Seeing the papal Mass took fortitude but was full of grace.
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Papal events in Philadelphia this past weekend were too arduous to be called anything other than a pilgrimage. Travel tips warned visitors to “be prepared to walk up to 3-4 miles to your destination” in the city center. Many streets were blocked off with massive concrete barricades, feeding the crowds toward one of fifteen security checkpoints.
National Guard soldiers in gray-green camouflage, police in stark black, and volunteers in brilliant orange t-shirts thronged the city. Their most common response to a request for directions was “I don’t know.”
Past the security barriers, on the periphery, Spanish-speaking seminarians marched proudly, drumming and singing “Aleluia, Aleluia, Resucito!” Alleluia, alleluia, He is risen! A block away, a dark-haired, muscular man blared on a bullhorn that the Catholic Church was the Whore or Babylon and the pope was an anti-Christ. Slow-moving emergency vehicles patrolled streets closed to all other automotive traffic, adding an eerily apocalyptic feel.
The soaring high notes of a children’s choir, echoing from giant Jumbotrons, competed discordantly with the sirens of police cars clearing the papal motorcade route. Buskers played violin or electric bass guitar, hoping for coins. Tracks from the Priests of Beat album “Sanctus Electronimus” shuddered from speakers: “I am Peter. P-P-Peter.” Like the sun fitfully shining through the clouds, the City of God tried to break through into the earthly city.
Wheelchairs were a common sight. One mother in a flowered dress and white high heels tended her disabled daughter with the help of six of her other children, including 13-year-old quadruplets. Her oldest child, Benjamin, had auditioned and won a spot in the choir singing for Pope Francis. The mother and her wheelchair-bound daughter had tickets for the papal Mass, but the quadruplets were given the task of tending their two younger siblings behind the barrier in the non-ticketed area.
The separation between ticketed and non-ticketed areas gave many people only the tiniest chance to approach anywhere near the pontiff. But pilgrims still surged through the city, hoping. Jerusalem on Palm Sunday must have experienced a similar sense of excitement.
On Saturday, one mother stood with her children on the same square of asphalt for 17 hours in order to have a direct line of sight to the Holy Father. On Sunday, she gave up and returned home with her exhausted children, donating her four tickets for the papal Mass to another pilgrim.
People who attended the Mass felt the full power of Peter. Sitting in the front row, author and blogger Lisa Hendey described the atmosphere as “electric,” grace-filled and glorious. But outside the security barriers, “there were a lot of very disappointed people,” said one pilgrim.
Ticketed people who arrived two hours prior to the Mass discovered that they were already too late. They waited three hours in a line that moved forward by inches. Stuck in quasi-purgatory, they tossed plastic beach balls around for fun and sang Marian and Eucharistic hymns. By the time many of them reached the security checkpoint, the Mass had already concluded. “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first,” shouted one pilgrim hopefully.
Pilgrims who succeeded in passing the barriers to Benjamin Franklin Parkway were treated to a stirring homily by Pope Francis. He told listeners not to be scandalized by the freedom of God, and to bypass bureaucracy, officialdom, and inner circles. He proclaimed: “Would that we could all be prophets! Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love.”
In the quintessential paradox of Christianity, the way to accomplish this grand prophetic mission is by little acts of service. Dinners, lunches, hugs and kisses are all ways that families contribute to creating a culture infused with God’s love, said Francis. Wise pilgrims took note.
A pilgrimage to see a pope is a grand gesture, but only a few days in the life of a dedicated Christian. The real test is whether the patience and fortitude displayed by the pilgrims in Philadelphia will manifest itself in the progress of their daily lives.
Karee Santos is the co-author, together with her husband, Manuel P. Santos, M.D., of a Catholic marriage advice book forthcoming from Ave Maria Press in 2016. She and her husband began teaching marriage preparation and enrichment classes in New York City in 2003. Karee has written numerous articles on marriage and family for the National Catholic Register, Faith & Family magazine, and various Catholic websites. She also founded the online Catholic marriage support community Can We Cana?