After months of anticipation, the excitement in the city of Philadelphia rose to a fevered pitch this weekend as we welcomed Pope Francis. The pontiff is so well loved by all that the city was turned upside down and inside out to welcome him. It seems that every organization, every, civic group, every commercial enterprise and, of course, all church and religious groups had some kind of Pope Francis event. Our museums had special religious exhibits; others had special showing of famous artists; film on religion were released; school had special projects.
When his plane finally touched down, Pope Francis was driven to his first event, Mass in the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul for the religious, deacons, and priests of the diocese.
Liturgy at the Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul
At 5:30 a.m. that morning, Xavier De La Huerta, OFM, drove Sr. Mary, Sr. Leslie, William DeBiase, OFM, and me to the checkpoint nearest to the cathedral. From there, we walked a mile in the dark to the gathering point at the hotel behind the cathedral. We vested and were led outdoors to the security checkpoint, where we had to go through metal detectors and the “wand” treatment. Many amused onlookers took videos of that scene.
We then walked passed hundreds of people waiting for Francis’ arrival; a bank of televisions reporters and their cameras, and a solid row of police keeping the people behind a barrier fence. We marched in the church and were seated. Fortunately, Bill and I were placed in the fourth row from the front, just 20 feet from the Pope’s chair! We waited there about two hours until we heard the roar of the people outside the church. He had arrived.
We all stood as he entered, carrying a bouquet of flowers a school child had given him. He was greeted with enthusiastic applause and passed right in front of me to lay the flowers at the statue of our Blessed Mother. Then to the puzzlement of his entourage, he broke rank and turned back and walked in my direction. He turned into my aisle and came even nearer. When he was about five feet from me with no reporters, no aides, no security between us, he bent and put both his hands on the head of a little four-year-old in a tiny wheelchair who couldn’t so much as lift his head. Francis held him tenderly for a while as everyone looked on in stunned silence. Then he stood up, turned, and walked into the sacristy. Immediately the little boy’s mother knelt down and hugged her son for a long time. I was one of the few who witnessed this scene (and fortunately, I had a camera.)
Everything was beautiful, the music was magnificent, the decorations were outstanding, the pomp was just right. His homily was humble and gracious. The Eucharistic Prayer was in Latin, so that marked my first Latin Mass (50 years after the Mass began being celebrated in English.) I was sweating through the pronunciation with flashbacks of Latin classes in Callicoon.
Bill and I received many calls and texts from people all over the USA who saw us on CNN or FOX News and other media outlets.
‘One Big Citywide Party’
Walking back through the city to the nearest open elevated train station was a joy. People were walking all over the broad Center City streets closed to traffic. Groups were singing, people taking our pictures (we were still in habits). Other shouted, “Go, Franciscans!” and there was such a positive air of goodness, support, affirmation and love. People stopped and talked to strangers, exchanging stories. T-shirts, mugs and paper miters were being hawked at each corner, and everywhere there were banners with a smiling Pope Francis welcoming everyone to Philadelphia and the World Meeting of Families.
In the afternoon, Francis gave a talk on immigration in front of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. Many parishioners from our local parish, Visitation BVM, attended, and Fr. Bruce, the former pastor who is now in charge of Hispanic Ministry for the diocese, introduced that event.
That night, outdoors on the parkway, there was live entertainment all evening. Mark Wahlberg hosted as we were treated to Aretha Franklin, The Fray, Andrea Bocelli, and many more. Besides those watching the show on the stage, others watched gathered around the 42 Jumbotrons scattered all over Center City. It was like one big citywide party.
The next day, Sunday, Pope Francis met with the seminarians at St. Charles and then visited inmates at a local prison. It was at this point that we hoped against hope that he would make an unscheduled stop here at St. Francis Inn. We are located halfway between downtown and the prison. We looked up and down Kensington Ave., but he never showed. We figured that he must not have had a ticket, so he decided not to stop by.
His final event was the huge Mass on the parkway in the heart of the city. Fr. Bill attended this as did John Gill, OFM. I concelebrated, again in Latin. Because car-pooling was suggested, I traveled with the local Redemptorists to the Mass. We drove to a park, where we boarded school buses before we were shuttled to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where we were warmly welcomed. They provided us with a place to vest and a beautiful luncheon catered by a firm at which one of our former FVMs, Brendan Zaleski, is employed. The Museum staff opened the doors for us to enjoy the fantastic art of the museum as we waited the four hours until Mass.
Hundreds and hundreds of albed priests marched in a line down the museum steps and onto the staging for the Mass. We were placed on either side of the main “stage.” In front of us were hundreds of thousands of people, some having to wait four hours just to get through security checkpoints. There were people as far as you could see, and many more you couldn’t see because of the parkway trees. People came from all over the world for the World Meeting. One couple came by the Inn with their four children. They drove from Argentina in a 1980 Volkswagen bus to be here! They started in March and drove 13,000 miles to be at the World Meeting of Families. Their story is in the Philadelphia Magazine.
Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway
The final Mass was beautiful. The Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra provided the music. The Papal Choir sang. The liturgical setting was regal. The Pope’s homily was heartfelt and encouraging, especially to families, the focus of the gathering. At the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, I was handed one of the seemingly hundreds of ciboria that were provided. We had no instruction beforehand on communion but we quickly surmised that we were to consecrate the hosts that we held.
Then, at the Lamb of God, we were ushered out of our rows down two flights to ground level, where attendants greeted us. One approached me and opened a yellow and white umbrella and held it over my head. It was not raining. Why the umbrella? Then I looked up and saw a sea of yellow and white umbrellas each being held over a ciborium bearer. They were to signify communion stations! The colorful umbrellas moved through the throngs gracefully as if a choreographed by a dancer. The attendants led us deep into the crowds and we began to distribute communion. Some communicants had tears streaming down their faces. Everyone seemed to be moved at receiving communion at a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
After the final blessing and recessional, we were to return back to the museum. But that path led us right by the white-tented garage where we spied the Pope’s little Fiat. So we stopped and lined the driveway, waiting for Francis to leave. After meeting and thanking the organizers of the World Meeting of Families, he got into the car and slowly drove by us, blessing us as he passed on his way to the airport to return to Rome.
The whole weekend has lifted the spirits of all. It is so affirming to have such a humble and holy man have the opportunity to hold such vast audiences that hang on his every word. He uses that grace to speak the Gospel of Joy to a world that often bears such sorrow. It is no wonder that Catholics and non-Catholics alike listen to him, are moved by his words and feel a renewed sense of hope. They feel that they are understood, forgiven, and most of all, loved.
— Fr. Michael, a native of New Hampshire, is guardian of Juniper Friary in Philadelphia, where he has been stationed since 1987.
Editor’s note: The HNP Communications Office welcomes friars to submit reflections about holidays, feast days and other topics of a timely nature. Those interested in submitting an essay for consideration of a future issue of HNP Today should contact communications director Jocelyn Thomas by email at email@example.com.
- “Holy Name Province Prepares to Welcome Pope Francis” — Sept. 17, 2015, HNP Today
- “General Minister Welcomes Pope Francis to Church of San Damiano” — Oct. 9, 2013, HNP Today
- “Habemus Papam: Pope Francis Elected” — March 13, 2013, HNP Today