PHILADELPHIA – Pope Francis bid farewell Sunday to the United States with an elaborate outdoor Mass that drew hundreds of thousands of worshippers to a tree-lined parkway in the heart of the nation’s most historic city.
The Mass capped a six-day, three-city tour in which the pontiff spoke to Congress, ate lunch with the homeless, visited Hispanic immigrants in East Harlem and blessed prisoners in a Philadelphia jail. It was a visit marked by simple gestures of humility and carefully crafted remarks often packed with challenges to individuals and institutions.
From a giant altar erected at the base of the iconic steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Francis during his homily called the presence of so many families at the Mass “a kind of miracle in today’s world” and asked that everyone be “open to miracles of love for the sake of all the families of the world, and thus overcome the scandal of a narrow, petty love, closed in on itself, impatient of others.”
Crowd estimates were pegged as high as 860,000. Many people staked out spots along Benjamin Franklin Parkway hours before Mass, passing the time playing cards, reading or catching up on sleep after having traveled through the night.
“Seeing the pope is the closest I’ll get to God without being dead,” said Carol Robichaud of Cheektowaga, who was among a few hundred Western New Yorkers in Philadelphia for a glimpse of Francis.
Robichaud got her wish around 3:20 p.m. “Here he comes. I see him,” she said, leaning into the metal barricade and snapping photos. Francis rolled through Logan Square, perched atop a popemobile just a few feet from Robichaud. He raised his right arm and looked in her direction, with a beaming smile on his face. After the pope passed, she hugged Marie McNichol of Amherst, who paid for the pilgrimage trip as a gift to Robichaud, her sister. McNichol welled up with tears.
“The atmosphere of just being here – the people are just full of love. It’s incredible,” McNichol said.
Nearby, Sharon Charleson of Buffalo expressed disbelief at what had unfolded. “Oh, my God. God is good. Honest to Pete, I can’t believe this. This is the most wonderful day,” said Charleson. “He was looking right at my heart.”
Quinn Rotella, 12, of Williamsville, described the experience as awesome, then showed off his smartphone photo of the pope whizzing by. “I got my new background,” he said.
The Mass shut down much of the nation’s fifth-largest city for the third straight day, primarily because of intense security measures. Cars were banned from the downtown area since Friday. Some people waited in line hours to get through metal detector checkpoints, where guards confiscated even apples and oranges, out of concern the items could be hurled.
Some Philadelphians grumbled and groaned about the inconveniences, but plenty of them just rolled with it.
“I find people initially being upset about it. And I wonder, ‘What are you upset about?’ It’s a rare event. It’s really something bigger than us all,” said Thomas Mayer, a nurse who lives in a Philadelphia suburb. “People are here because they are having a profound spiritual awakening in their lives.”
Thousands watched the Mass on large-screen monitors stationed outside the security barriers. Local television stations broadcast the Mass live and inside the busy Marriot Hotel downtown, a small crowd huddled on couches in front of a big-screen TV, while a football game airing in another area of the lobby garnered little attention.
Rain seemed to threaten at times, but never arrived and temperatures stayed comfortably in the low 70s. An orchestra, large choir and an army of priests and deacons recruited to distribute Communion gave an air of Vatican splendor to the Mass.
Earlier, though, it had more of a subdued rock-concert feel, with many people lying on beach towels and snacking on sandwich wraps. At one point, a large tent was set up near the altar, to cover the orchestra, and it blocked the view for thousands of people who had arrived as early as 5 a.m. for a good spot. Many of them chanted in unison: “Take it down!” and “Move that tent!” The tent eventually was removed, to plenty of cheers.
Four teenagers from Western New York played cards on a Buffalo Bills fleece throw. Tracy Tremblay of North Collins sat in a folding chair crafting hand-made rosaries out of olive wood and strand.
“When Mass starts at 4 p.m. and they tell us to be out of the hotel at 5 a.m., I figured we were going to be here a while,” said Tremblay. “I never have time to make my rosaries.”
Tremblay was part of a group of 168 people from Western New York who took buses Friday and stayed overnight in Allentown, an hour outside Philadelphia. She arrived around 7 a.m. at a spot on the parkway median, a few hundred yards from the altar.
Gabriel Krafft of East Amherst said he wanted to be at the Mass because it is “a unifying factor for many Catholics.”
“You get a variety of people from all over,” said Krafft. “This is something where we’re all here, we’re all one.”
A group of students from St. Francis High School drove through the night for the Mass and headed back after it concluded. Ten Canisius College students and two staff members also made the trip.
People traveled from places like North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas and North Carolina, and the crowd included black, white, Hispanic and Asian faces.
A group of 60 teenagers and young adults drove eight hours in four cargo vans from Asheboro, N.C., on the spur of the moment Saturday, without making arrangements for accommodations.
“Opportunities like this don’t come every day. You’ve got to take advantage of it,” said Jorge Rodriguez, 23.
The nearly two-hour Mass concluded the weeklong World Meeting of Families that was the original impetus for Francis’ visit to the U.S.
The Mass ended with a blessing from Francis, who thanked those who attended for their participation and “for your love of the family.”
And then, he said, “I ask you to pray for me. Don’t forget.”