The following article was written by a friend of this blog, Mr. Paolo A. Belzoni. Paolo resides in the New Jersey area and was on hand for the Pope's recent visit to Philadelphia. I asked Paolo to play correspondent and put together an essay on what a day was like in Philadelphia with Franciscus in town.
Needless to say, this article represents the opinions of Mr. Belzoni, not necessarily those of Unam Sanctam Catholicam.
The Servant of the Servants of God Visits the City of Brotherly Love
by Paolo A. Belzoni
by Paolo A. Belzoni
It has now been a week now since Pope Francis left American soil. Like many Catholic Americans, I am still absorbing the impact of the visit, still ruminating on the Holy Father’s words, as well as those of the manipulators in both the political and media realms. As part of my effort to assess the Holy Father’s impact, I offer the following very idiosyncratic interpretation of what I saw and experienced on the ground in Philadelphia on Saturday, September 26.
My oldest daughter and I departed for Philadelphia with some trepidation that day, knowing that local, state and federal authorities had gone overboard on security measures. These included closing down major bridges and highways, limiting train service and issuing traffic alerts for the area that predicted gridlock similar to a major snowstorm. A huge area of downtown Philadelphia was also closed to all vehicular traffic. Even my little hamlet in New Jersey, a full seven miles away from where the festivities were to occur, had a flashing sign on the main drag warning of snarled traffic.
On Saturday, at least, all this was ridiculous overkill. If anything, traffic was lighter than usual. The parking lot at the train station was practically empty, and nobody had any trouble getting a seat on the train. Once in town, we met up with some friends from our parish and began a pilgrimage to some local holy places, hoping to skirt the dreaded “exclusion zone” near where the papal activities were to happen which required a pass through airport-style security to access.
Our first stop was Old St. Marys in Old City Philadelphia [http://www.oldstmary.com/]. This historic church has a rather plain brick façade, but is beautiful inside. I used to go there occasionally to say a Rosary when I worked in town. It was originally built in the 18th century and has numerous connections to the founding of the republic. Unfortunately, the church was closed this day, so we just took a moment to read the historical markers outside, including a tribute to Irish Catholic Commodore John Barry, first commander of the US navy, who is buried in the grave yard behind the church.
The oldest church in Philly was our next stop – Old St. Joseph’s [http://oldstjoseph.org/]. This one was originally built in 1733 during the time when Catholicism was banned in most of the American colonies and tolerated only in Quaker Pennsylvania--and barely there. When I worked in town, I used to attend Mass at Old St. Josephs on holy days and took an occasional trip there to make use of the confessional. It is run by the Jesuits now as it has been throughout its history. The church itself is in a remarkable state of preservation, with a stunning Romanesque altar and marble rail, which is a tribute to its Jesuit caretakers. To their discredit were the occasional bizarre calls for “women priests” that used to appear on the bulletin board over the years. None of that was in evidence this day, thankfully.
Next on the tour was Old Saint Augustine’s, another Philly church with a long and storied history [http://www.st-augustinechurch.com/]. Originally constructed in 1798, the church featured the “Sister Bell” of the famed Liberty Bell in its steeple—a bell which first hung in Independence Hall but was given to St. Augustine’s in 1830. The original church was set ablaze and completely destroyed by Know Nothing anti-Catholics in 1844. The Sister Bell fell from the tower and was destroyed—later to be recast and enshrined at Villanova University outside of Philly [https://americanbell.org/sister-liberty-bell-at-villanova-university-villanove-pennsylvania/]. The magnificent interior of the church will be immediately familiar to fans of M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense. Aside from the movie, I had never experienced the inside before, and was stunned at the gloriously beautiful stained glass and the larger-than-life paintings illustrating the life of Saint Augustine that lined the walls above the balcony. Above the high altar are the words, “The Lord Seeth” – a stark and useful reminder for us this day and every day. Numerous pilgrims were in evidence both inside and outside the church, most of them young folks.
Our final stop before running the security gauntlet was the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, whose huge gold dome is a fixture in the skyline to the immediate north of Center City Philadelphia [http://ukrcathedral.com/]. Though somewhat off the beaten track, the Cathedral was well worth the walk. When we arrived, the vast interior was filled with pilgrims from the Philippines. Aside from the glittering iconostasis with a majestic mosaic of Our Lady and the Christ Child above, the main object of interest was a life-sized reproduction of the Shroud of Turin which was on display. After praying before the image, we retired to the hall next-door which advertised “Pyrohy for sale.” As we were all feeling a little hollow from the walk, this turned out to be quite fortuitous.
