PHILADELPHIA — Pope Francis touched down Saturday morning in America’s birthplace of liberty, a city on lockdown to greet the 78-year-old pontiff on the final leg of his historic first visit to the United States.
The pope’s American Airlines charter plane, dubbed Shepherd One, arrived at Philadelphia International Airport just before 9:50 a.m. to cheers from the small group of people waiting amid tight security. He smiled, waved, stiffly descended the steps and plunged into an assembled group of dignitaries that included local church officials and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter.
But the pope reserved his greatest affection for the young and the afflicted. He hugged 8-year-old Gabrielle Bowes, daughter of former Philadelphia police officer Richard Bowes, after she presented him with a bouquet of white flowers. Bowes was shot and injured in the line of duty in 2008.
As the pope’s car was leaving, he stopped, got out and greeted a group of people craning to see him behind a security barrier. Among them was Michael Keating, 10, who was in a wheelchair. His mother cried as the Holy Father greeted her son.
The pope’s motorcade then slowly drove toward the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, where he was scheduled to celebrate Mass. Relatively few people lined the streets, which were guarded by a mass of city police, suburban police, the National Guard and federal agents — who earlier in the morning had outnumbered the pilgrims waiting to see the pontiff.
In a deeply Catholic region — the Philadelphia Archdiocese estimates more than a third of the area’s 4 million residents are parishioners — the pope was expected to draw huge crowds.
Francis arrived at the Basilica at 10:15 a.m. to screams from his many fans lined up outside. Amid loud cheers, he waved and then walked inside.
“I got him!” announced Annette McGovern 56, using her thumb and finger to expand her iPhone shot of the pope entering the basilica door. Everyone outside the basilica was comparing shots, hoping to find between the craning heads and upheld cellphones a digital image of a distant figure in a white robe.
During his homily at the crowded Mass, the pope sought to energize the faithful, making particular note of the nuns and other women in attendance.
“We know that the future of the church in a rapidly changing society will call, and even now calls, for a much more active engagement on the part of the laity,’’ he told parishioners in Spanish, with an immediate English translation.
“Our challenge today,” Francis said, “is to build on those solid foundations and to foster a sense of collaboration and shared responsibility in planning for the future of our parishes and institutions.’’
Yet not everyone shared in the joy of the pope’s presence. “Francis: abuse victims forgotten,’’ read a placard outside the basilica. It was stenciled by Robert Hoatson, a 63-year-old former priest whose group, Road to Recovery, works with victims of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and who says he is a victim himself.
Hoatson, who lives in West Orange, N.J., said he followed the pope to Washington, New York and now Philadelphia with his message of holding the church “accountable” for the scandal.
It is not clear whether Francis will meet with survivors before he leaves for Rome Sunday. Earlier this week at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in the District, he praised the “courage” and pain” of U.S. bishops in dealing with the scandal. That prompted rebukes from some victims’ advocates, who criticized the pope for offering comfort and symphathy to the bishops, while saying little to address the suffering of clergy sex abuse survivors.
But others found inspiration in the pope’s humble Fiat, open manner and self-effacing requests to “pray for me.”
Maureen Hood said she was a lapsed Catholic who had nearly given up on the church.
“I had one foot out the door, with all the scandals, the hypocrisy, the pomp and circumstance,” said Hood, 42. who traveled to Philadelphia from her New York home with her husband and four adolescent children.
But Pope Francis, she said, has reinvigorated her faith: “I stayed because of him.’’
Her daughter Madeline, 11, put her feelings simply. “He makes me feel proud to be a Catholic,” she said.
Over his two days in the City of Brotherly Love, the pope will celebrate two Masses, deliver a speech on religious liberty at Independence Hall, participate in two papal parades, and be serenaded by Aretha Franklin and Andrea Bocelli at a festival to cap the church’s World Meeting of Families, which began Tuesday.
Philadelphians who griped over the many inconveniences of hosting Francis have fled the city or settled in to watch the scenes unfolding on their doorsteps from the comfort of their sofas. On Saturday morning, the city’s streets began to swell with a chorus of more positive voices. Popetimism, some are calling it.
“Hallelujah,” chorused a group of 45 in matching blue T-shirts from St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Asheboro, N.C. They chanted and sang in Spanish, swaying and stamping in a circle and clapping hands both to warm against the morning chill and in anticipation of the shared blessing the pope’s visit will bestow on them.
“Go and tell my brothers,” they sang. “Give the good news. . . . Go and make disciples of all the nations.”
