What Pope Francis Will Bring to Philadelphia

As Philly prepares for the Pope and the Pope prepares for Philly, fellow Jesuit (and native Philadelphian) James Martin sizes up Francis’s appeal — and offers a glimpse of what we’re likely to see and hear.

Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square in 2013. Photograph by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square in 2013. Photograph by Franco Origlia/Getty Images

I REMEMBER EXACTLY WHERE I WAS STANDING: facing the Art Museum, just to the left of the big fountain at Logan Square, over which had been built an immense white altar. I was right next to — really close enough to touch — one of the two colossal Civil War memorial columns on the Ben Franklin Parkway, shoulder to shoulder with an estimated 1.2 million people who had turned out to see Pope John Paul II celebrate Mass in Philadelphia. On October 3, 1979, I was an 18-year-old sophomore at Penn. That sunny Wednesday afternoon, I probably was skipping an accounting or finance class at Wharton. I remember taking the subway-surface line from University City to Suburban Station and being stunned by the vast crowds that met me when I made my way onto the streets. Despite the loudspeakers, I had to strain to hear Pope John Paul, and his heavily accented English didn’t make things any easier. But I didn’t care. It was cool just to see the Pope.

The next day, I learned (God knows how, before the Internet) that John Paul was planning on making a stop at Children’s Hospital, near Penn’s campus. So I dashed over; it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes away from whatever class I was taking. It remains one of my most vivid memories of my time in college: Pope John Paul, young and vigorous at 59, in his white cassock, smiling and greeting a row of sick children, many in wheelchairs. I was only about 20 feet away. When he bent down and placed his hands on one young child’s head, some of the nurses started to weep. So did I.

I was too excited to worry, as I normally would, about missing classes on those days: When would I ever get to see the Pope in Philadelphia again?

As it turns out, 36 years later. And this time, things are a little different. This time, he’s a Jesuit. And so am I.

POPE FRANCIS’S visit has stirred up an immense amount of enthusiasm in my hometown. And in case you doubt my hometown credentials, they are: born at Hahnemann Hospital, raised in the Philly suburbs — Plymouth Meeting, to be precise — a graduate of Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. I can correctly order a cheesesteak (without, please), have a favorite Tastykake (Butterscotch Krimpets), can list the best bars down the Shore (sorry: misspent youth), and know enough to say “water ice” and not “Italian ice” whenever I’m in Philly.

So I took great delight in correcting a number of New York journalists who called me as soon as the Vatican announced the Pope’s trip to the United States.

“So the Pope is coming to visit New York and D.C.,” more than one said, “and Philadelphia, too, right?”

“No,” I said. “The Pope is coming to visit Philadelphia. And to New York and D.C., too.”

If enthusiasm was high back in 1979, it’s just as high now. Like many Philadelphians, I was delighted when Archbishop Charles Chaput and Mayor Nutter traveled to the Vatican personally to invite the Holy Father to attend the World Meeting of Families. And also like many Philadelphians, I followed the Vatican’s guarded responses about the upcoming trip. (That’s the way the Vatican press office works: They rarely confirm a trip until everything has been settled. Better that than disappoint people.) The proposed trip progressed from a rumor to a maybe to a probably to a leaked-and-then-denied news story to an official announcement.

Estimates for the number of people who will gather for two scheduled events on the Parkway are upwards of two million. A friend told me she was bringing her children from Los Angeles to see the Pope, because, well, he’s not getting any younger, and who knows if he’ll come back? Francis has already intimated his desire to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, which, of course, awakened hopes among Catholics on the West Coast that he might visit them as well.

Philadelphia, I think, should brace itself for a lot of people.

What accounts for the remarkable popularity of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former Jesuit novice director and archbishop of Buenos Aires? Why, beyond the simple desire to see a pope, will people be traveling cross-country to Philly?

While the source of his appeal is hard to pin down, I would say that people feel more comfortable with him than they did with his predecessors. This is not to say that people didn’t like St. John Paul II (he’s been canonized since he came to Philadelphia) or Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Both had countless admirers — particularly John Paul, who, as the crowds in Philly in 1979 showed, had a global following. The best summary of Francis’s kind of popularity came from the mother of a friend, who said, “If I met Pope John Paul, I’d ask him to pray for me because he’s so holy. If I met Pope Benedict, I’d ask him to teach me, since he’s a scholar. But if I met Francis, I’d ask him to hug me.”

Where do such feelings come from?

First, Pope Francis does things differently. Not better or worse, just differently. To that end, you can’t overemphasize the effect of his actions immediately after he was elected pope. He chose the name Francis — a first. He ditched the traditional red shoes that popes had worn. He moved out of the Apostolic Palace and into more humble digs at the Casa Santa Marta, a hostel that still houses guests. (He had been living there during the conclave, and when he was shown his planned quarters in the Apostolic Palace, he quipped, “Three hundred people could live in here!”) He is, in perception and in fact, someone who has also embraced a very simple lifestyle. Remember: He’s the first pope from a religious order since the middle of the 19th century, which means he’s the first in many years who’s taken a vow of poverty. This may make his comments on wealth and poverty seem more grounded. As my old theology professor used to say about Jesus, his words explain his deeds and his deeds explain his words.

