My Uncomfortable Audience with the Pope

In line to see the pope is where I first experienced the universal, catholic, Catholic Church.

When my sister and I stepped out of 30th Street Train Station in Philadelphia last Saturday, we entered a scene right out of a dystopian thriller. The usually busy streets were fenced off. Law enforcement was everywhere. Throngs of people wandered earnest and herd-like toward the city center.

We are both Millennials, and we were journeying to see the pope with a meandering map and straightforward expectations. It turns out, both were wrong.

My sister and I have been practicing Catholics our entire twenty-something-year lives, but we’d never seen a pope. It sometimes felt like being a Taylor Swift fan without ever having gone to a concert, or a football fanatic who only watches games on TV. When we found out that Pope Francis — the people’s pope, the popular pope — would be live in limited edition for the low cost of an Amtrak ticket from New York to Philadelphia, we packed our purses and went.

As we walked from the train station toward Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a choir sounded through the streets, angelic and seemingly voiceless.

“Do you hear that?” my sister Emily asked.

I was tempted to say no, so she would think she was having some kind of personal spiritual experience, but that wouldn’t have worked. When we got closer, we saw the source: jumbo TV screens live streaming the Pope’s mass. Everyone heard the voiceless angel choir, the Pope’s mass, that morning, whether they liked it or not.

Everyone did like it though. There was a palpable air of expectation permeating the streets of Philadelphia — anticipation speckled with speculation.

As we stood close to a fenced-off street, an older woman in front of us asked a police officer, “Is the pope going by to drive by?”

“I’m not sure ma’am,” he said, “Maybe.”

His “maybe” nourished that woman and my sister and I with enough hope to stand there for the next hour. We weren’t the only ones — up and down the street, the barricades were buttressed by walls of bodies three people thick. There were no gaps in this manmade wall, composed of people of all colors, shapes, sizes, ages, and vocations.

Not my comfortable Catholicism

It’s then that I first realized how new this all was. Not just seeing the pope — I knew that was coming — but the experience of a diverse, multifaceted, and complicated Church. My parish growing up was mostly white, mostly families. My youth group in high school was mostly young. My grandma’s church was mostly old. My college church was mostly students. My experience of being a Catholic was homogenous, it was comfortable. Maybe it was from being on my feet or from knowing I was warm from a stranger’s body heat, but the streets of Philadelphia did not feel comfortable. But they did feel right.

I ran into a high school friend, Molly, who was showing around a group of Dominican sisters, resplendent in their white habits against the darkness of the pavement and the colorful crowd. Molly had been at the Festival of Families all week and for a short bit served as our tour guide and our fashion guide as she interpreted people’s religious garb for us.

“Sisters of Charity,” Molly said, pointing out a group of women religious. “Aren’t they beautiful?”

Image courtesy of Emily Essig.

We counted Franciscans, Benedictines, and priests in clerics, adding them to our running roster. They joined the ranks of the hip-looking young people behind a booth promoting Catholic dubstep music (“Priests with Beats”), a vendor charging donations to take photos of his pugs dressed as the pope, men wearing Mexican flags as capes, a Nigerian choir that continued singing through the streets once they’d left the stage, and an unpopular man on a megaphone cautioning the crowd to “fear the wrath of God.”

Emily and I were two of the lucky ones who had tickets to the Festival of Families closing ceremony. Around 6 p.m. we squeezed through the gate that allowed ticket holders in and joined the already-ample crowd fortunate enough to be able to glimpse Eakins Oval. We weren’t by the stage, but we were closer than the thousands of people who didn’t have tickets to the fenced off part of the Parkway. On your tip-toes, you could see the outline of the chair where the Pope would sit.

It was an hour and a half until Pope Francis was scheduled to appear, but the route was already carefully packed with people standing at the ready. Not yet eager to join their ranks, we sat down to eat French fries picnic style and laughed at the thumbnail-sized figure of Jim Gaffigan on the faraway stage we could see if we squinted.