Luis Martin Olvera, a businessman and tourist from Mexico, brought his wife and two of their four children to Philadelphia this week to participate in the pope’s visit and take in some of the city’s cultural and historic sites.
“The pope is our guide and pastor. He has moved something in our hearts,” Olvera said as the family made their way through a maze of metal security chutes. Their 6-year-old son carried a large Mexican flag.
To handle a projected 1.5 million visitors at multiple public events, potentially doubling the city’s population, Philadelphia has had to double-down on security to comply with Secret Service directives, resulting in the sort of disruption that makes the annual Labor Day, Beyoncé-blessed Made in America festival (a mere 70,000 attendees) and next summer’s Democratic National Convention resemble family picnics.
The city has hosted outsize music events such as Live Aid and Live 8, championship parades (though, sadly for Philadelphians, never for a much-longed-for Super Bowl triumph) and even the prior 1979 papal visit of John Paul II. But residents cannot recall such a magnitude of planning, advance ticketing and closures in modern memory, all part of the necessary precautions in a post-9/11 world.
Major highways, arteries and the pale-blue Ben Franklin Bridge spanning the Delaware River to New Jersey? Closed. Plus, the creation of a dreaded “traffic box” in Center City and parts of West Philadelphia, a 3-square-mile area closed to most incoming vehicles.
Public transportation? Curtailed. Parking? Hah! The Philadelphia Parking Authority towed more than 300 vehicles to clear curbs for necessary travel.
Public schools? Closed for a six-day weekend due to Yom Kippur and the papal visit.
Elective and non-emergency surgery at area hospitals? Rescheduled.
Major museums along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the site of the World Meeting of Families festival, the pope’s Saturday Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and a giant open-air Mass on Sunday? Closed. Many businesses? Closed, or advising employees to work from home.
Want to complain to City Hall? Try again. The municipal behemoth, located on the papal parade route, closed Thursday morning and won’t reopen until Tuesday morning. City courts closed Wednesday through Tuesday. The papal visit will stop mail couriers from their appointed rounds Saturday in Center City Zip codes.
Even the Liberty Bell, the nation’s fractured symbol of freedom? Closed on Saturday when Pope Francis gives a public address at nearby Independence Hall.
“It would have been nice if the Secret Service had put more emphasis on ‘service’ rather than ‘secret,’ ” said Charles McMahon, artistic director of the Lantern Theater, who struggled to get information to figure out whether or not to raise the curtain this weekend. He won’t, nor will the Walnut Street Theatre, the city’s largest.
While Washington and New York, Pope Francis’s previous stops, routinely host world leaders, Philadelphia has rarely experienced anything like this. The World Meeting of Families, the reason for the papal visit, anticipated 17,500 delegates from more than 100 countries but registered more than 20,000, making it the organization’s largest congress to date.
Free tickets offering a closer view of the pontiff were distributed to Catholic parishes, priests and nuns, and to the general public via lottery, so many that the first three blocks of the parkway closest to the Philadelphia Museum of Art will be closed off even on Saturday night when Franklin plans to sing “Amazing Grace” for Pope Francis and duet with Italian tenor Bocelli.
When the 800 nuns of the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary were offered 65 tickets between them, the only fair thing to do was a lottery. That’s how Sister Margaret Gradl came to the Basilica on Saturday morning, to hear the pope celebrate Mass.
“I’m just thrilled to be here,” she said, “Especially with this pope.”
Sister Margaret and 64 other nuns from her congregation were there, sitting to the side of the Cathedral, near where confession was heard, two hours before Pope Francis was schwould arrive.
Sister Margaret has seen every Pope since Paul VI, she said. “This pope has an aura of love, and compassion, and understanding,” she said. “Of course, they all had those qualities. It just exudes from him.”
The relationship between American women religious and the Vatican was tense for years, but has thawed a little recently, after the closure of two investigations into the orthodoxy of America’s nuns.
Margaret hopes that Pope Francis’s message will connect to young Catholics looking for a closer relationship to the church — and maybe a vocation as a nun.
“We’re all old!” she said. “We need replacements.”
Around her, the city has been transformed for the pope’s visit, with de-potholed streets, a panoply of Francis banners (“Have the courage to be truly happy”), dusty parkway fields sprayed with green dye, and the widely photographed arrival of 3,300 papal port-a-potties (many belonging to Royal Flush).
