PHILADELPHIA—A sign flashed over the NJ Turnpike as I made my way to Philadelphia early Friday morning: “POPE IN PHILLY THIS WEEKEND — PLAN AHEAD.” Indeed—Pope in Philly that weekend, and we ought to plan ahead.

Philadelphia, the unhinged-but-lovable little brother of the major north-eastern cities, was, to some, an unlikely host for the 2015 World Meeting of Families. Prior host cities include Rome, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, and, well, nowhere quite like Philadelphia. Philly. Filthy. Philly. But if Philadelphia is a problem child, unable to control his temper, dress appropriately for the occasion, or refrain from hanging racist signs in the windows of his cheesesteak shops, he’s also a proud, wily brat who’s certainly not going to give you the satisfaction of fucking up while you’ve got your eye on him. So Philadelphia planned ahead.

The city, decorated liberally with Philadelphia police, National Guard soldiers, and goofy armored vehicles from Chester County, was effectively closed to cars for the duration of the Pope’s visit. The major bridges and expressways used to enter and exit Philly shut down, and large chunks of the city were enclosed in a “secure vehicle perimeter” and a “traffic box” through which no and few cars could pass, respectively. Beginning 6 a.m. Friday, those who hoofed it to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the majority of public events were held, had to pass through airport-like security checkpoints. That’s how I heard a bunch of moms explain it to their children: “like the airport.” It was like the airport, with some distinctions (covered in garbage because there weren’t enough trash cans; zero planes).

There were also a lot of port-o-potties. Thousands of port-o-potties. Port-o-potties lining every fence, port-o-potties decorating every wall, port-o-potties never allowing you a moment’s escape from acknowledging the supposed need-based existence of so many port-o-potties. A dream for every port-o-potty lover, no doubt—but a nightmare for every port-o-potty lover scorned.

Though I attended Catholic school for the majority of my child and young-adulthood, I don’t believe I spent much time thinking about the pope until that last pope was a nazi and Cool Pope Francis was all the rage. I do remember people liked Pope John Paul II. I remember saying “Pope John Paul our pope” during the Eucharistic prayer. I remember asking for the pope to pray for us during the Litany of Saints. Beyond that, as far as I can remember, the pope was merely a picture of an old man in a thin wooden frame hung in every classroom. Perhaps the pope is more of a thing for adults, not as captivatingly magical as the rest of what we learned in school about religion. Perhaps I just have a bad memory and I was actually super into the pope. Perhaps it’s just that he hadn’t stopped by Philly in a while.

Pope Francis is the fourth pope to visit the United States and the second to visit Philadelphia. Pope John Paul II took a tour of Philly in 1979, during which he did much of the same stuff—mass, more mass, stopped his motorcade so he could interact with children, etc. However, when Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia, he ate a cannoli. As far as I know, Pope Francis did not eat anything seemingly abnormal for a pope. It just makes you think: man—come on.

This time around, many Philadelphians left town in the days before Pope Francis’s arrival, hoping to avoid what was lazily termed “pope-ocalypse” (or “pope-a-geddon”) altogether. Others vowed not to leave their homes until the madness passed—a staycation with a holy purpose, amen. A braver group of Philadelphians planned to venture out into the streets to check out the scene. What would Center City hold for these urban adventurers? Faith-based stampedes, perhaps. Overturned cars, alight with gasoline, testosterone, and the fire of the holy spirit—maybe. Lines, long lines, lines for everything, lines, lines, lines? Almost certainly.

The city was dead.

Wandering through the car-less and largely people-less Old and Center Cities in the early afternoon on Saturday, after Pope Francis celebrated mass at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, felt like a pleasant nightmare. Sure, in this post-apocalyptic world everyone I’d ever known had died, leaving me alone in search of the head of the Catholic Church, but the weather was pleasant and boy was it nice to stroll through the streets unbothered. Time enough at last.

It was a great weekend to be in Philadelphia, truly, unless you were a member of the service industry.

Restaurants and bars, like Bleu Martini, site of a 2011 shooting that left one dead, just an example, welcomed the pope and his followers with sandwich boards. “Bleu Martini welcomes Pope Francis.” Some had funny little jokes: “Pope on in!” “Pope’n for Brunch!,” etc. None had attracted the pope or many of his followers.

