n the final Sunday in September, I was one of those people lost in the sea of humanity who attended the Papal Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It is an experience that I will never forget for as long as I live.
Although I’ve been a practicing Catholic ever since my elementary school days at St. David’s Parish in Willow Grove, I consider myself to be more of a “Cafeteria Catholic”, i.e., someone who chooses to adhere to those positions of the Catholic Church that he or she agrees with, but will not necessarily comply with those positions that are considered to be outdated and therefore no longer relevant. So it was somewhat of a shock when I announced to my family members that I had secured two train passes and two “golden tickets” to the Papal Mass to be celebrated by Pope Francis on the final day of his week-long visit to the United States. Perhaps shock would be too strong a word, but there was certainly surprise expressed by those in my household when I declared my intention to attend the Mass and venture into the city as a pilgrim hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope. I figured that if some people were willing to travel thousands of miles from remote regions around the world to come to Philadelphia, I could certainly take the time to catch a Septa train into center city and spend the day in a city with which I was already quite familiar.
Much to my delight, my recently-married daughter Allison agreed to accompany me. So together, we met at the Fort Washington train station early that morning. We took the express train to Jefferson Station at 11th and Market, whereupon we walked 12 blocks through the eerily empty streets of centercity Philadelphia to our appointed “checkpoint” at 21st street. What most surprised me about the long wait was the extraordinary patience exhibited by all those standing in line. Although it might have seemed like a burden to move at a snail’s pace towards the security checkpoint, the opportunity to spend time with thousands of people from all different walks of life and from disparate regions around the world actually produced a joyful experience. Collectively, the crowd found creative ways to pass the time. We sang church hymns in unison (and mostly in harmony), many of which my daughter and I had previously sung hundreds of times before as cantors at our home parish in Doylestown. We also played games of 20 Questions in which the answer had to involve a person, place, or thing that had some connection to Catholicism. (Believe me when I tell you, it was more difficult than I would have imagined.)
“It is an experience that I will never forget for as long as I live.” When we finally gained admission to the “red zone,” our initial disappointment at the limited viewing area available turned quickly to relief when we managed to rendezvous with fellow parishioners from Doylestown who had already staked out excellent observation points of the central altar from their vantage point on the lawn of the Rodin Museum. I can say without a doubt that I have never seen such a wellbehaved crowd of people. It became clear to me that if you want a large group of people to be on their best behavior, the recipe for success is to make sure that no alcohol is made available, engage their attention with a traditional ritual familiar to everyone in attendance no matter what language they happen to speak, and then sit back and watch as they all listen reverently to the homily of the most popular leader currently on the world stage.
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