It felt like a cross between a carnival, concert and the end of a post-apocalyptic movie.
Over two event-filled days, Pope Francis crisscrossed Philadelphia giving speeches, kissing babies and celebrating Mass. Despite a traffic box blocking off most of the main thoroughfares in Center City and airport-style security measures, thousands of pilgrims thronged through the city. From Independence Mall to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, thousands of the faithful politely pushed and shoved for a chance to view Francis, the popular leader of 1.2 billion Catholics.
While he focused primarily on environmental and economic issues when in Washington, D.C. and New York, he spoke more broadly about religious toleration, acceptance and the importance of the family in Philadelphia.
“Our common house can no longer tolerate sterile divisions,” he said in the homily at his Sunday mass on the Parkway. “The urgent challenge of protecting our home includes the effort to bring the entire human family together in the pursuit of a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change.”
His visit came as a culmination to the weeklong World Meeting of Families, a triennial series of conferences and speaker events focused on the Catholic views on family and relationships.
Despite the potential for a focus on traditional Catholic ideals of heterosexual unions, the pope largely strayed from emphasizing conservative Church positions. In a Saturday speech outside Independence Hall, he spoke very much at odds with modern conservative thought, offering a strong rebuke to nativist rhetoric about immigration.
“You should never be ashamed of your traditions,” Francis said to the largely Latino crowd outside the hall, in rejection of calls for assimilation.
In his first address in Philadelphia — a mass at the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul — Francis praised the contributions of women and laypeople in the Church, singling out Philadelphia-born St. Katharine Drexel as an exemplar.
Father Thomas Whittingham, a 2006 Wharton graduate and the pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish in Chester, Pa., applauded the pope’s inclusive rhetoric.
“We need to keep young people [involved] because they’re passionate about social justice and serving the least among us,” Whittingham said in an interview later that day, characterizing Francis’ homily.
Penn students participated in the papal festivities by volunteering with translation and crowd control over the weekend, and attending his public events.
On Sunday morning, the Newman Center hosted a breakfast before walking down to the Parkway for the Mass. Somewhere between 500 and 800 students walked down, according to Penn Newman Vice President and College and Wharton senior Andrea Muglia — less than the 1,400 registered on Facebook, but still a sizable amount.
The students had no trouble getting in, Muglia said, but other pilgrims didn’t have similar luck. Due to immense overcrowding at security checkpoints in Center City, many people with tickets were stuck in line well into the start of Sunday mass, which began at 4 p.m. Security personnel also let in many general admission attendees earlier, which contributed to the overcrowding on the Parkway by the early afternoon. Events were more spread out across the city on Saturday — but with the mass being Sunday’s main event — nearly a million pilgrims rushed early to the Parkway.
Some tired visitors made due with the long lines. In a queue extending multiple city blocks on 21st street, a group of singers from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Doylestown, Pa., began singing hymns, providing some impromptu entertainment for the tired faithful.
Despite some imposing security obstacles — including a series of National Guard vehicles stationed outside the Parkway — pilgrims reflected positively on the pope’s visit.
“When you’re down here, it’s like we don’t need to be ashamed of being Catholic anymore,” Whittingham said.
Outside of the Sunday public mass and the Saturday Independence Hall speech, the pope also visited the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility, one of six jails in the city, to speak to inmates on Sunday morning. Earlier, he spoke with sexual abuse survivors and made an impromptu stop in the afternoon to St. Joseph’s University, whose Jesuit identity he shares.
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