“It’s been...slow,” is a quote I could attribute to just about every restaurant and coffee shop I visited over the weekend. Popular hummus spot Dizengoff in Center City, for example: “It’s been...slow.” Reanimator Coffee in Kensington, where my friend works, for another example: “It’s been...slow.” The quiet was widespread. Philly had left and the Pope’s transplants weren’t eager to fill its shoes.

I spoke with a woman standing outside of an empty restaurant advertising a Pope’s Buffet close to Independence Mall where Pope Francis would later speak, placed perfectly to catch some of that Pope foot traffic.

“Nobody wants the Pope buffet,” she told me. “Everybody just wants a picture of the sign.”

I wondered if that quote about the widely-beloved, seemingly left-leaning man who still preached traditionally hateful Catholic views on topics like homosexuality and women’s rights was too on-the-nose to include, and took a picture of the sign.

At a press conference following the Pope’s departure, a reporter asked Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter if he would have done anything differently to ease the fears of Philadelphians who stayed away. “In some instances, you all scared the shit out of people,” he said, referring to the media and unexpectedly saying a curse word. But the media, Nutter himself, and common sense were likely all equally to blame for the fear-based shit evacuation: the weekend sounded like it would be hell. Road closures, no way out, a million rabid Catholics, and so many port-o-potties that it’s crazy? No thank you.

Turned out fine, though.

There were rumors that, on his way to Independence Mall, Pope Francis would travel down North 7th St. “I’m standing behind a cameraman from Channel Six!” a man excitedly told his mother on the phone, taking the cameraman’s presence as an indicator that his wish might come true. Members of the crowd, stopped behind a barricade placed just above 7th on Market St., asked each other if he’d be coming this way, while a news guy explained to a camera that, while no one had any information on his route, people certainly had hope.

This hope led the crowd come together and chant “MOVE THAT BUS!” at a bus parked in a way that would partially block the view of the Pope, if the Pope decided to show up. “MOVE THAT BUS! MOVE THAT BUS!” It seemed a bit outlandish to me to expect a bus to move simply because a crowd wished it, but I suppose that’s something I have to explore privately. Wouldn’t you know it, the power of crowd compelled him, and the bus driver moved the bus, inspiring a brief reaction chant: “THANK YOU! THANK YOU!”

Very polite.

It was good that the bus moved. Minutes later, the Pope emerged on 7th in his popemobile:

(Do you see him?)

Just as the popemobile came into view, as everyone’s iPhones snapped photos blindly above their heads, a visibly agitated man and a woman attempted to push their way through the crowd. Stopped a few rows of people ahead of the barricade, the man shouted “EXCUSE ME!” Swallowed by the cheering crowd who were trying their best to ignore him—His Holiness was mere half a block and across the street ahead of them, after all—he continued: “I DON’T FUCKIN’ CARE ABOUT THIS GUY! MOVE!” Before the popemobile-fueled excitement died down, the man and women realized they wouldn’t be able to pass through the street, anyway.

“Shit. They could have told us this was gonna be blocked off before we walked all the way down here.”

Philadelphia was on its best behavior, to be sure, but, shit. It was a little hard to figure out where those barriers were.

Mark Wahlberg hosted that night’s festivities on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. I don’t know why. Because he is Catholic, I guess, and also very sorry about beating up those Vietnamese men. The event included performances from Aretha Franklin, The Fray, Jim Gaffigan, Sister Sledge, Andrea Bocelli, and more, all somewhat viewable to those who didn’t happen to score a free ticket in the 30 seconds before they sold out on large screens placed on the parkway, far away from the action.

People watched, sort of. But it was cold, the screens were far away, and it had been a long day. I asked a woman who was my height if she could see anything, knowing the answer, and she said: “No, but I guess the point is just being here.” Fair enough.

Once again, the most exciting moment of the event came early, when Pope Francis drove by in his popemobile.

Though it didn’t seem like too many people cared about what was going on on a stage they could barely see, the vibe was remarkably positive. Nobody was visibly drunk or fighting. Smiling groups came together to share photos they took of when the pope drove by. A group of young, early college-age people giddily watched a pope video the tallest in their group took on his phone together, over and over.

A man I spoke to told me that even though he wasn’t Catholic himself, he liked this pope because he “brought people together.” The scene that night did little to disprove his thought. It was genuinely moving.

