PILGRIM’S PROGRESS: 3 Interns Wander Into The Immaculate Heart Of Popegeddon And Live To Tell

Photo by DAN LONG

EDITOR’S NOTE: I sent my interns — three Temple students with contrasting religious perspectives and zero reporting experience — to cover Pope Francis’ visit with the following instructions: Go have an adventure then come back and tell me about it. The good. The bad. And the ugly. Wade into the crowd and get your hands dirty. Talk to people. Take in the mass. Feel the love. Drink the Kool-Aid. Or don’t. Just be honest with the reader. And above all, have fun with it, you will be a part of history in the making.


Photo by DAN LONG

LIZ_WIEST_BYLINEBY ELIZABETH MARIE WIEST My descent into the Popeageddon began at 5:30 a.m. in Harrisburg, where I was visiting my ancestral home. Despite the nasty bout of food poisoning I came down with the night before, and despite barely making the 6 a.m. train, I was still thrilled be able to cover an event that has been front page news for weeks now. It was soon apparent that I was not the only one. By the time we reached the Lancaster stop, the train was standing room only. People were loading on by the dozens, wearing matching t-shirts, taking photos, praying together etc.

When we reached 30th Street Station, I felt as though I had stepped into a Technicolor episode of The Twilight Zone. The station was barren and blockaded at every corner and both the regional rail and subway were completely shut down. Members of the American Red Cross were scattered like ants, handing out water and programs to the arriving passengers, and we were all herded like sheep out onto post-apocalyptic-looking 29th street exit. There was not a car in sight. The only sounds that could be heard were echoes coming from the parkway, where I headed next.

Authority figures of every branch — police, firemen, soldiers in full desert camo — pointed me in conflicting directions like the Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz, attempting to help me get home despite the obvious fact that none of them were familiar with Philadelphia geography. On the barricaded off residential blocks I passed along the way, kids were playing pickup soccer matches and skateboarding down the ghostly empty streets. At the 20th street TSA checkpoint, I waited 45 minutes in line behind what seemed like miles of traditional Catholic families. Every person attempting to enter the parkway was scanned and searched by the TSA. Dozens of people in line were furiously eating apples because the “no round fruit within the perimeters of the city” rule was being strictly enforced. I had to step over multitudes of neon-clad tourist groups sound asleep on sheaths of cardboard like well-dressed homeless people. I felt like I had accidentally walked onto a movie set and they were shooting the scene where the whole town was fleeing Godzilla. The experience would have been dismal and claustrophobic had it not been for the gleeful disposition of the true believers pouring into to set up camp on the steps of the Franklin Institute. Families were crowded together with selfie sticks yelling “Say, Pope!” instead of the traditional “say cheese.”

By mid-afternoon, people had set up camp in the middle of the streets, and families had relocated onto their fire escapes and were craning their necks out of windows in order to get a view of the numerous JumboTrons. There were dozens of locals selling t-shirts, keychains, rosaries, and churros (the last one confused me until I recalled hours later that the Pope hails from Argentina). I headed down to 20th and the Parkway where I ran into not one but four people who were alumni of my high school — when you are raised Catholic in Pennsylvania everyone seems to knows each other. In a moment of in unintended irony, a group of natives from the California-Mexico border helped me climb over the walls of the Free Library in order to get closer a closer view of the Mass. I ended up running into my biology teacher from high school, (again, all Catholics know each other), and was able to say Mass with his family. And I can honestly say, that as a baptized Catholic who had attended Catholic schooling for 12 years, I had never seen a Mass quite like this.

The ceremony was a window onto the impact of Francis’s benevolent presence on this often-surly city. Total strangers held hands with one another during the Our Father, hugged during the Sign of Peace, and knelt together during the Benediction. As thousands headed home, I walked for the first time ever from the Ben Franklin Parkway to Temple’s campus, and felt no imminent danger. All things were quiet, and people said “hello” and “good night” in passing to each other. No taxis dared to honk at each other, lest they disturb the peace. Even the cat calls I received on the way home were all somewhat religious in nature (“God Bless you, baby girl” was definitely a new one). Never in my time in Philly have I felt this sense of community. Dare I say it, the city felt like a family for a few hours. The visit of Saint Francis will go down in history for an infinite number of reasons. In the words of my good friend, a seminarian at Saint Charles: “He [Saint Francis] really practices what he preaches he doesn’t just say ‘Be humble’ he doesn’t just say ‘Be kind to others.’ He shows you how to do it, he does it first.” One day, I will tell my children, and hopefully grandchildren, about the feeling of peace, love and togetherness this new Pope brought to millions of people in a city that is often hostile and divided.


Photo by DAN LONG

Ben LehmanBY BEN LEHMAN Considering all of the subway stops that were closed for the Pope visit, I’m lucky enough to live right on Cecil B. Moore, one of the few that remained open. The subway was maybe slightly more crowded than usual, but nothing compared to how it was on the day of the Temple vs. Penn State game. Coming out of the station on Spring Garden, I’m immediately greeted by a tiny parade marching down the street, waving flags and chanting in Spanish. I’m not really sure what they’re saying, but they seem excited, reflecting the mood of the rest of the crowds making their way towards the rapture.

