Philadelphia Welcomes the Pope

The Pope 2015 promises to be unlike any other visit by a world leader to the United States. The security industry around the pope's upcoming visit is at full tilt because most believe that extra measures are needed to see that Francis' trip will be a safe one.

Some predict that the security around Francis' visit will be so intense that Philadelphia will be under a virtual lock down; others predict a form of martial law. Francis will be the fourth pope to visit the United States so the country has been through similar security measures in the past. John Paul II visited the United States seven times. When Pope Benedict XVI visited in April 2008 for five days he visited with then President Bush at Ground Zero and said Mass for 60,000 in Yankee Stadium. By today's standards, 60,000 is a relatively tame number.

Pope Paul VI was the first pope to visit the United States in 1965. Before that time, the Bishop of Rome was ensconced in the Vatican and seen only on rare occasions. In state processionals, he was carried on a portable throne or the sedia gestatoria, dressed in the towering papal tiara and fanned by two great ostrich plums tipped with peacock feathers. These great fans looked as though they had been borrowed from a Cecil B. De Mille movie set. The presence of the pope on the sedia gestatoria inspired awe and reverence. Not even the Queen of England could compete with this pomp and circumstance. Anyone who has been to Rome and toured the Vatican Museum has seen the splendor of that grandeur: bejeweled vestments as heavy as tapestries, miters that seem to rise two feet in the air, golden orbs, immense pectoral crosses and jewel studded ceremonial gloves.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the ceremonial trappings of the papacy have been stripped down to the bone. Francis stripped them down ever further, In fact, I'm surprised that he hasn't thrown in the ceremonial towel altogether and called for priests to celebrate Mass in street clothes, or "whatever."

Popes are not supposed to win the hearts and minds of people in the secular culture. Historically, popes were of interest only to Catholics while non-Catholics viewed them with the kind of detached curiosity like the way a high school science student might study a frog through a microscope.

A visit by the Queen of England; the Dalai lama or an after death visitation by John Lennon would not rival the build up around Francis' visit. 1.5 million people are expected to flood the city for the Sept. 26, 27th papal visit, which will conclude the World Meeting of Families. Not only will SEPTA's intricate railway, bus and trolley routes be altered, but Mayor Nutter has warned Philadelphians to "be prepared to walk long distances," while Francis is in town.

Some Philadelphians say that September 26 and 27 would be a good time to head to the mountains or to the shore because 1.5 million people on the Parkway has a nightmarish feel to it.

When John Paul II came to Philadelphia I was living in Center City and remember walking to the Parkway at night to inspect the huge portable stage-altar that was under construction. Security was light then. You could even touch the stage but that's not going to be the case this time.

The prospect of an eight foot high fence around large portions of Center City, including the Parkway, where Francis is slated to say Mass, has some questioning whether security measures are going overboard. Those who criticized the high fence were surprised when Mark McDonald, press secretary for Mayor Nutter, said that a fence was not going to be built. Then the mayor did a U-turn and said that a partial fence will be built. A U.S. Secret Service spokesperson, Robert Hoback, said that the security measures that will be put into place won't be announced until 3 weeks prior to the pope's visit. This is understandable, although an eight foot fence seems something that Francis would object to on philosophical grounds.

This pope does not want to keep people out; he wants to rein them in. This has been the motto of his papacy all along.

So why is Francis so popular? Is it because he speaks out about climate change, poverty and the corrupt nature of banks and how the world financial system needs to be changed? When politicians say these things they are often dismissed by many as radicals or conspiracy theorists. Francis, however, is reaching a wider audience because he's not a politician but a man of God. He also has the advantage of a 2,000 year old Office with a direct connection to "the Son." This alone gives him the power to change minds and national policy, as well as encourage those who would normally be resistant to criticism of the world financial system to take another look.

Francis' comments of late have been revolutionary nature because past popes of the Catholic Church have traditionally stuck to in house Catholic issues. (A commentator on Fox News called him the most dangerous man on the planet). If a pope did happen to comment on a world issue the topic tended to be generic, like the spread of atheistic Communism. Never has a pope criticized the capitalist system of a western democracy, and then spelled out how to correct the disparity between rich and poor. Francis, some might say, is treading on dangerous ground because by inference he's implicating the Koch Brothers, Goldman and Sachs and all the powerful financial brokers and institutions who have one interest only: to increase their holdings and the pockets of the very rich at the expense of most everyone else on the planet.

The way to implement authentic change, of course, is to do it slowly so that for a time things seem to be business as usual. After his election, Francis did not bless the crowd but first asked the crowd to pray for him. This small change was a red flag for Catholic traditionalists. Additionally, he did not call his first Mass as pope a coronation Mass but an installation Mass, which had a dull utilitarian sound. He instituted other small changes like using the crooked, modernist staff crucifix of John Paul II rather than the striking traditional cross of Benedict XVI. He started saying things off the cuff--"Who am I to judge?"--and then he was washing the feet of Muslims and women during Holy Week.

There was his refusal to live in the Apostolic Palace; instead he opted for the papal apartments. Two weeks after his installation he traveled somewhere and paid his own hotel bill. He exchanged the Vatican limo for a cheaper car. Although he did all of this, he did not change a single word of Catholic dogma.

Catholic traditionalists take a dim view of Francis because they say he does not respect tradition. They hated his "Who am I to judge?" comment; they hated the fact that he broke the traditions of Holy Week. They are also constantly on his case about climate change. His 'plain Jane' liturgical style has not won him high marks. Others feel that he wears his humility on his sleeve; it is as if he is silently screaming, "Look how humble I am!"

Old time (now deceased) Vatican insiders like Fr. Malachi Martin used to lecture on Coast to Coast Am with Art Bell on how popes are not supposed to focus on the state of the world. In other words, a pope is not supposed to devise plans on how to make the world more Utopian but their sole mission is to focus on saving souls and on issues that have to do with getting to Heaven. Heaven is the only Utopia there is because the world will always be a sad, crestfallen place.

People on the street talk about the papal prophecies of Saint Malachy, which some theologians call a forgery but which others says have been eerily accurate. This prophecy indicates that the next pope, Peter the Roman (is it Francis?), will be the last pope. An Italian journalist, Antonio Socci's, whose bestseller, The Fourth Secret of Fatima, captivated European reading audiences for years, believes that the message of the Virgin Mary at Fatima in Portugal in 1917 revolves around a future pope who will be assassinated.

Francis angers Catholic traditionalists because he emphasizes being the Bishop of Rome, which is what the occupier of the Chair of Peter used to call himself in the first centuries of the Church. The pope at that time was not an imperial ruler; he was not infallible but merely the first among equals in the entire Christian Church, both East and West. He never had the final word on any issue or dogma although what his opinion was on any given matter was given special consideration. Francis is trying to get back to this early model, forsaking the imperial papacy which came about during the age of Charlemagne.

He has taken on a tremendous mantle especially when he challenges the financial rulers of the world. While remaking the planet in a Utopian way may indeed be impossible, a little bit of refashioning and remodeling to make the journey here a little easier may indeed be a gift that he's been sent here to do.

Earth may not be Utopia, but it doesn't have to be hell either.