It’s Always Sunny in Popeadelphia

For as strange and different as Center City was over the weekend, the oddest thing might be how similar it still felt — how totally Philly pope weekend remained.

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Photo | Jeff Fusco

The pope has left Philadelphia. You can stop sucking in your guts.

The most important news from the weekend, of course: Nothing catastrophic happened. Philadelphians have a general uneasiness — perhaps paranoia is a better definition — when big events hit our town. This is not so much an inferiority complex as a realistic preparation for the worst. We are frequently terrified we’re going to screw something up; sometimes, we do. It’s one of the reasons so many people left town this weekend (a rollout from the city that scared off people was another, but that probably comes from some of the same mindset). Several of my friends mentioned that something bad was definitely going to happen.

In the 10 years I’ve been living here, Center City has never looked like it did this weekend. It was Live 8 plus a snowstorm plus a whole bunch of priests and nuns. There were national guardsmen on nearly every corner, sometimes in seemingly odd locations (10th and Lombard, for instance, nowhere near any of Pope Francis’ stops). There were a variety of fences around the city, from pro wrestling-style side guardrails to giant, eight-foot screens that really did make you feel like something bad was going to happen.

And yet. The mood in Center City Philadelphia was good. The setup for the pope’s visit was often called a police state. But are people really this happy in a police state? (Maybe, if the evil dictator or super-smart child is forcing them to smile.) The set-up looked ridiculous. It did not appear to dampen the crowd’s spirit. When large crowds gather in Philadelphia, they’re usually drunk and angry because the Eagles just lost. The crowds in Philly this weekend were upbeat and cheerful. The pope — with a chain of succession that goes back to St. Peter himself — is such a symbol of kindness now that people do seem to act a little nicer to each other. A papal visit is kind of bust-proof, as long as the pope actually shows up.

Walking around was just a blast. My dad and I walked down the center of the closed Benjamin Franklin Bridge, just for a chance to say we’d done it. A walk around town on Saturday turned into a chance to catch up with so many friends of mine who were wandering the city like I was, enamored with the weirdness of it all. Some streets were mobbed with pilgrims, others were completely empty, Vanilla Sky-style. “What a day,” my dad said to me Saturday. “I got to meet Liz Spikol and Johnny Goodtimes.”

The city was much different this weekend. But what really grabbed me about it was just how similar it still was. Much was made about how great it was to walk or bike in Center City with so few cars. “By Saturday morning’s Pope Ride, which brought 3,000 cyclists onto Center City’s streets, they had begun to thrill to the illicit pleasure of blowing through red lights,” Inga Saffron wrote. “I saw people sit down in the street to look at their phones, simply because they could.” True. But Philadelphia also has a long tradition of shutting down the streets and giving them back to the people. We have the most block party permits of any city in the U.S. We regularly shut down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for free 4th of July concerts and corporate beer-soaked Jay Z festivals. We used to have an event called Super Sunday, a giant block party on the Parkway. We even closed down Chestnut Street from 1976 to the late ’90s.

It was, indeed, a very Philly party. Jeff Deeney tweeted the event felt much like an Archdiocese of Philadelphia production. I agree. I spent all week saying I felt like I was back at a Catholic high school retreat, only I wasn’t flirting with Nazareth Academy girls this time. I saw two dudes going, “P-O-P-E Eagles!” I heard one priest tell another in Spanish that Wawa was like 7-Eleven, only better. One of the prisoners who met the pope was in prison for celebratory gunfire on New Year’s Eve, a horrific Philadelphia tradition. The mayor’s car broke down and had to be towed. A jumbotron kept misspelling “Jesus.” Who knows if the pope actually ate his Wawa hoagie, but at least one was offered to him.

Pope weekend was hokey and weird and enjoyable, all at once. So, basically, it was like any other thing we do in this town, from the Mummers to the Thanksgiving Day parade. The Festival of Families on Saturday night had to be one of the strangest events in Parkway history. The headliner was unbeatable — the 78-year-old Pope Francis was animated going off-script, even making a mother-in-law joke — but the undercard probably needed some work. One engaged, nervous Australian couple, Camillus O’Kane and Kelly Walsh, told the many in attendance that they were waiting to have sex until marriage. Also, the pope was there.

Mark Wahlberg, who an Action News graphic helpfully reminded us “attempted murder at 16,” hosted an event where the young, amazing singer Bobby Hill told him he loved Wahlberg in Ted. Marky Mark later asked the pope for forgiveness for appearing in that movie. He also later said, “Go Eagles!”

I was raised Catholic, and I am no longer religious. I enjoy the new pope’s focus on the church’s social justice teachings, but a lot of this weekend’s messaging reminded me of sitting in a high school classroom and hearing a priest drone on about something I didn’t agree with. Many panels at the World Meeting of Families could often be distilled to one message: Form a family or go into religious service, as soon as possible. (Right, this is to be expected; this is Catholicism, and it is the World Meeting of Families.) There weren’t many women involved in Sunday’s mass — which is odd, as for my whole life women have been a part of most masses I’ve attended — and were basically relegated to communion duty. (People held Vatican flag-colored umbrellas to make them easier to spot.) Herb Lusk, the former Eagle who essentially invented what is now called Tebowing, read from scripture. His teachings have been called homophobic by gay activists. (And he isn’t even Catholic!)

There were other issues, too: Many homeless had to be removed from their normal spots on the Parkway. The off-putting messaging in the run-up to the event led a lot of people who would have really enjoyed this weekend to leave Philadelphia. Many restaurants were empty (at least they were able to donate food to the hungry). Organizers couldn’t figure out a way to get people through security checkpoints faster, with some ticketed guests failing to get into Sunday’s mass.

And yet. I am proud of my city for this weekend. The pope came, and we didn’t screw it up too badly. I am not entirely sure what travelers from around the world will take away from Philadelphia — the city was in a weird lockdown the entire time — but most people I talked to at the events of this weekend were moved. Pope Francis’ energy and charm galvanized a lot of Catholics. The pope kissed a grand total of 14 babies, per the Inquirer. When the pope went by in his car, people just went wild, running to the fences to catch a glimpse.

Will this visit make us better people? Eh, who knows. But I just lived through a memorable weekend in Philadelphia, and I guess that’s enough to move me, too. Plus, the pope didn’t ride SEPTA, which means I won the bet I made with God in 2013 and don’t have to go to church every Sunday for a year. Sorry, mom.

Follow @dhm on Twitter.