The Stirring of the Pilgrim (The Papal Experience, Part I)

Pope passing.

Pope passing.

[This post is part of a series, you can read the foreword here.]

In 2008 I attended New York Fashion Week as a freelance writer on assignment for a publisher. Faster than I could gain my bearings I was sucked into a very specific world, then pulled out again 7 days later lacking a good nights sleep with sores on my feet, and twenty great stories to tell. I remember writing on the last day "The confetti is on the floor."

I feel like that now. My volunteer experience at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia was just that, a two-day vacuum of religious figures and clergy and pilgrims. The world's eye was turned to Philadelphia that weekend and I was just a minor part of the machine making it happen. I've returned to New York feeling like I've collected too much to write about. But we do try.

Friday, September 26 was a slow day at the office. Pope Francis was also in New York, making his way through Central Park, celebrating mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, and rounding out the trip with another mass at Madison Square Garden. He was there when I boarded my Amtrak train to Philadelphia. Crowds covered the permitter of the station and the local restaurants broadcast mass and people piled on the streets like it was the Super Bowl and they needed the score. I sat at the terminal and watched nuns and priests meet their trains. I boarded a 9 pm train and exited in Philadelphia-turned-ghost town.

Philadelphia looked like Mobile (my hometown on the Alabama Gulf Coast) pre-hurricane. The streets were empty, the National Guard kept watch. I walked about a half a mile alone, looking to my left and right for signs of other people. 

I was lucky to be staying with one of Bo's colleagues from his NPR days, who graciously offered me a room for the weekend. They lived close enough to the festivities that I could walk there and back everyday. After greeting them, I went to sleep early.

The next morning at 9 am, I walked to Independence Hall, my first volunteer location. At 4:30 the Pope was due to pass through the streets and give a speech on the steps. Even at 9 am, crowds were filtering in. I shook hands with all the volunteers and we took our places in front of security. Our job was to prepare each person for TSA screening, answer questions and man the crowds. I was tasked to do social media, but half of the volunteers that were supposed to show up, didn't. Myself and the other Digital Diplomat volunteer never got in as many photos as we wanted.

I chatted with all the arrivals. I asked where they were from and if they were excited. In turn, people wanted to know where I was from and what made me volunteer. I spoke with a group of nuns from upstate New York. I beamed talking to them, wishing I could be the type of girl they'd want to recruit. My wannabe-nun days are behind me, but part of me wants to be the girl worthy of that distinction, to be the hardworking, selfless person that could be a nun. (Instead I drink champagne and covet fancy things and try to convince myself that cycle will stop). In short, they were delightful.

One group arrived singing hymns and I felt myself crying for no apparent reason except in gratitude for the day. When I moved to New York I had identical experiences whenever I stepped into a church, I felt so grateful for the things that Catholicism brought to my life and the guide for living it provided. I realized that my volunteering allowed me to give back to the church that I owed so much. 

Around 3:15 my volunteer captain told me that I was doing a great job, and could go inside Independence Mall to watch Pope Francis ride by and hear his speech. As soon as we entered the secure area, the crowds were swelling the barriers blocking the streets, everyone stood up on the highest thing they could find, kids jumped on their father's shoulders, cell phones were up.



Oh, the sound. I wish I had recorded the sound. It started two blocks west of me, a growing number of shrieks, calls and applause as the Pope approached in his Pope Mobile. Then there he was. The white hood of his car came into view, the glass shell, and his white robe. He was smiling, hunched over a bar that he held with both hands. The car turned right at the corner, slowly, he got to wave to both sides of the crowd before disappearing. We dispersed in a frenzy -- "Did you get it, did you get the photo?" People were sending so many images through the data network that it shut down. I turned behind me, a man holding his baby. The baby was giggling. 

"Your baby!" I said, surprised that the crowd didn't bother her. 

"She loves the Pope," he said. I passed another man who threw up his hands.

"Alright, I saw him, now let's go home," he said. It was hard to believe that it was him. The man the world watched for nearly a week was right there. 

Crowds at Independence Hall.

Crowds at Independence Hall.

I needed to be at my next location by 6 pm, but I wanted to hear the Pope say a few words. The crowd at Independence Hall was small, and the grassy mall in front of it was as close as I'd ever get to the Pope live. I stayed and listened to his speech, and high tailed it to the middle of Philadelphia's main street, Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Or, as the the locals call it: "The Parkway." It was the official site of the "Festival of Families" a half-concert, half-religious event being televised all over the world. The pope was giving an address at 7:30 after riding down the city streets again. My job: answer questions and give directions. An email from the volunteer organizers day-of said that no more Digital Diplomats were needed. I showed up anyway.

Woman with a sign that reads, "Dream Came True." 

Woman with a sign that reads, "Dream Came True." 

The temperature dipped to 60 degrees and the wind picked up. I met my fellow volunteers and we all took photos together, exchanged pope sighting stories, and huddled together for warmth. (I listened as two volunteers hilarious one-upped each other: "I saw JPII [the late Pope John Paul II] so I know that my life is complete" and "Well, Paul McCartney pointed at my son at a concert so my life is complete too.") 

The benefit of being a volunteer was getting all the official information from the source: the Secret Service. They told us that the Pope would be going up and down The Parkway twice. The second time, myself and the other volunteers were right next to the barriers. One of the groups started chanting "Viva il Papa!" ("Long live the Pope") and he smiled at them as he passed. They were so excited they danced nearly the entire night and waved their flags high in the air. 

Pope Francis. 

Pope Francis. 

The concert began, and the Pope had my full attention when he spoke. I'd read most of his homilies and read all of his speeches through the week. I always feel inspired by what he has to say. The hope that he has, given his position, given as much as he has been exposed to in this world, makes me hopeful. It makes me remember the compassion that I used to have that once hardened. It makes something stir inside my stomach and believe. Its a rarity for a pessimist like me.

I became fond of one of the Polish volunteers, a man in his 40s or 50s. He was from south Jersey, and had a wife and kids. When we finished our shift, we walked back through the empty streets together. 

"What made you decide to volunteer?" I asked him. 

He looked down and put a hand on his chest. "My faith." He was very inspiring.

He never asked me, but I knew why I was volunteering: to challenge myself. I go to work, I come home, I go to brunch, I go to museums, it's all so comfortable. It's never difficult. I needed something to push me, to make me get outside of my comfort zone. I'd spent the morning talking to strangers, I guessed that it counted. (A second and less important reason to volunteer: to experience a pilgrimage. Blame it on Chaucer, but I had also always wanted to be a pilgrim. In high school, I used to ask my teachers about their pilgrimages that they took students on, but I was never allowed to join.) 

The volunteer and I parted and wished each other well for the next day, the main event: Papal Mass. I went to a Wawa (a Philadelphia fast-food staple!) for take away dinner. I would have to be up at 6 am and it was already 9 pm. I found my way back to the apartment. I was followed by two drunks who kept saying, "Hey volunteer, come with us!" But the National Guard was in attention, and made them go away. 

I climbed into bed that night with a back ache and swollen feet and no idea how crazy mass would be.