There's been a lot of talk about the upcoming papal visit: incessant talk about bridge closures, security checkpoints, surprise dead end streets, no car zones, closed businesses, and more. It is no wonder that many people feel a sense of dread at the coming of Pope Francis despite the well intentioned papal cheerleaders who constantly remind us that we should be happy and honored that such an important person is spending two days in Philadelphia.
Most of us might feel honored that the pope is visiting but too many of us are beginning to feel pope saturated. The impending visit is becoming like the slow approach of a great hurricane, so much so that many are planning to be elsewhere on September 26 and 27, the dates of Pope Francis' visit. The saturation point hit bulls eye status with the onslaught of pope merchandise like Eagles and Phillies t-shirts, pope dolls with "turnaround" heads, buttons and posters but also with comparisons to some kind of Catholic Woodstock, sans Janis Joplin and Hendrix, of course. The Woodstock comparison implies shoulder-to-shoulder crowds, makeshift tents erected in the mud and rain, and endless lines of people lined up near blue porta potties. Even with all this, it is still an opportunity to see Francis in the distance, a tiny figure in white being ushered here and there while the thunderous crowd waxes and wanes.
Be it a rock concert or a 4th of July Parkway gala, there will always be some who don't "do" crowds well. For people who feel this way it doesn't matter who might be appearing on stage, be it a "resurrected" Eleanor Roosevelt or Amy Winehouse. They simply will not join a massive crowd that resembles a rolling ocean during a storm. Huge crowds on the Parkway remind me of the Odessa steps scene in the Sergi Eisenstein film, Battleship Potemkin, where a baby pram is pushed through the crowd and goes running down the steps. In crowds like this you never know when the 'beserk' factor is going to kick in.
Crowd expectations are so high for the pope's visit that many Catholic parishes are advising parishioners to stay home or visit the church hall and watch the pope on TV with other parish members rather than attend in person. Here we have proof that the negative build up around the pope's visit has had an effect. What else can we expect from warnings like: Be prepared to walk miles; be prepared to make personal sacrifices; be prepared for mammoth closures. These are not words used to describe a great festival or fiesta. They are flashing red light warnings that do little to inspire celebratory feelings.
Recently, there's been a change in the public relations language around the pope's visit. City officials and Donna Crilley Farrell, Executive Director of the World Meeting of Families, upped the ante from negative to positive. Ms. Farrell announced, "This event is not about what you can't do, but all about what you can do in our great city." While a comment like this deserves a round of applause, one can only hope that this positive turnaround isn't coming too late in the day.
While the daily wrangling out of papal visit details by the city has been a painful spectacle to observe, my thoughts often turn to Rome and what might be happening behind the walls of Vatican City. What are the pope's advisors and the pope himself saying, or worrying about, regarding the trip to the United States, and specifically Philadelphia? Almost certainly, the conversations in Vatican City regarding the papal visit are lively, and maybe even a little contentious.
Here's one scenario. Imagine Pope Francis in a conference room with a number of high Church clerics. A favorite aide-de-camp rises to speak.
"Your Holiness, we are happy you decided not to visit the city of William Penn the same time that Diner en Blanc was held in Philadelphia's Navy Yard. If you had visited then you would have been lost in a sea of white, a papal-like sea of white table cloths, napkins, umbrellas and hats. We are so thankful you opted to wait for some background color, but now it seems that the so called color is too much. Philadelphia seems to be losing control, and we are seeing red, We are getting reports of bridge closures and security checkpoints which makes us think of old East Berlin/communist Russia empires. There's a sense of fear and apprehension in Philadelphia. A papal visit should not inspire apprehension."
"Perhaps if we made the world a little less enchanted with you," another Vatican official offered, "Your Holiness, why not Issue a fast track encyclical where you do nothing but quote the old Baltimore Catechism. Throw in quotes by Donald Trump and Ann Coulter. We can think of other rhetorical techniques for crowd thinning. The successor to Saint Peter is not supposed to be a rock star. That is for people of David Bowie's ilk."
"The Dali Lama has informed us that his position as the world's most generic acceptable "all inclusive" religious leader has been trumped by the Bishop of Rome. Your Holiness, the Dali Lama says that you no longer speak only for Catholics but that you have taken on a wider, universal cast. You are the 'new' him, he says. You have moved outside Catholicism and into transcendental realms. He says he accepts this change with grace and is willing to slide into second place but that he still feels a sense of displacement. In his message to us he says he expects to see only low level bureaucrats and crowds when he arrives in Philadelphia after Your Holiness' departure." The Cardinal who said this held up a picture of the Dali Lama while alternately grabbing hold of a Smurf Pope doll with a tassel on the end of its too pointy miter. "This is an example of what's out there," he said, shaking the doll. "You have become a talking point for low end merchandisers. And look at this," the Cardinal added, reaching inside a brown bag for a tin foil wrapped sandwich which turned out to be a cheese steak with the pope's profile embedded into the Amorsio's roll. "Now they can eat you after they play with you and comb your hair, but will they pay attention to you when you speak? Or will they forget your message and stay lost in all these toys?" He placed the cheese steak on an end table but it was quickly removed and consumed by a Swiss Guard.
"The serious import of Your Holiness' recent messages to the world is not the stuff of comedy," another prelate suggested. "Most of us don't think anything of a serious note will be accomplished in Philadelphia. Your Holiness has fallen victim to the worldwide celebrity culture or the cult of personality. People look at you but they do not see the Church and its teachings. All they see is celebrity--and possible revolution. We are very concerned. Some among us say that we should capitalize on your celebrity. "From paparazzi glitter many will be led to the Church," they insist.
Another Cardinal who had heretofore remained silent spoke up. "What is that look on Your Holiness' face? Your placid reaction suggests that you might have an alternate plan. Of course you do realize that there should not be any deviations in the itinerary. That would cause additional mayhem and public unrest. Can you imagine a squadron of Philly police cars following Your Holiness as you bolt from the proscribed course? Stay the course while in Philadelphia, Your Holiness. There's even talk of you escaping from the private ticketed Basilica Mass and getting a taxi to Northern Liberties to visit the Russian Orthodox community. We've seen you scribbling in your notebook with that look in your eye. One informant insists you are looking to change into layman's clothes so that you can ride the subways. That's an old Jesuit trick, and totally unnecessary. You rode the rails ad infinitum in Argentina, so you know there's nothing new to see. The poor will always be with us. If you want to see the Philly homeless we'll drive you to a shelter; there's no reason to hop a cab and head to Aramingo Avenue to see freelance guys carrying signs in traffic. These guys don't want your blessing anyway Holy Father, all they want is heroin. Will you bring them heroin? Forgive me, Holy Father, I did not mean to say that."
"As your dietician," yet another prelate chimed in, "I'd have to say that you need to be on your guard when it comes to food. Nobody knows about your soft pretzel allergy except us. One bite and it is all over. You don't want to be rushed to Hahnemann, the worst hospital in Philly. A hoagie sampler might be okay but definitely no Arctic Splash or Mountain Dew. Keep it classy, Holy Father. And don't let them cover you with Eagles or Phillies paraphernalia. Would the Queen of England let them do that to her? Maintain your dignity and remember, please, your secondary allergy to Hops; no pope beer when you plan your second escape near Front and Girard. Yes, you didn't know we knew about that, did you? Johnny Brenda's is no place for a pope. You'll never find a seat anyway. I don't think I need to say this, but please... no washing the feet of methadone clinic patients under the El near Front Street. Or anybody else's feet for that matter!"