Reading reports from Pope John Paul II’s visit to Philadelphia, it’s clear that this placating, this coming together in a way that is if not “Christian” at least “nice,” is simply what a visit from a pope does to people. It is also clear that the idea that this goes for people even in Philadelphia has never not been remarkable. Here’s a bit, published on October 4, 1979 in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

On his arrival, the Pontiff climbed a few steps toward the cathedral’s great bronze doors, thrown open for him, then turned to face toward the altar and the huge throngs that surrounded it and that filled the broad expanse of the Parkway and several smaller side streets. It was a sight no one had ever seen in Philadelphia before - a huge and utterly happy throng shouting its greeting and its joy.

A sight no one had ever seen in Philadelphia before—a large group of people being generally chill.

Remarkably, there were only three pope-related arrests during the entire weekend. A DUI, a probation violation, and someone attempting to bring drugs past one of the (airport-like) security checkpoints. It could be the pope’s presence has the same effect as that of a strict-but-loving grandfather who you almost never get to see, so everyone just be nice, OK? Just show grandpa that you can be nice. Or maybe it was all the cops around, for the illegal stuff specifically. But after experiencing the odd non-rioting of the crowds, it doesn’t feel far-fetched to guess that everyone’s behavior was a genuine reaction to feeling like a part of something good. Catholic ideals don’t always bring about “Catholic” behavior, speaking generously, but when the main guy is around it’s easy to get swept away in the idea of it. Love, etc. Peace. Standing next to each other and smiling, nowhere near an overturned car.

Perhaps every city should just get a realistic-looking pope mannequin and place it on the city’s highest natural point.

Sunday’s 4 p.m. mass on the parkway, scheduled if not purposely at least conveniently after the Eagles game, was packed. Though the estimate was over a million, only about 860,000 people showed up—still enough to make the crowd, broken up by screens, seem endless.

Tents advertising official merchandise and Philly food favorites dotted the sides of the parkway, joining the many, many bootleg Pope merchandise vendors in the pursuit of smartly opportunistic holy money. For just $125 you could get an official family food pack, which included:

  • (4) Tastykakes in a collectible tin
  • (4) Commemorative pope cards w/ medal
  • (4) Grab n Go sandwiches
  • (4) Federal soft pretzels with mustard
  • (4) Assorted potato chips
  • (4) Drinks of your choice

To quote Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. Buy the family pack.”

Having attended countless fidgety masses throughout my lifetime, I was curious to see how such a large group would hold it together watching a subtitled mass on an outdoor screen. The answer is: well. Extremely well. While not everyone went to the trouble of mouthing along with the songs and prayers, some did, and some even participated in the sitting, kneeling, and standing parts.

The crowd, some reading along to English captions on screens many yards away, was largely silent and respectful. No fighting. No drunkenness. No chatting with a friend.

It was a mass during which it was close to socially acceptable to check your phone, and I caught nearly no one doing so. Except me. I checked my fantasy football score (losing—near the pope? incredible) and sent a few texts. I bought a bottle of water at an otherwise empty food tent for an obscene $4. It’s possible I was the most openly sinful person among the hundreds of thousands gathered there.

The pushiest moment—really, the only pushy moment—came during communion, which I was surprised to see was served to all. (Of course, we were expected to self-police. The program handed out before mass cautioned against receiving communion if you were carrying a grave sin or had not fasted for at least one hour.) (Oh no—the family pack.)

A few people pushed their way towards those serving communion. One woman yelled to her family to come quickly. However, at least where I was standing, it seemed everyone who wanted the body of Christ was given Him, before blessing themselves and returning to their spots. It was a quiet, peaceful scene.

In 1979, of Pope John Paul II’s mass on the Parkway, Philadelphia Action News (channel six) broadcaster Jim O’Brien said of the serene crowd, then over a million: “I must say in my years on earth I haven’t seen anything more touching or more impressive than what we’re seeing right now.”

It seemed as though the pope had calmed Philadelphia again, as only the pope can.

Or, at least, he’d calmed the people occupying Philadelphia at that moment.

I left mass right after communion, a fantasy of my youth, and, after getting a Gobbler at Wawa, passed by a very large group watching the proceedings on a Jumbotron at 19th and Spring Garden. It was announced that next year’s World Meeting of Families would be held in Dublin, Ireland.

The crowd went wild.

Photo from Getty. Contact the author at