Rich Wilhelm

PopeNotes! 9/26/15

In Uncategorized on September 28, 2015 at 12:55 am
(left to right) Lisa, Mom, Pope, me, Love Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 9/26/15

(left to right) Lisa, Mom, Pope, me, Love Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 9/26/15

I traveled to Center City Philadelphia yesterday morning to see Pope Francis speak at Independence Hall. I took some notes throughout the day, both in a notebook and in my head, and I want to sort them out now, while they’re still fresh.

10 PopeNotes!

1. I headed into Philadelphia just before 9:00 on a SEPTA train out of Norristown. I had purchased the papal pass just the day before–it was guaranteed to get me in and out of the city. The ride took a group of Pope-bound people through the suburban town of Conshohocken (where I work) into the northwestern Philadelphia neighborhoods of Manayunk and East Falls (where Laurel Hill Cemetery is located), into North Philadelphia and through the campus of my alma mater, Temple University, all before arriving at Jefferson Station, around 11th and Market Street. Passing through each of these areas, which I haven’t done by train in a while, reminded me how much I love Philadelphia. All of Philadelphia. This city has touched many aspects of my life.

2. I ate breakfast, surrounded by locals, tourists and pilgrims, at a counter in the Down Home Diner, which is at Reading Terminal. Classic old blues tunes and Neil Diamond’s “Desiree” wafted out the jukebox. The menu described the country ham as “the real thing, but salty.” The menu wasn’t kidding. Salty, but so delicious.

3. The security checkpoint on Broad Street near Cherry Street took about 40 minutes to get through. A protester elaborated via megaphone on his theories that Pope Francis, the much-beloved pontiff who preaches inclusion and kisses babies, is in fact the Antichrist. The protester was routinely drowned out by noisy pockets of teenagers expressing their enthusiasm for both Jesus and Francis.

A quick note on theology, though I am clearly no theologian. In fact, to be honest, I have felt ambivalent about religious faith for several years now, though I do respect anyone who embraces their religion and, in following that path, helps to make the world a better place.

To me, Pope Francis is a man who is doing just this. Even if you are not Catholic, or disagree with certain specific positions that Francis holds, much of what he says comes down to good common sense: we should try to be compassionate towards each other and towards “the least of our brothers and sisters;” our presence here ought to serve the purpose of making this world better, even if just little bit, for those we encounter. Small positive encounters can make a world of difference in each other’s lives.

Stepping out of my chronology for a moment. After everything was over and I was heading back to the station to catch the train, I encountered a few more of the protesters that I had seen earlier. These guys were railing about how Mother Theresa was roasting in hell and we’d all be as well, because of the Catholic veneration of the Virgin Mary and because the Pope serves as a “stand-in” for Jesus, when we ought to be bonding directly with Jesus.

Apparently, these guys believe that, once we have established this personal relationship with Jesus, we will spend our time with Jesus talking and laughing about how awful Catholics, homosexuals and other undesirables are.

I get it: these people have every right to waste the one life they can be absolutely 100% sure of having spew this kind of nonsensical venom. It’s their First Amendment right, after all. But hearing people preach about a god that is as angry, narrow-minded and vengeful as they clearly are is a sick and sad thing to witness up close. Believe me when I say that I know nonbelievers that get Jesus way better than these folks do.

But, to end this point on a lighter note, at the security checkpoint, I saw a man wearing a hoodie with the Ghostbusters II logo on it. Which was cool: everybody expects the original Ghostbusters but this was Ghostbusters II.

4. We were directly in front of City Hall at the checkpoint. To the right was the Frank Furness-designed Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Off in the distance to the North, I could just make out the Divine Lorraine Hotel. Fine architecture in three out of four directions. Did I mention already how much I love Philadelphia?

5. When it was finally my turn at security, I unfortunately had to surrender my camera. Practical note: make sure your electronic devices are not dead next time you’re trying to get into a secure area for the pope. Fortunately, I was able to keep my memory card, which currently has hundreds of photos on it. But I will be camera shopping soon.

6. I rendezvoused with Mom and Lisa at Love Park, to grab my ticket for the Independence Hall event. Mom and Lisa were headed to the Francis Festival on the Parkway. I had a ticket for that too, but never made it back to the Parkway. All this walking from one site to the other was actually fun, aside from the camera issue. It was cool to see Philadelphia in full-on Pope mode after hearing about it all these months.

“Pope magnets! Put ’em on your icebox!” That was one of the many trinket pitches I heard throughout the day.

7. I had wondered if Christ Church Burial Ground, where Benjamin Franklin is buried, would be open. As it happened, one of the security entrances to the Independence Mall area was right in front of the burial ground, which was indeed open. I arrived in that area several hours before the Pope’s speech, so I took the opportunity to take a guided tour of the burial ground.

Bob, my guide, gave me a great one-on-one tour. I had mentioned that I am a volunteer guide at Laurel Hill, so Bob and I had plenty of conversation points. In fact, a visit to Christ Church Burial Ground, which was founded in the early 1700s, followed by trip to Laurel Hill (founded 1836) would be a nice way to explore the continuum of Philadelphia history. I would recommend this tandem pair of cemetery tours to anyone visiting Philadelphia. Bob will show you around Christ Church Burial Ground, then I’ll show you Laurel Hill!

Also, it was cool to know that Pope Francis’ voice would be within earshot of Ben Franklin’s resting place.

8. After my visit to Christ Church Burial Ground, I made my way to Independence Mall. The lineup of speakers and performers leading up to Francis was diverse and very reflective of Francis’ themes of inclusion and stewardship of the planet. The crowd of at least 10,000 people (but maybe even more) was equally diverse and clearly ecstatic to have an opportunity to be near the Holy Father.

I got lucky when the Pope arrived. I had gone into the Independence Mall visitor center to use the bathroom and emerged from the exit facing Market Street just as the Papal Motorcade was entering the area. I had a great view of Pope Francis, riding in the Popemobile. By this time, I was trying to preserve my phone battery, so I didn’t take any photos, but I let the image of Pope Francis on Market Street, just in front of Independence Hall, sink deep into my mind.

9. Once the pontiff made the circuit, his motorcade pulled up to Independence Hall. He was ushered into the historic building, where I believe he received a brief tour, then emerged to deliver his remarks.

Being part of the crowd to hear Pope Francis speak was inspiring though he delivered the speech in Spanish and my high school Spanish has sadly faded. The speech was captioned in English at the bottom of the Jumbotron screens, but still not easy to read from my vantage point. As it happened, my son Chris was taping it on my old cassette recorder from the TV at home, so I got to listen to the instant translation later.

Regardless of my language barrier, Francis’ warmth and conviction was evident. For the Spanish-speaking members of the audience, hearing Francis speak in their native tongue was clearly a transcendent moment.

10. The crowd began to disperse just after the Holy Father finished speaking. By this time, my cell phone had run out of energy so I headed back to Jefferson Station, knowing that I’d be out of touch with anybody for awhile. Once I arrived back in Norristown, I feared I’d have to grab the SEPTA 99 bus (the most convoluted bus route on Earth) back to Phoenixville. However, thanks to a couple of Red Cross guys stationed at the station to help travelers, and a policeman, I was able to sufficiently recharge my phone to give Donna a call. She and the boys came out to get me, and I was happy to see my family after my day in the city.

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Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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