When I went to Rome in 2008, I managed to attend a General Audience with the Holy Father, at that time Pope Benedict XVI. It was a one in a lifetime chance to pray with and receive blessings from the Holy Father, or so I thought. I barely saw him. He was a white speck in the distance but I felt the serene presence.
This weekend though, I was blessed to not only see Pope Francis twice and up-close but also to celebrate Mass with him. I crowded onto the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia with thousands of people and it was such a thrill. The Pope in his homily called on us to perform “little gestures of tenderness” and I couldn’t help but think of two events that occurred that Sunday. One was that a family nearby offered us (a colleague, her sister, and I) a blanket to sit on so we didn’t have to sit directly on the dusty earth when the Mass begun. That was a “little gesture of tenderness”. The second was a group of nuns & novices who voiced anger when someone walked up past the “wall” of Wawa cases of water they had constructed to ensure people stayed behind them while we waited for the Pope to pass by. I was not impressed.
Overall it was such a powerful and uplifting experience. Praying with thousands of people did light up a feeling of spirituality in me. Sharing in the sacrament, the presence of Christ, brought to us by hundreds of priests led under white and yellow Vatican umbrellas was incredible. Sharing the sign of peace with so many people was just so peaceful, and having that experience, with Pope Francis’ smile and humility to go along was just the best. I won’t lie, I do like Pope Francis. I love how he has been able to bring such diverse people, people who are not even of the Catholic faith, together in peace and good-will, and to bring those of us who consider ourselves Christians that much closer to Jesus Christ.
In terms of the logistics itself, I did not experience any nightmares. I came into Philadelphia Saturday morning and stayed with a friend who luckily lived just steps away from the Art Museum in front of which both the Papal Concert and the Papal Mass were held Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon respectively. Security at that checkpoint was such a breeze on both days, I couldn’t have planned it any better. Honestly, at 11am on Sunday, I was still cozy in bed and just an hour later I had the coveted “1” written on my pass to allow me re-entry into the front section of the crowds. It was an insane number of people and it did sadden me to hear later on that some had to wait hours at other security checkpoints.
What was strange though was the militarization of Philadelphia. I felt as if I was on the set of a zombie or apocalypse movie. Barricades everywhere guarded by the National Guard. Hordes of police including the NYPD, FBI agents, state troopers all over the place. Even snipers on the roofs of apartment complexes. That was surreal.
I had dinner in Chinatown with a group of friends Sunday night as we were unable to get a table in Center City like we wanted to. Later, one asked “So what is so special about having Mass delivered by the Pope?” It was a very interesting question. Can one have Mass if there is no priest around? And why would Mass with the Pope be more special than Mass with a priest? And what’s so special about Mass in the first place?
I recalled my trip to Rome again and remembered that the main highlight was the Scavi Tour. It’s a rare opportunity that allows one access to the Vatican’s necropolis right under Saint Peter’s Basilica. Furthermore, it allows access to the final resting place of St. Peter, one of the twelve Apostles upon whom the Church of Christ was built ie. Saint Peter’s Basilica, the surrounding Vatican and the Catholic faith. I didn’t realize any of this until that trip. But essentially, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus Christ says to Simon “And I tell you, you are Peter (Greek petros, petra, rock), and on this rock I will build by Church, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it”. Mass itself is built upon the Last Supper which is the basis of the Eucharist and as Jesus said “Do this in remembrance of me”. The elements of bread and wine that is part of the Eucharist can only be consecrated by a person of the cloth. So, in really simple terms Saint Peter would have been the first Pope and the celebration of Catholic mass, a sacred way to bring us closer to those timeless values of the teachings of Christ that seem to get lost in our daily preoccupations, so why not celebrate Catholic mass with the 266th Pope?