The Pilgrim's Progress (The Papal Experience, Part II)

This post is in a series of posts, click for the foreword and part one.

Day Two as a Papal Volunteer began at 6:45 am. Crowds were already approaching The Parkway before sunrise to get good spots for mass with the Pope (which wouldn't start till 4:30 pm). I was still tired from the long Saturday without rest. One of the volunteer captains pointed at me.

"You!" he exclaimed. "You were freezing last night. Are you warm?"

"Yes," I shouted back through a crowd.

"You're with me today," he said. 

"No, I'm assigned to 21st Street," I said. 

"Nope," he protested. "You're staying here. We need people here." I said OK, but was disappointed, my other location was much, much closer to the altar. I shrugged and met the other girls assigned to the post. Our job was to direct people to the best spots to see mass, and help them cross the street that was shared with official vehicles and vans. Much later we passed out mass books, answered questions and waved hello. It was so interesting to see everyone in their Catholic-wear. Necks were covered in Rosary Beads, little saints medals dangled from everywhere. I saw very inventive Papal shirts, everything from "The Pope is Dope" to "Welcome Pope Francis to Philly" and "I-Papal-Hat-Pope-Francis" in the style of the "I-heart-New-York" shirts. Most shocking were the scapulars worn outside of shirts and dresses, when they are normally tucked in. People coming early were equipped for the next few hours, rain or shine, dragging in picnic blankets, chairs, umbrellas and coolers. Clouds were forming, but so far, so good. Not a drop.

I shared my volunteer post with a lovely woman in her late 50s, from Atlantic City. She missed Saturday's festivities, but watched them on TV. 

"I took pictures of the TV," she said, "just so I could pretend I was there." She had a bad knee, and was worried about her attendance making it worse. "But my kids said that they are so proud of me for doing this. For getting out here." We went to the center of The Parkway and took pictures, halfway giggling. 

I saw the nice Polish man from the night before (who's name, I admit, I've forgotten). I whistled to him. 

"You're here!" he said. As we discussed Saturday night, he had gotten the prime volunteer assignment for the mass, up close to the altar. He put a hand on my shoulder and leaned in. 

"I was walking in, and someone offered me their ticket to the mass," he giggled. What luck! We wished each other well even though I had been somewhat jealous. 

I took a break and sat on a bench. The prices of the food was exorbitant -- $4 for a soda -- but I was desperate. After a meal I got back on my feet. One of the volunteers, a petite woman with the brightest smile took my hand. 

"Thank you for your service," she said. I looked down at her, she was wearing a volunteer shirt. 

"No, thank you," I said. 

"You know, I volunteered all week," she said, "but I have not yet seen the Pope. Have you seen him?"

"Yes," I said. "several times yesterday. I hope you get to see him today!"

"You know," she took my hand more tightly now. "I don't complain. We're Catholics! We do what is for the greater good and we accept it and we do not complain. I was happy to do it, even if I didn't get to see the Pope!"

The other volunteer and I agreed. Cheesy as it sounds, when the woman disappeared to her spot for mass, I kept repeating her words in my head: "We do what is for the greater good and we accept it and we do not complain." Whatever weariness in my legs or fatigue I felt melted away, I was going to keep cheering and smiling and not be sour that I was far away from the altar, or that I hadn't a chance to take pictures. I was going to shut up and keep on helping the pilgrims.

More crowds by noon, the end of my shift. My captain found two girls to relieve me, and gave me the OK to go. The pope was due to pass by in just an hour, up both sides of The Parkway that was split off by a grassy median. I stumbled over to a tree in front of a concessions stand, and took a seat. For the first time in awhile, I felt alone. I texted Bo and gave him an update on the day. I met a couple from town, who had got their tickets from their parish. They asked me where I was from, and like most, were shocked to hear I'd come all the way from New York. 

Even on break, people were steadily asking questions. The key question: "When will the Pope pass?" The answer: "3:15." And sure enough, by 3:10, I could hear the faraway sound I'd heard the day before. Big jumbotron screens projected an image of the Pope going by slowly, and he was coming my way. The two other times I'd seen him, I took photographs but this time I decided not to. I took two pictures, then put my phone in my pocket, "I'm just going to watch him," I said. "I'm just going to enjoy it." 


He returned via Pope mobile to the altar, and mass had begun. I hadn't a good spot to watch the jumbotron, and most of the people around me were still eating turkey sandwiches and looking at their phones and I could barely hear a thing. My volunteer captain warned me that the crowds exiting mass would be rough to navigate, so I skipped out before communion and walked Philly's empty streets. 

Back at the apartment where I was staying, my friends were all watching the end of mass on TV. They fixed me a lovely dinner than walked me to the Amtrak train station, my Papal duties done. 

Cardinals have to travel too.

Cardinals have to travel too.

I called mother to give her the details. She (like my other friends and relatives) watched for me on TV but of course, I wasn't close enough to the action. The mass reminded her of her late father, my grandfather, a staunch Catholic who was chosen by his diocese as a delegate to see Pope John Paul II in New Orleans. This made me proud, like I were fulfilling some family duty or tradition. As if he would smile to see me there.

"There's a Cardinal in here as we speak," I giggled, looking at the Cardinal in line for the train, with the weekend over, the glitz for him was also done. The station was a madhouse. I got pushed in a crazed crowd arguing over a line-skipper -- "Leave it to New Yorkers!" shouted a passenger -- but it was smooth sailing after. 

On my train ride home, I considered the people I'd met -- the Polish man who so steadfastly volunteered because of his faith, the woman with the bad knee powering through the day, and the other woman who worked thanklessly and didn't even get to see the Pope. All of these everyday people inspired me, they brought back that ounce of optimism I'd lost somewhere when I grew up. I knew the day I grew up, it was when I overheard myself telling someone that health insurance was "such an f-ing racket," which was the kind of thing that would make my ears bleed as a child. I wasn't jaded then, I thought that maybe those people were just trying to make a living, I still believed in a world of only good people. As I get older that fades, but after working the mass, I feel that renewing in me. It's small but it's there. It feels like a beacon. 

I was wearing my volunteer shirt when we arrived in New York. It's conspicuously fluorescent orange and screamed "Ask me Questions! I'm here to help!" in Philadelphia but in New York seemed irrelevant and lost its context. This saddened me. No one was asking me questions anymore, the whole thing really was over. 

I took a cab and we hit 8th Avenue passing the high-rise tall mural of The Pope. I took a picture.