“I’d sooner do without air than prayer.” – Mary Karr
Since the announcement last year that the man in the white cape would be visiting Philadelphia, the most asked question of me had been, “Are you going to see the Pope?” My answer for nine months was “No.” I mean, between the security, the traffic jams, and the crowds, I thought I’d sit this one out. Plus I saw Pope John Paul with my wife and firstborn, who was one year old at the time, when he visited Philly in 1979. That was pre-9/11, and we walked unimpeded on the Ben Franklin Parkway, attended the Mass and watched his motorcade from a distance I could just about high-five him.
But as the time drew near, my tune changed. I thought maybe I’d ride my bike downtown and see how close I could get and take in as much of the festivities as possible. And then my daughter texted me Thursday night and asked if I wanted to do the Pope Ride on Saturday morning. Well, yeah! I said. An estimated 2,000 two-wheeled pilgrims, many with makeshift Papal hats, some made of origami, showed up at 30th and Market Street for the ten-mile ride inside the traffic box where all motorized vehicles were prohibited during the Pope’s visit. There were once-in-a-lifetime sites, like the barren Schuylkill Expressway which normally handles roughly 200,000 cars per day, and pedestrians navigating the lanes of the Ben Franklin Bridge instead of cars and trucks. After the ride we stopped to refuel at a bagel shop on 20th Street and a parade of brightly dressed pilgrims from Nicaragua paraded down the middle of the street waving banners, playing instruments and singing. That is when I could feel myself getting pulled in.
Pedaling home through town and then out on Kelly Drive, droves of pilgrims passed me on their way to center city. The further I rode the thicker the crowd grew–hundreds, and then thousands. What made the biggest impression on me was the range and diversity of the pilgrims. There were elderly walking for miles with the aid of canes, and more than a few people in wheelchairs, children in strollers and carriers, even pets in backpacks. Really! Varied dialects sounded like the United Nations, many waved flags of their native countries, or wore shirts flaunting their colors. Families carried chairs, tents and coolers. People looked as though they were planning to set up camp and stay a while. It reminded me of the days I’d go to the Philadelphia Folk Festival, minus the beer. It looked more like people going to a rock concert than a religious celebration.
I’ve been a curious Catholic from an early age who practiced what could be described as a freestyle brand of Catholicism. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, or as the Pope himself said referring to homosexuals, “Who am I to judge?” Over the years I’ve attended Quaker meetings, Baptists celebrations, and practiced some tenets of Eastern philosophies like yoga and mindfulness. I’m not much for hypocrites. I will take someone who lives a good life over someone who talks a good life any day. And that, I believe, is why some one million people traveled from around the globe to see this 78-year-old pious man from Buenos Aires. They flocked to Philadelphia to get a glimpse of a religious leader who opens his arms to the disenfranchised; the man who after he addressed Congress skipped the reception luncheon and went to visit a homeless shelter; the man who visited inmates at prison before he came to the Parkway on Sunday afternoon to celebrate Mass. A leader who washes the feet of sinners, visits inmates, welcomes gays, and values diversity. The pilgrims came to see hope.
In a matter of days I went from having no interest in going downtown this weekend, to participating in the Pope Ride Saturday morning, to hoofing it across Fairmount with my wife on Sunday to attend the Papal Mass. The crowd was electric; the energy stronger than any I’d ever experienced at a music festival or a Stanley Cup Playoff game, yet at the most sacred part of the celebration you could have heard a pin drop on the Art Museum steps. Nearly one million people watched history on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway this weekend in the form of a spiritual man who showed us how to live like a disciple.