The city is hosting a giant Lego Vatican at the Franklin Institute, a pope-up beer garden, and papal-inspired Philadelphia comestibles: cross-shaped soft pretzels, Francis-sculpted mozzarella and, in honor of the pontiff’s Argentina homeland, chimichurri cheesesteaks.
But many projected windfalls — sold-out hotels, restaurant reservations, jacked-up apartment rentals — have failed to materialize. The majority of the visiting pilgrims have proved more modest in their expenditures and their accommodations (church floors, guest rooms with other families, padded mats in fitness clubs, even the Philadelphia Zoo), in keeping with this pope’s humble character.
The planned Francis Fields campground, a two-mile walk from the parkway in sprawling Fairmount Park, which was to accommodate up to 16,000 pilgrims, announced Sept. 11 that it would not open “due to limited sales.” Its princely fees of $199 a head with an additional $99 to pitch a tent (or $999 for an RV with a total of four passengers) clearly caused some of the pious to pause about lodging under the stars.
Real estate agent Julie Welker, based near the parkway, said that interest in renting out rooms or entire houses was so great in the spring that she ran a series of seminars for local home owners, including tips on liability insurance should (heaven forbid!) anything go wrong. Philadelphians were giddy about the potential for making “pope money,” with swollen rents funding vacations far from the swelling crowds.
But a boom in papal payouts was not to be. On Wednesday, Welker said she could count on one hand the number of consummated deals that she has heard about. There were plenty of weekend rentals available on Airbnb.
The visit is officially expected to cost the city of Philadelphia $12 million, which Mayor Michael Nutter (D) said would be repaid by the World Meeting of Families. (The contract also stipulates the protection of 22 public parkway sculptures, including Rodin’s “The Thinker” and Stallone’s more visceral “Rocky.”)
In the many months leading up to Pope Francis’s arrival, with blanket news coverage of added safety measures for a designated “National Security Special Event,” Philadelphians have greeted the weekend with a mixture of excitement, awe, anxiety and dread.
For all the pilgrims flocking to Center City, many residents plan to migrate in the opposite direction, determined to escape what has become known on Twitter as #popeapocalypse and #popeaggedon, the Philly end of days.
“Everyone I know is planning to stay away,” said McMahon, “leading to the likely event that there will be a million or so tourists in Philadelphia for the weekend with nowhere to eat, no way to get around, and nothing to do after they watch the pope on a TV screen from half a mile away. At this point, a million bladders will simultaneously fail, and our shame will be complete.”
Josh and Christine Polman are expecting their second child Oct. 7, scheduled to be delivered at Pennsylvania Hospital, which is inside the restricted traffic box. Their first child, Miles, was 10 days early. If this happens again, they’ve been encouraged to find another hospital.
“It’s one of those situations where you can’t exactly plan,” said Polman, who works on product development for Comcast and was working from home Thursday and Friday. “We’ve been laughing about this for a couple of months. We’ll just have to make a game plan.”
In Philadelphia, where complaining is perceived as professional sport — beginning with carping about the four hapless professional sports teams — anticipatory grousing has been matched by civic boosterism. (The desultory 0-2 Eagles will not be preempted by the papal visit and will play the Jets on Sunday afternoon in New Jersey. The tabloid Philadelphia Daily News used its cover Monday to ask Francis for some divine intervention on behalf of the home-town team.)
Frank Bonom, manager of the Philadelphian, a 21-story, 776-unit condo building overlooking Eakins Oval and the parkway, is balancing an influx of sightseeing visitors with an exodus of residents. He learned only late last week that residents who want to remove vehicles from the building garage must do so not by 6 p.m. Friday, as they had originally been told, but by 10 p.m. Thursday. That caused an uproar among those who had planned to flee the papal festivities and now needed to leave a day earlier.
Papal visit organizers, Bonom said, “just don’t want to miss any inconvenience.”
Many Philadelphians are resolving after months of changing plans to expect the unexpected. When the pope visits, things move in mysterious ways.
Pope Francis is scheduled to leave Philadelphia at 8 p.m. Sunday for Rome. But the aftermath of his historic visit will linger, with schools and many businesses still closed Monday. As of midweek, the mayor’s press office could not say exactly when traffic-box restrictions will be lifted. It will be late Sunday to early Monday, the mayor’s spokesman said, “related to when the crowds thin out.”
Julie Zauzmer, Michelle Boorstein, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, Joe Heim, Terrence McCoy, Pam Constable, Arelis Hernandez, Jake Blumgart and Emily Guendelsberger contributed to this report.