PHILADELPHIA — Standing in the parking lot at the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia, as Pope Francis was getting ready to take off from the nearby airport, Lesley Garofalo reflected on the papal Mass Sunday afternoon on the Ben Franklin Parkway.
She and her husband, Peter, had tickets to the area closest to the altar, but their view was blocked by a barricade. It didn’t matter to them.
“It was beautiful,” said Garofalo, a member of St. Ann’s Parish in Wilmington. “I was crying through half of the Mass. I received Communion at a Mass that was officiated by the pope. That is just an amazing thing. I’m crying just talking about it.”
Garofalo was one of more than 80 people from 17 parishes who rode to Philadelphia for the closing Mass for the World Meeting of Families on two buses sponsored by the diocesan St. Vincent de Paul Society. The Mass was the final public event of Pope Francis’ six-day visit to the United States, and an estimated at first at 860,000 people, and later at less than 200,000, crowded the parkway from Eakins Oval past the Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul toward City Hall nearly a mile away.
After a few anxious minutes in Wilmington when the buses were late arriving in the morning, it was off to the sports complex. Along the way, Barbara Willis, a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society who organized the pilgrimage, led her bus in prayers.
The contingent from the diocese split into many smaller groups by the time it reached the SEPTA station. After a ride to Broad and Spring Garden streets, a short walk brought pilgrims to the closest security checkpoint on 19th Street in front of John W. Hallahan Girls High School. Those with tickets to the area by Eakins Oval continued up Spring Garden to 21st Street.
Juliana Stiltner, a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Bear, said she made the trip because her family has endured a lot and she felt drawn to Philadelphia.
“My family has been through a lot of medical issues. I wasn’t supposed to be alive. I shouldn’t be here, but I am.
“I’ve seen and experienced God’s grace. I think being around someone with such, I guess, belief or spiritual power or hope, miracles happen.”
Stiltner, 18, said she wasn’t very religious when she was younger, but that changed as she realized the severity of her family’s medical situations. Her grandmother is in the St. Vincent de Paul Society and gave her the opportunity to make the trip for free, an offer she couldn’t pass up.
Lynne Betts, a Vincentian from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Seaford, was there with her husband Michael and their grandson, Dillon. She said she feels a connection to the pope.
“He may be intellectually trained as a Jesuit, but Pope Francis has a huge Vincentian soul. He speaks directly to the Vincentians every time he opens his mouth about the poor,” Betts said.
Getting through the security checkpoint was relatively painless – once you reached it. The wait for some of the early diocesan pilgrims was more than an hour, but that paled in comparison to the delay a short time later. Word filtered through the crowd that some of the checkpoints had delays of three to four hours.
Life-size Pope Francis
Some folks had been on the parkway since early morning, and the areas where there was room to stand or sit were limited, although most vantage points were within sight of one of the big screens set up along the road. With hours to kill, many people traded stories with fellow pilgrims, watched helicopters fly by, or fiddled with their cell phones. Keeping up with the Philadelphia Eagles’ score was a favorite activity. Many listened to the musical acts performing on the stage or on the streets.
At one point, eyes looked skyward as a group of four helicopters believed to be taking Pope Francis to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility sped by.
A highlight of the afternoon was the arrival of the pope’s motorcade. He came from the area of Eakins Oval toward the Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. After stopping at the basilica’s Knotted Grotto, the popemobile went back up the parkway, with the pontiff smiling and waving as the crowd cheered while seemingly everyone held a cell phone in the air. Some folks left after the motorcade passed by.
Cynthia Jones attended with her 10-year-old son, Roman, who was able to get a few very good pictures of Pope Francis on a cell phone. Jones, who attends Holy Family Church in Newark, said she didn’t know what to expect when she signed up for the bus.
“I just wanted to come and be a part of it and was hoping for the best,” she said. “It worked out. We got a great seat and were able to see everything through the Jumbotron. We just wanted to be a part of it.”
From their vantage point, the Joneses were able to very clearly see the pope stop on the parkway and kiss one of several babies. “Then he turned to us and waved. We got a picture of that.”
Christine Turcol, of St. John the Beloved Parish in Wilmington, visited Italy in May and saw the pope in his apartment window, where he appeared to be the size “of a cherry tomato. Today, he was pretty much life size. I really enjoyed that. I like when he goes to the children and the handicapped.”
Moving and beautiful
Pope Francis celebrated some of the Mass in English and some in his native Spanish, including the homily. The theme of the World Meeting of Families was “Love Is Our Mission,” and it was the theme of the homily as well.
“Faith grows when it is practiced and when it is shaped by love,” the pope said, according to a translation that appeared on the big screens under a live shot of the pontiff.
Sticking with his message about the family, he asked, “In our own house, do we shout or do we speak to each other with love and tenderness?”
Jones said the Mass was worth wading through the crowds and going through the checkpoints.
“I thought it was beautiful, the singing, the Latin, everything. It was so moving and beautiful,” she said.
There was a bit of a surprise at Communion, as hundreds of priests walked along the parkway from the direction of the altar and also from the basilica. Accompanied by people carrying yellow and white papal umbrellas, the priests approached the crowds to distribute the hosts. Many people approached the barriers with their hands raised to signify that they wanted to receive Communion.
For Garofalo, who attended with her husband, Peter, this was the best part of the afternoon.
Cool to be Catholic
“Just watching everyone receive Communion, I was meditating and praying, thinking, good Lord, all of these people have just taken in the Body of Christ. I’ve got chills,” she said.
Peter Garofalo said he felt uplifted by the number of young people in attendance and by the celebration of his faith.
“It actually felt cool to be a Catholic for once,” he said.
Jones said being in the presence of the leader of the faith was an experience everyone should encounter.
“I’m so glad I did it,” she said. “I recommend it to anybody next time. That’s what I told (Roman). It might be 30 years, but you have to do it with your kids.”