I live in Philadelphia and consequently have been anticipating Pope Francis’s visit for months. But frankly I was thinking about the visit more in the context of having some extra time off as many organizations were closing for the days surrounding the visit due to the restrictions which the Pope’s security would be imposing on roadways and the public transportation system. I thought it would be a great opportunity to get some additional work done around my home and to spend some time in my neighborhood with friends. I was unprepared for the emotional reaction that I would have to the visit of the 266th pope.
Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Pope Francis is the first pope to hail from the Americas. And this trip marks his first visit to the United States. Prior to his arrival in Philadelphia, I had been following the coverage of his visits to Washington, DC where he addressed Congress and New York City where he visited the 9/11 memorial and Madison Garden. As I watched and read his speeches, I had some mixed feelings.
Journalists who wrote about the Pope’s speeches essentially described him as offering something to both sides of the political spectrum. For the conservatives, he was speaking of the sanctity of life and the importance of religious freedom. For those who lean left he was advocating environmental reform. He even complimented President Obama for taking on air pollution. He also spoke about immigration and included “controversial” phrasing where he referred to illegal immigrants as “pilgrims”.
The day before Pope Francis arrived in Philadelphia, my neighborhood was transformed. Barricades were put up. Friendly guards were stationed on every corner. Restaurants and stores posted “Welcome Pope Francis” signs and merchants were hawking Pope merchandise. On Saturday, Pope Francis’s first day in Philadelphia, I went to the gym and while working out I watched Pope Francis deliver mass at the Catholic Basilica at Saints Peter and Paul. This was purely by coincidence that I arrived at the gym just before the mass started and consequently had the opportunity to watch the entire service. I could not help but to be drawn into the service.
During his homily Pope Francis told the story of St. Katharine Drexel and how she had an encounter with Pope Leo XIII who asked her, “What about you? What are you going to do?” Katharine Drexel, a Philadelphia heiress whose father was an investment banker and uncle the founder of Drexel University, shocked Philadelphia society by answering the calling and giving up her inheritance to become a nun and a missionary. While the speech was obviously crafted as a call to lay people to become more involved and more invested in The Catholic Church, I was moved. The words “What about you?” were in my head all day? I thought about what I could do to be a better partner, family member, community member, etc.
Shortly after watching the mass, I found myself sitting outside a local Philadelphia restaurant where I was engaging in conversation with people. The conversations revolved around what streets were closed, where was the best place to catch a glimpse of the Pope etc. When was the last time I remember people slowing down to introduce themselves to their neighbors? Of course, it was 9/11 when I lived in New York City. And I wondered , ‘Why don’t we take the time to engage people who are part of our community during happy times’? This feeling of being part of a greater community continued throughout the day as I walked with friends near the Independence Hall to catch a glimpse of the Pope after his speech. And then later as we traveled to the parkway to participate in The World Meeting of Families-Festival of Families”.
The Festival of Families was an incredible gathering of people on Philadelphia’s parkway for a celebration which included, musical performances by Aretha Franklin, Andrea Bocelli among others. It also included remarks by the actor and producer Mark Wahlberg who spoke about how important his Catholic faith is to him. The celebration also included Christians from different countries and walks of life sharing their personal faith journeys. Pope Francis had many beautiful moments including when he hugged a youth with Down syndrome in a wheel chair. But it was Pope Francis’s address that so engaged the crowds. Pope Francis spoke about love as a “celebration” and ‘joy” and also referred to the family as “a factory of hope.” He also counseled the crowd to “never let the day end without making peace.” The concept that we all need to be grateful for our families and loved ones really resonated with the crowd.
Throughout the day, I kept thinking how amazing it is in this increasingly secular society that so many people of all faiths made such an effort to see Pope Francis. I was also incredible impressed by the friendliness and overall civility of people in the streets. And of course the enthusiasm. People were standing on shoulders and climbing in trees to try to video Pope Francis as he came down the parkway in his Pope Mobile.
Pope Francis gave The United States an incredible gift with his visit. During his visit a sense of community permeated the streets of Philadelphia. I am sure that those in DC and New York experienced a similar phenomenon. It was actually rather fitting that the evening’s musical performance included fifteen year old singer Jackie Evancho delivering a beautiful rendition of “Can you Feel the Love Tonight?” from The Lion King. What a perfect choice for the evening.
However, for Pope Francis’ visit to be a truly successful mission, we need to continue to reach to our neighbors in a sense of community, understanding and love every day. After all as Pope Francis said “All that is beautiful leads us to God.”