I arrived at Philadelphia with my parents and some adults from our church. As soon as I stepped off of the train, I was met with a breathtaking sight. Hundreds of people – nuns, pastors, and even the occasional high schoolers – walked together. Vendors waved pope shirts, flags, and buttons while nearby buildings stood silent. I was stunned to see few cars in a normally bustling city. Whipping out my iPad, I snapped pictures every 10 seconds and made sure to capture even the dullest moment. In an environment so quiet yet so vibrant, we were like tourists visiting an abandoned city in a post-apocalyptic time.
We walked for several hours, stopping now and then to eat and take in our surroundings. At the security checkpoints, I saw a winding line of people seeping their way through. I peered at nearby containers to find masses of unopened water bottles and fruit. Security officers required visitors to dispense anything that could be used to conceal weapons or cause injury. To my frustration, our church group was forced to toss bags of perfectly good bananas. In order to waste as little food as possible, we hurriedly gobbled up the bananas and passed bunches to the strangers behind us. We never knew each others’ names, but we felt an underlying sense of solidarity whilst we choked on the oblong masses together.
Before we left, I asked a security officer if any of the unopened food would be donated. He shook his head.
Several hours later, we arrived at the VIP area of Independence Hall. We sat comfortably – others in the regular area had to stand – and continued to wait. Father Bruce, a priest familiar to our church, greeted the crowd and introduced numerous preliminary acts. Musicians from distinct cultures danced and sang, and guest speakers shared stories of hardship and determination. Soon enough, the pope arrived at the city. We watched video screens with bated breath as His Holiness slowly made his way around, kissing babies and waving to the enthusiastic onlookers. Distant cheering from my left gradually traveled around and back again, subtly marking his location until he stepped up to the podium.
The Pope himself spoke Spanish, but the monitors to our sides translated his words with only a few seconds of delay. The main subjects he addressed were immigration and freedom of religion. Seeking to reenergize the Catholic community, His Holiness encouraged the expression of beliefs and warned against the negative use of religion.
“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,”
He also mentioned the importance of immigration. In a land founded/taken over by immigrants, we should celebrate our heritage and feel valued as Americans, he said. As a result, many Latinx and other audience members of color cheered especially loudly at his words. The speech lasted long, but the prevailing image that clouded my thoughts – Francis and Bernie Sanders beating up Donald Trump – kept me from dozing off. Before I knew it, the man in white had left and the crowd dissipated.
The Saturday was long, arduous, and foot-murdering, but the visit was worth it. Not only did I see and hear the Pope in person, but I also felt unified with the rest of my Catholic folks. Although I don’t align completely with His Holiness’ ideology, his speech made me feel proud to be religious and gave me faith for our country’s future.