From there, it was on to the dreaded security barrier. The “line” was simply a mass of people. Fortunately, since most were good pilgrims anxious to see the Holy Father, line etiquette was observed even though the instructions received from the various security personnel on site were confused at best. It took us about half-an-hour to get through – which I’m told is a cake-walk compared to what others endured the following day where 3-4 hour waits were the rule.
Once through security, the atmosphere was oddly non-religious, not especially Catholic. The number of locals hawking pope-related merchandise – shirts, buttons, pictures, etc. – was amusing and completely expected. To a man, they were friendly and obviously having a very good time. We obliged by purchasing a few Vatican flags which now festoon our front garden. One particular merchant tried to get us to purchase a “Sanders for President” button, but we were no more likely to buy one of those than the “Jed [sic] Bush for President” buttons that were also featured on his cart. While one might object to the commercialization of the event by the small vendors, I didn’t have a problem with it. It seemed like subsidiarity in action.
The presence of several dozen Jumbotrons throughout the city was a little more obnoxious. This was particularly the case when Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, was given the podium immediately prior to the Holy Father’s speech at Independence Hall. It should be remembered that Mr. Nutter is an advocate of both abortion on demand and a promoter of all things “gay”, and he did not miss this opportunity to remind faithful Catholics that “our lesbian, gay, and bisexual citizens continue to fight for equality.” Nutter made several more comments about the “LGBT community” in his talk which at best showed a crass lack of respect for his audience as well as his guest of honor.
If the Holy Father understood or felt any dismay at this misuse of the podium, he did not bother to comment on it. I, for one, was unsurprised. Mr. Nutter and I are graduates of the same Jesuit high school. His speech was a good representation of the sort of worldly, politicized heterodox Catholicism I experienced at this elite school that has borne so little good fruit for the Church.
Adding to the largely secular atmosphere was the background music which alternated between general Latin American rhythm section and secular pop-culture anthems (eg., Can You Feel the Love Tonight). Religious songs of the Contemporary Christian variety were also on the playlist. Comic Jim Gaffigan did an awkward and embarrassingly out-of-place set that included a reference to Philly fans throwing snowballs at Santa Claus. Unsurprisingly, he was lustily booed. This is Philadelphia after all.
My daughter and I largely ignored all of this and headed for the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. Outside was an odd-looking shrine that appeared vaguely like a huge, white sea anemone. A helpful lady told us that it was dedicated to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots and encouraged us to add our own prayer intentions, which we did. We poked into the Cathedral quickly after that but, as Mass was about to begin, we ducked out again to secure a good location along the parkway for the Papal drive-by which was supposed to happen any minute. In our haste, we missed out on seeing the wedding dress worn by St. Gianna Molla which was on display inside the cathedral. A few of my friends managed to get photos with St. Gianna’s daughter who was on location in Philadelphia all week.
It turns out that we had plenty of time to go to Mass after all. We found a good spot along the barricades and a half-hour went by. Then an hour. By the time ninety minutes had gone by, people were reduced to cheering for the mounted police and trash carts. The next half-hour passed quickly as I was privileged to find myself next to Ave Maria Radio host, Coleen Kelly Mast and her husband, Kent, who were very amiable and happy to chat. When the Pope finally rode by, I hoisted my daughter up on my shoulders so she could see over the crowd—no mean feat, considering she’s 12—and she was able to get some decent video of the event.
I am not one for crowds. I despise cults of personality, particularly religious ones. But seeing the Pope—any pope—in person a mere 20 feet away was an experience I won’t soon forget. The video we captured of Pope Francis as he rode by at about 15 mph includes some soccer-style chanting from our nearby Latin American friends and some self-deprecating humor from Kent Mast who said, “Did you hear? He said my name! Something about ‘big sinner.’”
My daughter and I beat a hasty retreat after the Papal appearance. Without tickets, we knew we couldn’t get any closer to the stage where the rest of the evening’s entertainment was to take place, so we made a brief trek to the inner-city monastery of the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters—casually referred to by many as the Pink Sisters [http://adorationsisters.org/our-chapel/]. We had heard that the adoration chapel would be open for pilgrims, but when we arrived, everything was locked up tight for the evening. Though we were disappointed, the walk did afford us the opportunity to hear the musical highlight of the evening: Andrea Bocelli’s soaring rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer”. Bocelli clearly delighted the Holy Father who greeted him warmly afterwards, and his live performance was only a few clicks less brilliant than the classic rendition by Mario Lanza [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QjY3POqdTeg].
Our walk back to the train station was long but delightful. We enjoyed strolling down the middle of Broad Street – an activity that would get you killed on a normal night. But the surly attitude of Philly drivers and aggressive pedestrians were not in evidence this night. They were replaced by a magical feeling of benign camaraderie that rarely exists in Philadelphia. Even though it seemed most of the people in the street were not Catholic, there was an unmistakable sense of good will toward this Pope which one can only hope will result in many seeking out the beauty and truth of the Catholic Faith which he represents. Given the 60-second attention span of most folks today, one can only pray that this good feeling will be more than ephemeral. It will be up to Francis to lead this varied and confused throng in the right direction with clear and fearless expositions of Catholic teaching, particularly during the synod on the family this month.
