To see the pope, I made a pilgrimage to Philadelphia. America’s not really the place for journeys of spiritual significance. Does the heavenly bliss of finding a parking spot count? I doubt I’m the only American who regards “O beautiful for pilgrim feet” as a mystifying lyric in “America the Beautiful.” And the O’Rourkes did not exactly come over on the Mayflower.
Anyway, I got to Philadelphia. On pilgrim feet, as it happened. Because Philly had decided to go to 13 on the papal protection Swiss Guard cuckoo clock. Taxis, buses and private cars were banned and half the subway stations were closed in the city center—from the Rocky-climbs-the-stairs Art Museum symbol of American might at one end of town to out-of-Liberty-Bell-earshot on the other. Thanks be to God for roller bags. And thanks be to George H.W. Bush and the Americans with Disabilities Act for curb cuts.
Downtown a vast throng assembled. In age, dress, attitude, deportment, organization, food, shelter, first aid stations, police presence, and number of strollers and port-a-potties, it was Anti-Woodstock.
With two exceptions. First, “Spare change?” The urban core had been cleared of motorized laymen, but not of motor-mouthed lay mendicants. Jesus said, “for ye have the poor with you always,” and I’m sure the pope agrees with Jesus.
Second, of course, the message was still supposed to be “Peace and Love.”
The Antichrist had been in town the night before, or as good as. Madonna performed on Thursday night at the Wells Fargo Center, which Philadelphia Inquirer music critic Dan DeLuca described as “not-quite-sold-out” (polite critic talk for nobody who’s anybody was there) and “attracting a largely female crowd that skewed younger and more multicultural among gay male fans.” (Translation: career is circling the drain.)
Madonna had performed in New York before the pope arrived there. “The pope is stalking me,” she told the Philadelphia audience. “Either that or he’s secretly in love with me.” And she said, “I’ve been excommunicated by the Catholic Church three times.” Once usually suffices.
Her two-hour show, said DeLuca, “never really caught fire.” Things not catching fire where Madonna comes from is rare. Perhaps the Holy Father does work wonders.
On Saturday morning I walked, strait is the gate, up South Broad Street toward City Hall. Narrow was the way between 200 yards of crowd control barriers. Stacked along the curb was pallet upon pallet of bottled water. (Holy? I’m not sure.) Lining the sidewalks was row after row of porta-popey, pope-a-potty, pun-inviting toilets.
Within the traffic-free sanctuary there was a security sanctum sanctorum encompassing some 50 city blocks. All who entered here must abandon their purses and backpacks to inspection and, in keeping with the TSA sacrament, pass through metal detectors.
Ahead of me in line, a woman thrust an apple at her male companion. “Take a bite,” she said, “they’re not allowing fruit inside.” I assume this was just a coincidental occurrence and had no larger significance.
Behind me I could hear scattered cheers and sporadic sports fan-type chanting. The Philadelphia Eagles were 0-2 going into Sunday’s game against the undefeated New York Jets, but I’m not sure this was the kind of Hail Mary the members of the assemblage were looking for.
A half million people were cheerful and polite—but distracted—seeking the Light of the World that I am perhaps too dim-sighted to spot in a mortal religious leader. I was too dim-sighted, as well, to spot the rainbow in the shower-menacing clouds above Philadelphia. Several people around me testified to it.
A few families had camped all night, on blankets on the pavement, along the route of the pope’s motorcade, which would not pass that way for another eight hours.
Ten or a dozen teenagers were wearing tall felt hats in a shape attempting to imitate the papal mitre but failing. Failing so badly that the effect was of an unpublished Dr. Seuss book, The Cat in the Hat Resurrected.
Most people were walking toward the Basilica Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul where the pope was saying a mass for 1,600 invited bishops, priests, nuns, deacons and—to judge by the suits and dresses on the other congregants—major donors to Catholic causes. If any of the lesser Catholics outside the church felt excluded, they did not say so.
Let me confess—or, as Catholics say these days, “reconcile”—that despite my mackerel snapper Provisional IRA of a name I’m not a Catholic. I was baptized Protestant. (Mom married the help.)
But I can say the Apostles’ Creed without fluttering the needle on the polygraph. I married Catholic, my children are Catholic, and I’ve been to Mass more recently than any of them, if via Jumbotron.
Pope Francis at SS Peter and Paul did not set off the flurry of punditry that he did in his other appearances.
The Gospel reading the pope chose, John 19:25-27, would elicit a commentary only of It’s Greek to me (as Greek it originally was) from “the wisdom of this world” and “the princes of this world” as we know them in Washington and New York.
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother... When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her onto his own home.
But the people in the street understood, understood the full humanity of Jesus. Christ, what a family man. It was the first time I’d heard a gospel reading cheered.
The pope’s homily provided little gist to be ground between the political millstones of smirking lefty environmentalists and frowning right-wing xenophobes (to name just two of the millstones our country has around its neck).
