The air is crisp, the sky cloudy, but the ground is dry. It’s a perfect autumn morning. There’s a 0 percent chance of rain today and tomorrow, and an 80 percent predicted for Monday. Is it coincidence or divine intervention? I can’t say, but there is no way it’s going to rain on the pope.
Everyone planned to meet at the Newman Center at 8:30 a.m. There were a group of 45 West Chester University students making the pilgrimage into Philadelphia to attend the Festival of Families and, crossed fingers and folded hands, catch a glimpse of His Holiness.
Smiles stretched widely across my friends’ faces as we boarded the bus to Paoli Station, iced coffee in one hand and Septa Papal Pass in the other. We were beginning a very long, very special day.
We arrived at the train station and were helped by kind Septa workers with warm demeanors who checked our tickets and waved us through. “Please say hi to the pope for us!” a female employee exclaimed. “Sure thing,” I replied while laughing.
I was taken aback by the sea of black and white habits occupying the waiting area outside. Thirty sisters traveled from Nashville to see the pope and shared their excitement with a few girls from our group. It’s not every day you see a large group of young, vibrant sisters out together, and it was pleasing.
Getting into the city was a breeze, even with the big group we had. It seemed the media had blown it out of proportion, for which I was relieved. Some may credit the smoothness of travel to God. I would also have to mention the Septa employees, security and volunteers in playing a significant part as well.
We exited the train at 30th Street Station and were greeted by a long line of porta-potties and street vendors scattered and waiting for us to open our empty college pockets. After comparing prices and bargaining a little, I gave in and bought two small Vatican flags for a 2 for $5 steal.
It was a short walk to the security check-point. We approached and found a place in line. There were about five lanes to choose from and none were full. A couple from Idaho chatted with us for a short time. They couldn’t say enough about how wonderful their week had been in Philly and how excited they were to welcome the pontiff to town. Their cheerful grins were a comfort, and made me remember how lucky we are to live in such close proximity to the city.
Security moved quickly and before we knew it we were toward the front of the line being told to eat or throw away our apples and oranges. “Anything you can throw,” the secret service agent said, “Take everything out of your pockets, place your bag on the table, and turn all electronics on so we can check them, please.”
“Any flag poles also are not allowed in the designated area,” the volunteer yelled out to the crowd. I, reluctantly, tore my flags from their poles and handed them over to a security guard wearing a bullet-proof vest and a belt stuffed with guns and cuffs.
I didn’t mind that security checks were strict. It was for the well-being of everyone attending, and I felt guaranteed safety because of the major law enforcement around. Anything to keep this event secure, I told myself, patience and understanding.
The parkway was littered with people pressed against the gates that separated the sidewalk from the street in front of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, where Pope Francis was in the midst of finishing his homily at the invitation-only mass for priests and other orders.
The Logan Circle and Benjamin Franklin Parkway, however, were by no means over-crowded. It was quite comfortable in the city. When we did need to weave through crowds to keep up with the group, we were met mostly with nods of approval and forgiveness of bumping into the occasional shoulder.
We showed our passes to volunteers and entered the festival zone, where we found a nice, shaded area of steps to eat lunch and regroup on.
A young priest strolled over to our group and cracked a joke, “Hey, you guys, keep it down over here!” We chuckled. It was true. We were 45 students with our mouths stuffed of food. Little conversation was taking place.
The priest sat down close by and offered to hear confessions if anyone wished to attend. Many students took him up on the offer, and other priests followed in suit. Two more priests who seemed not to know each other spread themselves around the small area, and before we knew it, various lines were forming. Quiet conversations took place and sins were forgiven.
The group was finishing up lunch when Kathryn, a West Chester University student, suggested continuing a novena (a prayer series repeated over nine days) that a small group had begun together. We moved closer together, said our fifth day of the St. Therese Novena and prayed a rosary on the steps humbly and quietly amidst the commotion of the festival.
Throughout this time, the scent of roses overwhelmed us and it wasn’t until after closing the prayer, after the smell had vanished, that someonementioned the mysterious scent and everyone nodded in unison.
The morning blended into afternoon and the sun grew brighter. We agreed that the gates were getting increasingly more crowded, so we found a place to wait for Pope Francis’s parade. Besides, we didn’t arrive eight hours early to stand behind crowds. We were set on getting a first row view.
I picked up my bag and hung my camera around my neck as we made our rounds to discover some open space. It seemed impossible. The sun broke through the clouds and the temperature rose. We found ourselves in the middle of a storm of people shoulder to shoulder moving inch by inch. Our group walked into the wrong pocket of the parkway.
After what felt like forever, we made our way out of the congestion and found a gate that stretched 50 feet with no one around. It was too good to be true. We parked our bodies along the fence, marking our territory. Then, we waited. The pope wasn’t scheduled to come onto the parkway until after 7 p.m.
We passed the time by playing cards and talking to friendly strangers. Students took turns swapping spots to make bathroom and food runs.
Two hours later, loud drum noises boomed from the Jumbo-Tron as the pope walked out to the lectern from which many famous people have previously delivered speeches. He used his native Spanish language to speak on immigration and religious freedom. Unlike some of his earlier speeches in the U.S. in which he used english, Pope Francis’ speaking felt more natural and there was a visible and contagious passion in his eyes. The crowd roared and beamed at the overall glee.
The pope closed his speech with an “Our Father.” A soft, cool breeze and bowed heads led me to realize that I was praying along with thousands of others. Chills. Peace. A calm was shared in a fleeting moment that I hung onto for as long as it allowed me. Anticipation grew steadily. Now the pope was scheduled to head over to the parkway for the Festival of Families. It didn’t happen quickly. The waiting ensued, but felt appropriate. Patience was coming naturally to me today, by some miracle.
The sun had set behind the buildings and the sky turned from reds and oranges to a cool, dark blue. At 7:10 p.m., a line of black SUVs and motorcycles flooded the streets with flashing red and blue lights. Vatican flags whipped against the wind of the speeding vehicles to which they were attached. The papal parade had begun. Pope Francis was coming.
Bodies pressed against the gates. Others climbed onto walls and into trees to get a better view. Cell phones and cameras acted as modern day palm branches, our arms extended in front of us.I was lucky enough to be right against the gate, with no one to obstruct my view. I could feel the sense of urgency and hopefulness surrounding me. People began to squeal and chant, “We love Francis!” and “Viva la papa!”
Then, the moment we had been waiting for all day had come and gone in a flash. Pope Francis rode by in his pope-mobile. His vehicle was going fast, 25 mph I would guess, but I was able to catch the gleam in his eyes and sparkle in his smile. I watched him wave to children and families, without turning to face our side in the 8 seconds he was within reach. He was there and gone before I could process it.
The reaction came later, in the moments after being told the pope wasn’t doing another lap, and accepting that I had seen all that I would see of him tonight. “I think the reality of what happened hasn’t hit me yet. Like, we all just saw him. He was close to us! Closer than we are to that jumbo-tron right there. And he waved to us!” exclaimed student Lauren.
We looked at each other and around at the rest of our groups faces and broke into celebration, “We just saw the pope. How many people can say that? We are so lucky.”
As I tilted my head back, and raised my eyes to the night, I saw something significant. Above was darkened by clouds, but the moonlight was peeking through in just the right places to paint a cross, lit up in the sky. Was this a sign of a day well spent? Yes.
Megan Monachino is a fourth-year student majoring in English writing with a minor in journalism. She can be reached at MM783809@wcupa.edu.