Though I have been critical of Pope Francis on occasion, upon seeing him up-close, I felt empathy for the man. I reflected on his motto: “Miserando atque Eligendo” – Lowly but Chosen – and he really did seem to be quite a humble fellow. He moves slowly. His words come slowly and at times, his tone reminded me of St. John Paul II’s voice when it was partially strangled by Parkinson’s. He is an elderly gentleman who could be enjoying his retirement years in Buenos Aires, and who seems to struggle sometimes with the grave responsibility on his shoulders.
I often have lamented Francis’s vague and sometimes careless speech. In this trip to the US, the frustrating vagueness was occasionally in evidence. This was lamentably true in his tepid address to Congress where he had an opportunity to hit a home run before that august body, but grounded weakly into a fielder’s choice. That said, I did notice a greater care and attention to his words on this trip. He gave the Culture of Death very little to work with in terms of twisting his words to suit their purposes.
At times, the Pope’s words were truly transcendent, as when he said: “All that is beautiful leads us to God. Because God is good. God is beautiful. God is true.” These words came out during his unscripted remarks in Philadelphia on Saturday night. They were followed the next day during his homily at the Papal Mass:
“How many of us are here at this celebration! This is itself something prophetic, a kind of miracle in today’s world. Would that we could all be prophets! Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love for the sake of all the families of the world, and thus overcome the scandal of a narrow, petty love, closed in on itself, impatient of others!”
And what is the “narrow, petty love, closed in on itself, impatient of others?” The Holy Father went on: “We renew our faith in the word of the Lord which invites faithful families to this openness. It invites all those who want to share the prophecy of the covenant of man and woman, which generates life and reveals God!”
He is most certainly not referring to an openness to the kind of disordered, grotesque mockery of love that Mayor Nutter championed at Independence Hall. Pope Francis, instead, triumphantly proclaimed the love of a married man and woman which produces children. Shockingly, in our hideously corrupt culture, this has become the love that dare not speak its name.
Pope Francis also returned fire at Barack Obama when he said at Independence Hall: “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
Interestingly enough, the Holy Father saved some of his best material for the flight home. Perhaps this is an indication of his reaction to what he had seen during his American visit. On the topic of priestly sex abuse Pope Francis said: “We know the abuses are everywhere; in families, in the neighborhoods, in the schools, in the gyms, but when a priest abuses it is very serious because the vocation of the priest is to make that boy, that girl grow toward the love of God, toward maturity and toward good, but instead of that they squashed them and this is nearly a sacrilege. He betrayed his vocation, the calling of the Lord.”
On the topic of divorce, he offered some of his clearest statements yet regarding the recent motu proprio on annulment: “This document, this ‘motu proprio’ facilitates the processes and the timing, but it is not divorce because marriage is indissoluble when it is a sacrament. And this the Church cannot change. It's doctrine. It’s an indissoluble sacrament.”
And on one annoying recurring topic, he couldn’t have been more clear: “On women priests, that cannot be done.”
And then, we have Francis’s not-so secret meeting with Mrs. Kim Davis which unleashed a torrent of white hot abuse at the Holy Father from his erstwhile allies on the religious left. Those who demand not to be judged by others are unsurprisingly the harshest judges of all.
But from my point of view, perhaps the most promising statement I heard from Pope Francis during his trip came out during his return-flight interview. When asked his reaction to his “star” status in the United States, the Holy Father responded in a way that seemed to indicate an awareness that his cult was a mile wide and an inch deep among many, subject to being dispelled at a moment’s notice:
“The Pope must…Do you know what the title was of the Pope, which ought to be used? Servant of the servants of God. It’s a little different from the stars. Stars are beautiful to look at. I like to look at them in the summer when the sky is clear. But the Pope must be, must be the servant of the servants of God. Yes, in the media this is happening but there’s another truth. How many stars have we seen that go out and fall? It is a fleeting thing. On the other hand, being servant of the servants of God is something that doesn’t pass."
If nothing else, the Pope’s visit gave me a renewed sense of hope, along with a strong inclination to pray for him even more. Considering the tremendous responsibility he bears before Almighty God—when a few incautious words could potentially lead millions of souls to perdition—the next month should tell us much about whether he will have the courage to buck the incessant demands of the world and those worldly prelates in his inner circle. May Jesus protect him. May the Holy Spirit guide him. May Our Lady pray for him!