PHILADELPHIA — For 14 miles we carried our heavy backpacks, then trekked extra miles in quest of fresh water. When it was time to rest, we pried rocks from the ground to make room for a tent.
No, that was NOT our trip to see the pope this weekend, despite what you may have heard about traveling to Philadelphia being difficult.
The backpacking trip was LAST weekend’s adventure on the Appalachian Trail.
Hiking along a mountain ridge, surrounded by fresh air and trees, soaring hawks and few people, you can’t help but feel close to God. When you’re in a really spiritual mood, Mary Therese says, every step can feel like a prayer, especially if you’re climbing up hill. It almost feels as if you’re edging closer to heaven.
This Sunday morning, we set out on a very different kind of adventure.
Instead of the solitude of the woods, with only our brother/brother-in-law Jay for human companionship (that’s our subtle way of letting readers know Mark and Mary Therese are married), we’d be surrounded by tens of thousands of people eager to see and hear the pope — and no doubt feel some solidarity with fellow Catholics.
“Let the readers know you’re lifelong Catholics,” news editor Dan Burnett said.
OK, Mark is a former altar boy. In fact his mom cherishes a photograph of her five oldest sons (big Catholic family, get it?) all dressed in their acolyte outfits. Mary Therese sings in her church choir, which is where she learned there were two cancellations on one of the 54 buses the Diocese of Scranton had chartered for an estimated 2,800 pilgrims.
It looked like the Holy Spirit wanted two Times Leader folks to be in Philadelphia after all.
OK, getting here: Bus, no problem. SEPTA ride, no problem.
Waiting to go through a security checkpoint — uh- oh, slow to a halt.
A splinter of our bus group was stuck for two hours near the intersection of Cuthbert and Nineteenth streets, but it was a good place to meet women from Venezuela who had fashioned homemade dresses from fabric stamped with images of Notre Dame de Lourdes and other saints. There were men sporting monk’s robes and dreadlocks, too, and children riding scooters, baby strollers or their parents’ shoulders.
“It’s nice to see so many cultures coming together,” said Kathie Bobb, a Eucharistic minister from Our Lady Of Mt. Carmel Church in Lake Silkworth.”
“This pope really is about going out into the world,” said Brother Nathaniel Gregor, 20, a seminarian from Connecticut. “I’m hoping to have that fire kindled in me even more (as a result of the visit.) I’m hoping that for everyone.”
Already, a kind of energy seemed rekindled in a group of teen-age pilgrims who danced in the street.
“We could dance with them,” Bobb said. But there was little room for dancing, and the tightly packed group had made so little progress — maybe 20 feet in two hours, people began to abandon the line to seek a more distant Jumbotron.
A national guardsman, shouting hoarsely, confirmed that idea. The checkpoint was closed, saturated.
Volunteer Christian Henningsen gave directions and told us his wife was somewhere close to the altar while he was out “with the great unwashed.”
Yes, it felt a bit like that as we watched the “mass for shut-outs” on a Jumbotron, but no one seemed upset, no one complained. Maybe as Brother Nathaniel had said, the spirit had been kindled. And inspired by our humble pope, we might as well be humble.
Staying beyond the official security zone may have offered opportunities not found closer to the pope. As people waited for the Mass to start, several protesters raised signs saying the pope was the anti-Christ. A woman trying to cross the street paused for passers-by to photograph her small pooch dressed in a robe and papal miter.
Vendors sold gelato just a few feet from City Hall, as well as hot dogs, beer, pretzels and memorabilia across the street. A walk behind the giant screen disclosed thousands of bottles of water still stacked on shipping pallets and wrapped in swaths of plastic. Children frolicked in a splash pad that shot streams straight up to their little hands.
Two reporters sat filing their story on a screen barely visible in the glare, exquisite music filled the square, and when people shared the “sign of peace,” many showed a shared warmth and sincerity hard to find in a lesser venue.
When a stranger grasps your hand and smiles as if you’re a long-lost friend, that just might be even better than the solitude of the woods.
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMTReach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish
HOW WE GOT THERE
Thanks to some last-minute bus cancellations, reporters Mark Guydish, who is a former altar boy, and Mary Therese Biebel, who sings with the choir at St. Nicholas Church in Wilkes-Barre, learned they would be able to attend Sunday’s Papal Mass in Philadelphia after all, joining an estimated 2,800 pilgrims riding some 54 buses chartered by the Diocese of Scranton.