Sometimes, the folks in charge have to skip the platitudes and listen to the people. Take the visit of Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families Sept. 26-27. Who doesn’t love Pope Francis? Of course most people want to be there, to be part of it.
The public Mass to be celebrated by the pope on Sunday, Sept. 27 will be held on Philadelphia’s premier boulevard — museum-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which stretches northwest from Logan Square to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In a departure from the past, the papal altar will be to the northwest at Eakins Oval, rather than in Logan Square as was the case when Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia in 1979.
But regulations and concerns, mostly because of conditions that did not exist in 1979, have arisen: How you should get there, how far you should have to walk, how long you would have to stand? Mostly the regulations have been dictated by the security concerns of U.S. Secret Service, which is charged with ensuring the safety of Pope Francis as a visiting head of state.
Most people who wished to attend any of the papal events would have to walk some distance and arrive very early. Never mind that probably half of the church-going Catholics in the Archdiocese are collecting Social Security and many of them are unable to do this.
It recently became clear that a startling number of good people were deciding to vote with their bottoms, not their feet. They would sit this one out, maybe watch on television from the comfort of their home.
Earlier, after the announcement Francis was coming to Philly, virtually every hotel within 50 miles was booked solid for the days of the Pope Francis Mass and for the Festival of Families the previous night. The few rooms available were at outrageous prices.
A quick check on Hotels.com now shows 19 hotels within the city with rooms available during the papal visit and some with reasonable prices. Ed Grose of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association said Sept. 3 that about one-third of the city’s 11,000 hotel rooms are still available.
Early in the process the guesses were 1.5 to 2 million would come down to center city just for the chance to see Pope Francis. Now that number seems less likely.
The problem started when it was announced that a huge swath of center city would be closed to automobile traffic for security reasons. Anyone coming would have to travel by bus, on foot or by public transportation, at least that transportation which would be still running. Most of the trains would have limited stops and would drop passengers a mile or two from the Art Museum area of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Tickets had to be purchased in advance.
Probably the hardest hit were people from New Jersey who normally use the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to enter the city across the Delaware River. They were expected to walk across the bridge, then continue to the parkway a total distance more than four miles, stand for a good part of the day and then walk back.
The first wake-up call came in mid-July when SEPTA put its special papal visit tickets on sale through the Internet, expecting to sell them out almost immediately. After the website crashed a lottery system was put in place but the tickets didn’t sell out, and they still haven’t.
The number of buses registered to come to Philadelphia, mostly to park in the stadium lots in South Philadelphia with passengers then taking the Broad Street Subway to Walnut and Locust Streets, are still far below initial expectations.
From an early estimate of 5,000, the registered buses as of this week stand at 1,100.
Recently the World Meeting of Families has taken some steps to alleviate public concerns. A limited number of tickets have been given to all 219 parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that will entitle people to stand on the parkway between 20th and 22nd Streets, which is between two to four city blocks from the papal altar on the Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the same for the Festival of Families.
Tickets were also made available to those who are attending the World Meeting of Families which will be held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Sept. 22-25, as well as to the other dioceses in Pennsylvania and to the Dioceses of Camden, Trenton and Wilmington.
The World Meeting has not said how many tickets have been issued for that section or for the VIP section closer to the altar. There has also been a number of tickets issued for Pope Francis’ visit to Independence Hall on Sept. 26.
As a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article noted, the estimated standing room capacity on the entire parkway would be only about 400,000. It is clear most visitors will not be able to see the altar or even reach the Parkway. For this reason the World Meeting has arranged to have 31 Jumbotron screens situated from the Eakins Oval area down the parkway and adjoining streets to the City Hall area and as far south on Broad Street to Lombard Street.
Nine more Jumbotrons will be scattered around the much more confined Independence Hall area, where Pope Francis will give his Saturday address.
But of course everyone who comes to Philadelphia wants to see Pope Francis, not just watch a television screen. In a new development announced Sept. 3, prior to the Sept. 26 Festival of Families, there will be a mini parade that will take Pope Francis from the Eakins Oval, down the parkway and around City Hall, so people lining the streets will see him. This will be repeated before the Sept. 27 Mass, although the route may be shorter due to time constraints.
The other papal events — St. Charles Borromeo Seminary where Pope Francis will stay during his two-day visit, the Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul for clergy, religious and lay Catholics of the archdiocese and the visit to Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility are not public events, but will all be broadcast on the Jumbotron screens.
The biggest concern from the public point of view is transportation. For security reasons the Secret Service dictated what stops could be made by the trains and subways to discharge passengers into the affected area as well as the closure of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. None of the bus routes that normally come into center city will do so during the papal visit.
As for the decision by SEPTA and other carriers to limit the number of stops the trains will make outside of the security perimeter and to limit the number of tickets sold, that was presumably for safety reasons. The commuter rail lines mostly will travel nonstop from their suburban terminus to a designated city rail station, with no pickups in between.
A map provided on the SEPTA website gives the approximate distances from the train stations to Logan Square. For trains terminating at 30th Street Station, the distance is 1.3 miles; University City Station, 1.8 miles; Jefferson Station, .8 miles.
For those who live within the city, the best bets are the Broad Street Subway and the Market Frankford El. Again, those lines have very limited stops.
The Broad Street Subway will run from Fern Rock Station and Cecil B. Moore Station in the north expressing to Spring Garden, a .8-mile distance from Logan Square. From the south, AT&T Station to Locust and Walnut Station, .9 miles to Logan Square.
The Market Frankford line coming from 69th Street and 52nd Street in the west will express to 30th Street, .9 miles to Logan Square. From the north at Bridge Street and Girard Station it will express to 2nd Street, 1.9 miles to Logan Square.
None of the bus lines normally servicing the area will come anywhere near center city. In most cases it would be better to take the bus to one of the designated subway or elevated stops listed above and come into the city that way. Full details can be found at septa.org.
On the bright side, none of this affects the Sept. 22-25 World Meeting of Families itself. With at this time 17,000 registered participants and excellent speakers, it is the largest World Meeting to date, of the seven previous such international gatherings.
Because the pope will not be at these sessions, the security regulations and travel restrictions do not apply, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center where it will be held can easily accommodate that number.
Also, steps such as the “I’ll Be There” campaign have been taken to assuage the concerns of residents and business owners in the affected area.
At the end of the day, the Holy Spirit will take charge and any inconveniences will be quickly forgotten, as the city and the region say, “Hooray for Pope Francis.”