I figure that since Pope Francis mentioned Father Thomas Merton as an exemplar in his address to Congress, I could riff on the title of one of his more famous books to write about what I saw in the non-ticketed section of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway during Sunday’s papal Mass, which was the pope’s last public event before heading to Atlantic Aviation for his return to Rome.
First, I was concerned — and legitimately so — that the lack of information available about the Philadelphia portion of Pope Francis’ apostolic journey in the weeks preceding it, coupled with the blocking off to all traffic a major chunk of downtown Philly meant that this was going to be tantamount to Woodstock without the bands, rain or no rain. That was not the case. I’m more relieved to report than happy to report that, but if you didn’t get to the TSA security line until the afternoon, the wait to get through was three hours by then. My wait was 30 minutes, but I pulled up to the end of line at 9:30 a.m.
There should be no question about the faith and zeal of the hundreds of thousands who endured the byzantine maze of road closures, commuter train reroutings, and security checkpoints to join Pope Francis, even if there was little guarantee of seeing him in person.
I found a nice spot on the Ben Franklin Parkway behind the Costa Rican flag, finally settling for the back row against a concrete abutment atop which stood a cast-iron fence to keep people from tumbling onto the temporarily closed freeway below. So when I didn’t have to stand, I could at least lean.
This section possibly represented well the cross-section of Catholics coming to the Mass: Navajo women from New Mexico, a three-generation family from Ohio, a budding Michigan-vs.-Ohio State rivalry between a woman and her niece, a Vietnamese refugee from 40 years ago who has made her home in Boston, a woman who came to the United States at age 12 from the Dominican Republic to settle in Rhode Island, college types from Loyola University of Maryland, a family with three young daughters from New Jersey, mass-transit “pope pass” winners from Pennsylvania and Delaware, and two Asian-American families with four preschool-age children between them.
One lady stood on the abutment to better get a glimpse of Pope Francis. She got what she came for, when his popemobile (the white Jeep Wrangler, not the black Fiat 500L), moved slowly down the parkway. Then she headed off. It’s too bad, because the pontiff made a return trip in the opposite direction, stopping right in front of us to embrace and kiss a baby that he wanted brought to him.
I was put off by the commercialism surrounding the Mass. Food continued to be for sale during the Mass. The same was true for “official merchandise.” The World Meeting of Families has a generous budget to mount these meetings every three years (Dublin, Ireland in 2018), but in my view they risk reducing the gathering with official this and official that. What makes an official rosary any better than a non-official rosary? And do we really need hawkers selling official ivory bone china of the World Meeting of Families?
The liturgy itself was quite fitting for the occasion, with the use of songs by several top liturgical music composers of the 20th century. But it struck a nerve when the master of ceremonies for the Mass cut off the gospel choir singing James Moore’s “Taste and See” during the refrain to remind all of the need for “sacred silence.” After the microphones were cut off, people along the parkway continued singing the chorus until the emcee’s instruction. To these eyes and ears, there would have been plenty of time for sacred silence once the chorus had concluded.
I was a touch surprised how many packed up their things to leave during Communion. Some left without receiving Communion, while others packed up their things and got in line for a priest underneath a gold and white umbrella to give them the Eucharist, and they were never seen again.
The walk away from the parkway was far easier than not only the walk to the parkway, but also the walk Sept. 26 after the Mass in the Basilica Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul. Police are to be commended for the quick removal of barricades.
I just hope someone writes down the lessons learned for a papal playbook for the next time Pope Francis or a successor visits these shores.