It was a long, tiring, glorious weekend in which I experienced many firsts. The first time I’ve ever seen a city completely shut down to vehicle traffic. The first time major highways were closed. The first time train service was running just two time periods a day.
The first time I’ve ever seen a pope.
Okay, not in person, but to be in the same city, to see his helicopter fly overhead, to see a million-plus people come from all over the world to be there and hear his message was enough. I didn’t have to see him in person, nor even up close.
It’s tough for us to imagine what it’s like when an entire population, shoved into cramped trains, restricted from going here or standing there doing so with joy and a sense of brotherhood. But there it was. From Secret Service to National Guard, from cop to street vendor — every single person I encountered was smiling, sharing, and treating each other with respect.
That it happened here — in the City of Brotherly Love, which we’ve joked is more like the City of Brother, Hand Over that Wallet — was even more of a joy. In this, the place I’ve moved to, it’s hard to get a smile out of people let alone help if you need it. People aren’t unkind — just busy. Too busy to make friends, too busy to stop if your car breaks down, too busy to give one more panhandler any more money.
Yet there they were on this particular day, breaking their own unspoken rules.
I’m a non-practicing Catholic, so for me to get excited about a pope just doesn’t happen. But this one is different. He’s sending out a message of inclusive, loving behavior — you know, like Christians are supposed to behave — and doing so without being offensive or laying down the law like the priests I grew up in fear of. It’s what I had been looking for all those years I’d been the faithful Catholic, being taught how we were to love everyone while the church was teaching us something more akin to “Well yes, but only if they’re Catholics.”
Yes, this is definitely different.
I won’t go into the issues the church still has. There are many, and it will take much more than one pope to undo the centuries of problems and conflict, both internal and external, that Catholics struggle with.
For now, it’s one man and the glimmer of hope he’s brought to millions. He’s not doing anything revolutionary. He’s simply living what he was taught, what many of us from all religions were taught — love, respect, and caring for our fellow humans. He’s the example. We’re the ones who are tasked with copying off his paper.
But back to that day. My mother and her friend came for the chance to see a pope. That didn’t happen directly, but they were thrilled to be part of it, and to take part in the outdoor service on Sunday led by Pope Francis. They traveled a long way to see him — 300 miles — but nowhere near the distance of some people, such as the family who drove from Argentina to Philadelphia. Or the busloads of people traveling from Boston, Indiana, Iowa, Texas and so many other places across the country. Or the people from Dominican Republic. Nigeria. France. Japan. Talk about uplifting.
We got up way too early (5 am), walked way too far (10 miles) and crowded into too many tight spaces and crowded areas. And we never complained. Not even after a 30-minute wait for what we thought would be a pope drive-by that never happened. People were talking and laughing with each other and the police, and just enjoying the moment they were blessed to be in.
We participated in the service from Love Park, around the corner from any view of the actual ceremony. It didn’t matter. Even with a view from a JumboTron, we had an experience none of us will ever have again, and one that won’t be forgotten.
For that one day, the city was in love, and they were sharing it with each other.