Then, it was time. Or, almost time. It was 45 minutes before the pope would appear, but it was time to get in line. This might not sound like fun, but it was just as Sister Sledge took the stage and dancing women religious gave a whole new meaning to the “We are Family” lyrics, “I got all my sisters with me.”

During a musical interlude, Sister Sledge had us to take the hand of the person beside us, and I nervously glanced at the blonde, middle-aged woman beside me. I was used to grasping hands with strangers when instructed at Catholic mass during the sign of peace. But Sister Sledge caught me off guard. The blonde woman stuck out her hand. The exchange in our eye contact translated roughly to, “This is not normal. But this is good.” Our hands clasped. We danced.

A blemish of tension

The business of lining up to see the pope is a complicated one. On one hand, you anticipate this moment for weeks, wait for it all day, and stand for an hour. Elbows and shoulders are (almost) justifiably employed to edge closer to the popemobile’s path. On the other hand, there’s definitely something not in keeping with the spirit of the event in nudging people out of the way to see the pope. Justin Bieber? Elbows away. Pope Francis? Lock ‘em in.

This dilemma and our decision to be charitable — to allow shorter people and kids in front even as we were nudged further back — is in part why we got so angry when two men in the third row, moments before the pope began his procession, stood on their chairs, effectively blocking everyone behind them. My blonde dancing partner and I exchanged glances.

“Oh no,” she said. “Now we can’t see.”

Image courtesy of Emily Essig.

At that point, my older sister did what older sisters do best and asked them to step down, pointing to the children and women behind them who could no longer see.  Their response was not kind and included some offensive language.

I was angry and disappointed that a day full of levity, a celebration of life and hope and a holy man had this blemish of tension on it. I was insulted by the man’s tone and thought for a second, “THESE guys get to see the pope, too? I bet he’d hate them.”

Then I remembered that Pope Francis is a Jesuit, and St. Ignatius of Loyola calls us to give the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they’d sat there all day. Maybe we embarrassed them so they lashed out. Maybe they were taking a photo for a sick relative and it needed to be from the highest vantage point possible. Maybe they were just hungry and hadn’t had fries like we had.

Despite this, the moment Pope Francis began his procession there was a feeling in the air as enlivening as electricity and as comfortable as warmth. Spanish-speaking children chanted, “Francisco!” in rhythm with English-speaking children’s “Pope Francis!” Everyone was giddy. Everyone was there. No one looked bored or unimpressed. It felt like a big deal.

Pope Francis drove by in his popemobile, and I waved with my right hand held high as I stood on my tippy-toes. There was a rush of sound, a barrage of flashes, the man in front of me yelled, “There he is! There’s our holy father!” and by the time he had finished the sentence, the pope had passed, winding his way to the stage we could glimpse but not truly see. Our audience with the pope had ended, but the audience with the pope remained.

Lower case “c” catholic

As a young woman who grew up Catholic, it’s easy sometimes to forget what it means to be catholic. Not Catholic with a capital “C,” but catholic with a lower case “c”, meaning universal. My Catholic experience felt designated to Sunday masses, sacraments as rites of passage, the uniform I wore to school, and the cheese pizza I ate during Lent.

In Philadelphia this past Saturday, I felt, for the first time as a young adult, what it is to be a Catholic in the context of a church that hungers to be universal, to welcome all. In the faces of the people gathered, I felt communion with a church that is different but shared, takes all shapes but maintains one form, spans the globe but anchors one community. It’s the answer I’d looked for when I questioned my faith. It’s a spiritual home that’s inclusive.

On Saturday, my sister and I, Molly, the men wearing Mexican flags, the Dominicans in their white habits, the Nigerian singers, the “priests with beats,” the man with the pugs, and even those two men standing on the chairs, came together to celebrate a universal, catholic, Catholic church, and the truly remarkable man who leads us.

In that realization, the closed off streets became more utopian than dystopian, more holy than spare. As we left to get back on the train, I knew I might never return to a space like this again. I breathed a prayer of gratitude; I boarded.

Lead image courtesy of a katz /

Kate Essig
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