Francis’s emphasis on the poor has found great resonance across the world. One of his first pronouncements, before a group of journalists shortly after the conclave, was, “How I want a church that is poor and for the poor!” On almost every trip abroad, he has made a point of speaking about — and, more importantly, meeting — the destitute. It’s no coincidence that he took the name of the great apostle of the poor, Francis of Assisi.

The Pope also grasps the value of gestures. For me, one of the most moving moments in his pontificate was a spontaneous gesture. During a general audience in St. Peter’s Square in 2013, he encountered a man named Vinicio Riva who has a serious and disfiguring skin condition. Instinctively, Pope Francis embraced him, in a photo that went around the world. It called to mind not only images of Jesus meeting and healing those suffering from leprosy (which could refer to any number of skin conditions), but also the Pope’s patron, St. Francis, whose embrace of a “leper” was a turning point in his life.

I remember thinking that I might have been able to embrace Riva if I’d had some preparation (“Father, there will be a man in the congregation who … ”). But the Pope did it spontaneously. This is simply who he is. I think this touches people deeply.

Second, he says things differently. A priest friend suggested this summary of the styles of the last three popes: Pope John Paul II was a philosopher and spoke and wrote like one. Benedict XVI was a theologian and spoke and wrote like one. Francis is a pastor and speaks and writes like one. Again, both John Paul and Benedict were pastors, and John Paul, as Archbishop Karol Wojtyla, served for many years as the archbishop of Krakow in Poland, but there is some truth to this. Francis speaks in a plain fashion.

And he’s not afraid to cause a stir, or a “mess,” as he’s said on more than one occasion. On the flight home from Rio de Janeiro in 2013, he caused a worldwide storm when asked about gay priests. “Who am I to judge?” he said. Later on, he was pressed to clarify his comment: Did it refer to gay priests, or all gays? The latter, he said. It was not only what he said — an offer of mercy and understanding — but how he said it: simply and clearly.

Third, he has a great sense of humor. The stories are, by now and to quote the Gospels, “legion.” Here is one you may not know. During his visits to different cities, Francis often pops by to visit a Jesuit community. Sometimes these visits are planned, but most times they are hastily arranged, to the delight of the Jesuit priests and brothers he sees. (By the way, don’t think that my Jesuit brothers at St. Joseph’s University, St. Joe’s Prep and Old St. Joseph’s Church aren’t hoping for a drop-by from His Holiness.) In any event, while he was in Sri Lanka, he was greeted in grand fashion at the airport by 40 elephants, decked out in colorful silken robes and jangling bells. A few days later, during his trip to the Philippines, he stopped by the Jesuit community in Manila and met with 40 Jesuits, some of whom were dressed quite casually.

The head of the Jesuit community said, “In Sri Lanka, you had 40 elephants to greet you. Now, in Manila, you have 40 Jesuits.”

The Pope quipped, “The elephants were better dressed!”

AMERICANS SEEM ENAMORED of Pope Francis, and not simply because some of them may agree with him on theological issues. Perhaps it’s because there is something in the Protestant American culture (that is to say, a culture that has many American Protestant values) that likes a man who doesn’t stand on protocol, who lives simply, who speaks plainly and who seems to embody that greatest of American virtues: being “down-to-earth.”

Other reasons could be suggested for why Americans cotton to him — his emphasis on mercy (one of the hallmarks of his papacy), his ability to work for peace in difficult situations (as when he invited leaders from both the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to the Vatican to pray together), his willingness to take on controversial issues (as with his latest encyclical on the environment), and his desire to reduce “clericalism” (the attitude that says priests are better than everyone else).

My prediction is that the Pope’s visit to the United States will dominate the media, and in the absence of some major news event, his addresses to the U.S. Congress in D.C. and the United Nations in New York will be clarion calls for attention to be paid to the poor and to the environment. As I said, that’s just a prediction. I’m not his speechwriter. But I think it’s also fair to say that the events on the Parkway will be like no other in Philadelphia history, and will help even more people fall in love with Francis. More importantly, I hope his visit leads more people to think about God in a new way, and to take a fresh look at the Catholic Church.

Why do people like Francis so much? In the end, it may come down to what my friend’s mother said: People want to hug him. They feel comfortable around him, and not just for what he says and does but for who he is: a simple, down-to-earth, open-hearted, compassionate, merciful guy.

Who, we hope, takes at least a bite of a cheesesteak (“without,” if you ask me) when he’s here. But where will it be? Pat’s? Geno’s? Jim’s? Tony Luke’s? Perhaps he’ll even venture to Roxborough for Dalessandro’s. But don’t worry; whatever he chooses, people will probably love him for it anyway.

Originally published as “Francis, Superstar” in the September 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.