Our surprising first sighting of Pope Francis in Philadelphia

​Knowing the way that people tend to respond to being in the presence of Pope Francis, I hope you won't think I'm a defective Catholic when I say that the Seattle pilgrims' first "close encounter" Saturday with the Holy Father was ... a bit of a letdown. 

The day got off to a great start. We left our hotel outside Philadelphia before 9 a.m., parked our bus by the city's stadiums and boarded the subway for the quick trip downtown to the Festival of Families on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Remarkably, we got through the TSA-run security checkpoint in less than 15 minutes. 

As Pope Francis celebrated Mass in the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, we made our way to the ticketed area of the parkway and staked out a good spot along the barricade to see the papal parade after Mass. The atmosphere was surprisingly peaceful as we watched the Mass on giant screens and prayed along with the pope and bishops inside. As the liturgy ended, anticipation grew for our first sighting of Pope Francis. 

But a little after 12:30, we got word that the pope had already moved on to an event at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary -- there would be no popemobile drive-by until later in the day. 

Then began the Long Waiting. For the rest of the afternoon and evening, we took turns standing and (occasionally) sitting and being gently jostled by other pilgrims hoping for a better view of Pope Francis' eventual appearance. We watched the Festival of Families entertainment on the big screens -- freakishly talented 15-year-old soprano Jackie Evancho and comedian Jim Gaffigan were highlights -- and we waited, and waited, and waited. 

As the sky grew dark and our phone batteries ran down, people began to get antsy. And then, finally, in the distance, appeared the flashing blue and red lights at the head of Pope Francis' motorcade at about 7:15. 

Now, in the bits of coverage I'd seen of Pope Francis' parades through Central Park on Friday and other parts of Philadelphia earlier in the day, the popemobile had gone nice and slow, giving the pope plenty of time to wave to pilgrims and kiss the occasional baby. That's the kind of thing we were expecting. But this time it was clear that the pope was cruising at a pretty brisk clip. 

As the popemobile approached and we got our first glimpse of the shape of Pope Francis, the pilgrims cheered and screamed and got their cameras ready. As he got closer, the excitement grew. And then, just like that, he sped past and was gone. 

Don't get me wrong -- it truly was an exciting moment, and I love Pope Francis, and being in the physical presence of the successor of St. Peter is a wonderful thing -- but, frankly, it was a bit deflating, after such a long wait, for it all to be over so quickly. We packed up and headed back to the subway for the long trip back to the hotel. 

So, all in all, how was the day? As several pilgrims put it, with varying degrees of smiles: long and tiring. 

But: Sunday we celebrate Mass with Pope Francis (and a million other people)!

(CNS photo/Bob Roller)

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