Perhaps a reference to the plight of modern immigrants could be inferred when Francis lamented the “high windows and walls” of the church in which he spoke. But this particular sermon in stone preaches about something native to America.
The building of the Basilica Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul began in 1846 and the design included no ground-level stained glass in the nave or transept for fear of anti-Catholic Know Nothing mob attacks.
The crux, as it were, of the pope’s talk was about Philadelphia’s own Katherine Drexel—saint, society girl, and heir to an enormous banking fortune (though not in that chronological order).
In 1887 Katharine, a pious and philanthropic debutant, asked Pope Leo XIII for the Vatican’s help staffing missions she had funded. According to Pope Francis, Pope Leo replied, “But what will you do?” What she did was take vows and become a nun and a missionary herself.
The crowd cheered the homily. It did not rain. And, the next day, the Eagles defrocked the Jets 24 to 17.
“Leo was a very wise pope,” Francis said. Leo was also the author of the 1899 papal encyclical Testem benevolentiae nostrae warning American Catholics not to let American individualism and American civil liberties undermine church doctrine.
So why is Pope Francis all the rage? Particularly among America’s self-styled individualists and civil libertines?
The pope made the sports pages. “In the space where Pope Francis will be celebrating mass... many basketball sins have been committed in the name of the Knicks,” read a story in the September 25 New York Times.
The pope made the funny pages. “Mutts” is a syndicated daily comic strip by Patrick McDonnell that sometimes pauses between pet gags to plea for kindness to animals. On September 26 the strip was a single panel with a sad chained dog and a quote from Francis “It would also be mistaken to view other living beings a mere objects subjected to arbitrary human domination.”
The pope even made the September 24 New York Times “Thursday Styles” section. No preaching to the converted there. But God is not called “the Lord of hosts” for nothing. “Papal-themed parties are taking place throughout Philadelphia and other cities where the pope is visiting.”
Pope Francis has doffed some of the pomp—if, so far, none of the circumstance—of the Roman Catholic Church.
I suppose he seems to be “Catholicism with a human face” or a harbinger of “Compassionate Catholicism” or an advocate for a “kinder, gentler Catholic church.” Low bar considering the Spanish Inquisition and all the whacks on the knuckles with wooden rulers that my O’Rourke cousins got in parochial school. Or maybe Pope Francis is a Western Civ. Dali Lama. Everybody loves the Dali Lama. Well, not the Red Chinese. But you know what I mean.
Even John Paul II didn’t get fulsome front page, above the fold, “the immensely popular pope” hagiography headlined “A pastoral Pope, Slipping Conservatives’ Grasp” in the Sunday New York Times. (Not to keep picking on The New York Times. But you know what I mean.)
Do the un-Catholicized or, more to the point, the de-religioned, think Pope Francis is going to change the rules?
Starting where? The Ten Commandments? How’s America doing on the Ten Commandments?
A report card:
I. Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me
II. Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images
I’ll forego Proddy cavils about pope tchotchkes for sale in Philly and go to the heart of the matter, the Federal Reserve. F
III. Thou Shalt Not Take the Lord’s Name in Vain
IV. Remember the Sabbath and Keep It Holy
V. Honor Thy Father and Mother
The VA, Medicare Funding. D
VI. Though Shalt Not Kill
U.S. murder rate is up sharply after two decades of decline. D+
VII. Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery
Speaking strictly for myself, my father-in-law is a retired FBI agent still licensed to pack. A
VIII. Thou Shalt Not Steal
U.S. property crime rates are down to 1960s levels, though possibly due to the sin of Sloth. B
IX Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor
We’re in the midst of a presidential campaign. F
X. Thou Shalt Not Covet
Vid. ads in the Sunday New York Times. F
That’s a 1.0 grade point average. Do you suppose Pope Francis will suggest “social promotion”?
After the masses at the mass I changed my form of communion, abandoning Catholic transubstantiation—the presence of the actual body and blood of Pope Francis—in favor of Martin Luther’s consubstantiation—the symbolic presence of the body and blood. In other words I went back to my hotel and watched the pope on TV.
He is an engaging man. He speaks “always with grace, seasoned with salt,” especially in his native tongue or as much as I could catch of it with my una-mas-cerveza-por-favor Spanish. And the speech Francis gave at Independence Hall... “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.”
In his kind and gentle renunciation of Satan (the rationalizer) and all his works (to make a soulless uniformity of mankind) and all his empty promises (of utopia of one kind or another), Pope Francis heaped ashes upon the heads of the Obamacare-takers who would make all of America’s nuns perform abortions and go on birth control and smote with his hand and stamped with his foot the nativists at the border who’d deport Francis for trying to take the job of being pope away from American citizens. And he said to hell with most of the rest of us too.
That evening the pope went to the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-sponsored conference held every three years and the largest global gathering of Catholic families. I have a large Catholic family of my own, so I went to a bar.
There was another engaging man, even kinder and more gentle, who spoke with yet a greater grace seasoned with salt and who out-ranks Pope Francis.
He said, “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace but a sword.”