every intersection to keep out vehicles but as a pedestrian I could pass freely. Finally, just south of City Hall, I reached one of the security entrances to the main event. The lines were much shorter than I anticipated, and much friendlier. Soon I was inside the secure zone.
Although I’m not Catholic and have serious disagreements with the Catholic Church and its checkered history, the Pope is a major historical figure and he’s right here in my town so naturally I wanted to be a part of the event. Like all these visitors from around the world I was one more gawking pilgrim eager to see “the people’s Pope” in the flesh.
Crossing Love Park I got my first glimpse of one of the Jumbotrons, on which the Pope was just starting his mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul a stone’s throw away. When my wife and I first came to Philly several years ago we had lived just a few blocks from here and could see its scenic domes from our balcony, so this was like coming back to the old neighborhood.
My overall feeling milling about the crowds was something I could only compare to, incongruous as it may sound, stories of Woodstock. The idea of teeming thousands sharing a weekend of peace and love without violence or major incident resonated with me. Granted the Papal visit was a family event and there were no apparently intoxicated people dancing around naked. No, I would soon find obscenity elsewhere.
A calmness settled over me, a sense that I was safe and could let my usual urban guard down and actually smile at strangers. I was on the parade route and in a perfect position to see the Pope when he passed. Some people snoozed on the ground at my feet, having staked out their turf hours ago. One young man had climbed a tree for a better view. The sight of him smashed me back to my Sunday school days in the Bible Belt where I had learned well the Biblical story of Zaccheus (“Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way.”)
About that time my phone rang. It was my 4-year-old son calling from his grandparents’ house out of state where he’d been visiting for the week. The first words out of his mouth weren’t the customary Hi, Pop. Instead they were a giddily shouted, “The Pope is in Philadelphia!” His Bengali grandparents had switched on the TV to let him get a glimpse of the big shindig happening in his hometown. Keep in mind that my wife and are culturally Hindus, so this had nothing to do with Christianity or Catholicism. It was simply a big deal.
I stood on the sidewalk alongside the church, just a wall between me and one of the most influential people in the world, watching him live on a giant TV. I found his sermon to be inspirational, especially his story about Philadelphia’s own St. Katharine Drexel and her fateful meeting with Pope Leo XIII in 1887. Pope Francis has a way of making you feel that he is speaking directly to you.
I was also hoping, along with thousands around me up and down the parade route, to get just a quick look at the Holy Father when he exited the church. Then it happened. My usual sense of humor and cynicism rushed back in full throttle when I saw to my right a tent selling OFFICIAL MERCHANDISE. Doesn’t the Vatican have enough billions in its coffers already?
My illusion of inner peace and love was shattered by this obscenity and my mind shifted to the economics underlying the whole affair. Would it be good for the city? The Mayor’s Office had had had to haggle with the World Meeting of Families until the 11th hour over money. Local vendors selling Papal memorabilia had been banned from the secure zone so that only “official merchandise” could be bought. Also the crowds seemed a lot smaller than I had anticipated,certainly a lot more than had been hyped all week in the local media. And the Center City restaurants, besides Subway and Wawa, were almost completely empty.**
Finally the mass ended and the pilgrims along the parade route, myself included, rose to attention, clambered for good views and got our smartphones ready. Zaccheus sat up taller in his tree and craned his neck. A group of police cycles rolled past. They’re checking the route, I thought. Then gum-chomping, shades-wearing state troopers took positions at intervals up and down the route. Flak-vested FBI jarheads with backpacks walked up the middle of the street. Secret Service men in black suits appeared here and there, and a helicopter swooped in low out of nowhere and began circling the cathedral. This is it.
15 minutes later and no Pope. 30 minutes later and no Pope. 45 minutes, no Pope. The Jumbotrons now played a continuous loop of slides promoting Official Rosaries, Official Commemorative Apparel and Official Commemorative Ivory Bone China. I heard someone behind me tell his friend it would be nice if instead of trying to sell us stuff they’d use the giant TVs to tell us something useful like the Pope’s schedule for the rest of the day. The people at home watching on TV probably knew more than we did at that point.
60 minutes into the wait the police opened the barricades in a couple of spots to allow people to cross the parade route. To anyone paying attention this was a sure sign that the parade was a charade. The Pope was not coming.
At last, word indeed trickled down the line. Elvis had not only left the building, he had left the city. Francis had sneaked out of the cathedral and was already en route to his next destination visiting a prison on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The old man had dodged us.
Pilgrims began to trickle away from the parade route. Others held onto their curbside turf, ever faithfully prepared to await Fran’s next possible appearance at least 5 hours later. I was done.
Passing back south out of Center City through deserted restaurants, some even giving out free samples and shouting for people to come in, I realized I felt as empty inside as these dining rooms looked.
I walked two miles down deserted Broad Street to complete my sworn pilgrimage, the silence only broken twice: once by a procession of happy, singing young adult pilgrims in matching blue t-shirts from some local church marching north to await the old man, once by a shirtless teenager standing up from the back of a topless Jeep with his hand poised regally in the air and shouting, “I’m here! I’m here!” in mockery of the aborted parade.
No one besides me was there to chuckle and flash him a thumbs up. It was the closest I would ever come to seeing the Holy Father.
**Later tonight I would sit at home watching live coverage of the evening festivities on a local network affiliate, and at one point they showed an aerial view of the completely empty Ben Franklin Parkway, even as the announcer said, “You’re looking down at the Ben Franklin Parkway packed with people.” Three days later the numbers were in…according to this Philadelphia Inquirer article (“800,000 at Papal Mass? Better Count Again“), despite officials’ hyperinflated attendance claims the actual figure is a mere 80,000 to 142,000. I love you, Mayor Nutter, but your claim in this article that the numbers don’t matter because it was just about people coming to Philly and having a good time, disregards the economic loss the Pope’s visit brought to the city across all class lines. Local working class street vendors selling Papal memorabilia were callously kept away from the crowds, and all the bars and restaurants inside the secure zone sat empty despite assurances that they’d do a booming business.