Peter Among Us: What I Saw in Philadelphia

Pope Francis with the official World Meeting of Families image at the celebration of Mass with clergy and religious at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia on September 26, 2015 during the Holy Father's apostolic journey to the United States. —Photo © L'Osservatore Romano
Pope Francis with the official World Meeting of Families image at the celebration of Mass with clergy and religious at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia on September 26, 2015 during the Holy Father's apostolic journey to the United States. —Photo © L'Osservatore Romano (photo: Register Files)

If I wanted to convey some sense of my week in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, I could write about isolated images:

  • Franciscan Friars of the Renewal talking to an anti-Catholic street protestor who had unfurled a huge banner outside the convention center;
  • nursing mothers and pregnant woman packed into a conference room to hear Simcha Fischer’s probing, poetic meditations on the life faith;
  • a ballroom jammed to capacity with pro-life activists spending two hours at the end of a tiring day getting re-energized for their important work;
  • an evangelical pastor holding a crowd of Catholics spellbound with a moving defense of the family;
  • people braving a difficult security apparatus, waiting for hours, even camping overnight, just to catch a glimpse of one man, yet still remaining happy;
  • pilgrims bursting into spontaneous songs and hymns;
  • a kaleidoscope of peoples and nations gathering to celebrate our common faith;
  • smiling babies, laughing nuns, joyous families everywhere.

These are flashes: mental snapshots gathered along the path. All of them are important in their way, and all of them shade the picture a bit. They’re of a time and a place, but they don’t explain the mystery at the heart of this week. I sat watching the final Mass from home, having been inside of it and observing it from the outside, and wondered how the leader of a faith reviled by elite and popular culture had suddenly become a beloved figure of national affection and interest. America was “All Francis All The Time”. It was wall-to-wall. It was inescapable. And almost no one could be stirred into criticism of him.

Sure, the fringes left and right (more alike than either would care to admit) poked their heads above the joyful din to spit venom at the Holy Father, his admirers, and the nation. Planned Parenthood paused their slaughter long enough to decry him for speaking out against abortion. Reactionary Catholics paused their prophesies of impending schism long enough to decry him for not speaking out enough against abortion. They even managed the impressive feat of doing this after the man had spoken for only ten minutes on US soil.

But for the most part, people were smitten, and the questions that must be answered—both inside the Church and out—is with what and why?

Was it merely the response to a cult of personality, a group madness stoked to frenzy by cheering crowds and then transmitted via media?

It’s a valid question, and it would be flatly dishonest to say group dynamics—the “madness of crowds”—had no role whatsoever. When crowds behave the way they did this week, a certain portion of the crowd is responding to collective emotions.

But that’s not what lay at the heart of it.

Was it just a function of politics and its media enablers, with people using the pope to advance elements of their own agendas (environment and the poor for the left, life and family for the right) while trying to ignore the aspects they found distasteful (environment and the poor for the right, life and family for the left)?

Sure, that was there too. I witnessed a grotesque example of it at the Independence Hall event, as Mayor Nutter and a parade of political hacks declaimed nauseating stump speeches, using the papal visit as an occasion to pander to a checklist of constituencies and co-opt the visit for their own agenda. It was not merely tone-deaf (particularly for Nutter, who is usually a moderate presence) but spirit-deaf.

But that’s not what lay at the heart of it.

The only way I can get at the core of this experience—my experience—is to try to find words to describe something that lies beyond words. I will certainly fail at the task, but here’s a moment as best I can convey it:

I’m part of a press contingent covering the Mass for priests and religious from an organ loft at the back of the side chapel. We’ll been watching the Mass on a giant screen with a group of laypeople, but are told that Francis will exit through the chapel. It’s easy to tell when Francis is coming anywhere: the surge of cheers gets louder as it gets closer.

We hear the cheers. There’s a kind of strange silence: everything seems poised. The camera is pointed at the large doors of the Basilica. He enters. Everyone in the chapel surges forward.

But they really don’t. No one moves from their pews. They stand to cheer, but stay in place. Yet the enter center of gravity in the room shifts to a single point of focus. A charge like electricity crackles through the room. It’s like flipping a switch.

The people settle down to participate in the most beautiful, perfectly executed liturgy I’ve ever experienced. When it is done, Francis leaves through the side and comes into our chapel, and it happens a gain: the switch is flipped, and the collective charge of emotion surged forward to focus on this one man as he stops to bless a sick boy, bless a weeping women, smile and laugh with us for a moment.

What was it?

It was an experience of pure feeling, beyond all the complex theology and weighty issues I’d spent years studying and writing about. It shot straight to the heart. It was joy and love, pouring out of our hearts: joy and love that could only be poured out because it was already poured in by the Holy Spirit.

It had found a living, breathing focus: a man, yet not the man himself. Sure, Jorge Mario Bergoglio is an appealing figure for many: plain-spoken, loving, with a common touch and an appealing, essential message. But if Jorge Mario Bergoglio had finished mass and walked in that chapel, the response would not have been the same.

The Seat elevates the man. The man who takes the Seat a living connection to Peter, and thus to Christ. He is Christ’s vicar on earth. Tu es Petrus. Christ left us many gifts, some of them sacramental in that they are a channel of grace, some of them sustaining, such as the preaching of the gospel and the Church. One thing he left us was Peter.

Not Simon. Simon died upside down on the cross. His bones are buried underneath St. Peter’s. Simon is no more.

Jesus didn’t leave us Simon. He left us Peter, and each man in his turn who has taken that Seat has reminded us of that unbroken gift.

Why did he do it? Why did he leave us a man? A fair number of thoroughly rotten men have sat in that Seat over the course of two millennia. Did Jesus intend to leave us John XII or Alexander VII or Stephen VI or Honorius I?

Of course not. We did that ourselves.

But he left the role, to be filled by a man, and for a very good reason.

Jesus walked the earth. The incarnate Word become flesh. He took flesh for many reasons that would take much complex theology to explain, but at least in part He took it in order to walk among us as one of us. Because we need that: the human face, the human voice, the human touch.

He left us Peter so we would have a reminder of that time when he walked the earth, because we need that too: not merely a leader or a teacher, but a man whose role bridges time and space, drawing the past forward into the present. The man may or may not be worthy of the role, but the role will continue until He returns, a living symbol of unity and a connection to the very origin of the church.

The outpouring of love for Francis had many sources. Our age is sick, our nation is broken, and the ground seems to be shifting beneath our feet. Then along comes this man, preaching the heart of the gospel, a man whose role recalls the very origins of a faith that changed the world, and is so desperately needed today. He comes to us insisting that we live out Luke 4:18:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and declare a year of the Lord’s favor.”

And everywhere he went, I saw joy, and love, and something I haven’t seen in faces for a long time: hope.