Last week, I was in Brooklyn, New York, and I got into a conversation with an employee of the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority about Pope Francis' upcoming visit to the United States. I was incredulous when he asked, "When is he coming to New York? Is he coming to Philly first and then going to New York, or is it the other way around?"
Sept. 16, 2015 - Vatican City, Vatican - Pope Francis greets the faithful as he attends Weekly General Audience in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City. Pope Francis appealed for prayers for his Apostolic Voyage to Cuba and to the United States, which begins on Saturday. (Credit Image: © Giuseppe Ciccia/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire)
I was incredulous, because if you live, work or regularly travel through Center City Philadelphia, you can't help but know that the Pope will be here September 26-7, as part of the World Meeting of Families conference. It's been the major topic of conversation for months, from the Mayor's office on down, primarily because of the extraordinary security arrangements that will lead to major street and highway closures and spectacular disruptions to mass transit schedules.
The city is expecting something like a million Catholic pilgrims and local parishoners for the five-day confab beginning on the 22nd, and culminating with a Papal mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Non-Philadelphians will likely know that spot as the home of the Philadelphia Art Museum, where the fictional Rocky Balboa jumped and shadowboxed as he prepared for his climactic fight against Apollo Creed). Off-screen, it's where secular luminaries such as Beyonce perform for throngs of adoring fans. or where marathoners and walkathoners race to fundraise for worthy causes.
All of that is to say that we are pretty accustomed to crowds and security restrictions when celebrities come to town. We've even hosted a Pope before, back in 1979. This is something else.
Those of us who live in the area are being told to either get out of town or stock up and plan to stay put all week because of the extraordinary security restrictions that will be in place. (The news site Philly.com has handy interactive maps that show how the restrictions will work.) Security measures include barriers around the areas where the Pope will be, closing off some streets to car traffic and prohibiting parking in much of the downtown area, shutting down major highways and bridges, and rerouting mass transit. In fact, regional rail passengers won't even be allowed on the trains with special Papal passes, and the lines will only run from certain suburban stops into the city.
My neighborhood has several corporate offices (including Comcast's headquarters) and high-rise apartments largely populated with senior citizens and students. Comcast is running this celebration of Rome on the massive video wall in its lobby. City offices, local universities and a number of businesses will be closed from Wednesday on. Fortunately, we have been assured that emergency medical services and at least some of our neighborhood shops will be open.
This TV news report from last month captures some of the local reaction:
My church, Arch Street Presbyterian, will hold its Sunday service online on the 27th, since most members won't be able to get downtown.
I plan to blog local reaction as the proceedings commence. There will be plenty of media of course, and event organizers have a free app to help visitors and spectators get around and understand what's being said.
About 40 staffers from the city's flagship daily papers, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News are supposed to be on site, but we will have to see how that works out because there is a dispute between the union representing the editorial staff and the corporate owners over where those staffers will be staying. According to this article in the Philadelphia Business Journal, the employee union alleges that managers for the Philadelphia Media Network expect employees to sleep on $700 air mattresses in their offices, instead of staying in hotels. PMN brass denies this charge. I'm left with two questions: 1. Considering that you've been covering this for 10 months, why haven't you booked a bloc of hotel rooms before now? and 2. What kind of air mattress costs $700? Of course, arguments between PMN and its unions are nothing new. I imagine they will work something out.
The World Meeting of Families website says the purpose of the triennial conference is to "strengthen bonds between families and to witness to the crucial importance of marriage and the family to all of society." In addition to the public mass, Pope Francis will give a speech on immigration and religious freedom at Independence Mall, and hold private meetings with seminarians and local prisoners and celebrate a private mass. I'm sure, at some point, we and our local media will get around to actually thinking about the substantive ideas and values that the the Pope and the conference organizers are trying to advance. But for the moment, all we locals can think about is how we are going to deal with the crazy-making logistics.
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