Along Spring Garden some residents sit camped out in folding chairs, watching the passersby, a bunch of them are selling Pope-themed memorabilia. Buttons, bracelets, even little stools (two for $20), anything to make a profit off of all the tourists. As I go farther down the street, the crowd becomes denser, and the confusion begins.  Volunteers in bright orange t-shirts are shouting directions, separating the crowd, saying something about tickets or no tickets. I’m not sure what to do, and instead of asking one of the volunteers to clarify, like a normal person would have done, I decide to just follow the path where most of the people are going.

Unfortunately, I end up at a security checkpoint with big red signs that say “tickets only.” Damn it. I turn around and ever so casually make my way back to the main street, hoping no one is paying attention to the confused young man wandering around without direction. Finally, I’m almost at the art museum, but it’s mostly blocked off and there’s another security checkpoint. I try to find a way I can get closer to the parkway or museum without a ticket. I wander around until I stumble upon a giant procession of priests, draped all in white, behind a fence along the side of the museum. People stand along the fence waving and shouting to them. Some priests smile and wave back, others look straight ahead, taking themselves very seriously.

The procession disappears around the corner, and I head back to Spring Garden to join the crowd around the jumbotron. With some time left before the mass begins I take this opportunity to talk to a few people around me. Some people are devout Catholics.  “It’s all about the Pope,” one woman says before I can get her name. But many others, like resident John Green, are just there for the hell of it. A lot of these people seem really enchanted with the spectacle of the Pope. It’s easy to see why. The Pope is clearly a rock star and many are mesmerized by him. When they see the Pope on the screen, people cheer and scream like teen girls at a Justin Bieber concert.

At 4 p.m. the mass begins. Everyone stands and the crowd falls silent. Growing up in an unreligious family, I’d never been to a Catholic mass before and I didn’t know what to expect. There’s singing, then the Pope comes and says a prayer, and everyone sits down. I’m happy I get to sit at least. I had expected the Pope just to talk the whole time, but it’s much more than that. There are multiple singers who sing in different languages and lots of gestures I don’t really understand. We stand up and sit down a few more times. Being Catholic is hard work!

As someone who doesn’t practice any religion, I had some reservations about taking this assignment. I didn’t know if I would encounter religious zealots or homophobic bigots. Fortunately, I didn’t, and every religious person I met was kind and friendly. The Catholic Church and I do not share many beliefs, but I generally like this new Pope, and I think he’s taking the Church in the right direction. The tone of the Pope’s speech is one of love and compassion. He encourages patience and love within the family and society. This really reflects the tone the Pope has adopted; he’s trying to promote love instead of hate or bigotry. As he speaks, the sun breaks through the heavy clouds for the first time all day. Now, I’m not religious but if that’s not a sign then I don’t know what is.


Photo by DAN LONG
Screenshot_2015-09-28-00-37-44-1BY SHARNITA MIDGETT So it turns out those 12 years of Catholic school actually came in handy. As one of the many people well acquainted with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at an early age — perhaps too early — I’m sure many would assume that I’d be more than happy for Pope Francis to visit Philadelphia. They’d be wrong. I joined the large number of Center City dwellers who dreaded it. I was prepared to take the next bus back to Northeast Philly and have a regular boring weekend filled with uneventfulness, avoiding the Pope on television and scrolling past my Catholic friends’ posts on Facebook about the blessings and joys of Catholicism and religion.

Instead I found myself at a SEPTA station trying to figure out alternate routes to get to 20th and Arch Street where my friend, Carolina Soto, her mother, Violeta Rivera, and the people they hosted in their house, were waiting in line trying to catch a glimpse of the pope. We weren’t so lucky, but after traveling the streets and hearing from all of the people, from the vendors to the volunteers, to visitors from other countries, to the average Joe’s and Janes from South Philly and Port Richmond. I learned a few things about what the Pope actually meant to people and what a large event like this meant to Philly.

Getting close to where everything was happening was pretty much impossible if you didn’t camp out the night before. The lines were so long and barely moved after hours and hours of waiting. There were so many complicated routes and guards and volunteers redirecting everyone in circles that left me agitated and confused. Some people gave up and left the line, literally fighting their way past crowds and through gates.
Along the way I ran into an old friend, Jenise Bernier, who wore the orange vests labeled “volunteer.” She attended World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain back in 2011, so she was excited when she heard that the world meeting of families 2015 was going to be held in Philly. She volunteered on Saturday and was so jazzed by the experience she went back again on Sunday to catch another glimpse of the Pope.

“Right after he finished his sermon and said ‘pray for me a little bit’ the craziest thing happened,” she told me after the mass. “An entire rainbow showed up out of nowhere and everyone was shocked and snapping pictures of it. As quickly as it appeared, it was gone. It was such a blessing to be able to witness this and I’m so glad I decided to go and drag my mom, aunt, and grandmom along with me. All the miles we had to walk to get there and the standing for hours? I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

Of course, not everyone was so excited about the pope’s visit. “My mom works for a lot of Jewish people downtown and a lot of them left the city because they were having a Yon Kippur celebration Wednesday night that they had to end early because of the pope,” said my friend Carolina. “It was tricky because they live downtown, and it was very inconvenient especially for those who aren’t religious or not Catholic. I didn’t enjoy it because we didn’t get to actually see the Pope. Also people complained about how much money we’re spending on the Pope’s visit when we could be using that money for the school system and stuff like that.” As a non-Catholic, I admit that I wasn’t as thrilled as my Catholic counterparts, but as a human being who is fascinated by the mania of large gatherings and celebrations, I can see why it meant so much to people.


Photo by DAN LONG