Philly and the Pope

It’s a logistical nightmare. It shows us the times we live in. It should show us something else, too. Something called shared sacrifice.

As the media in Philadelphia: print, radio, and television, shock us with headline stories of dire consequences everyday of a papal-nightmare two-day stopover in our fair city, we have been given three choices: batten down the hatches and make preparations and get ready for the coming storm (if you’re from Texas and were expecting a hurricane you would say “prepare to hunker down, hunker down, and git ‘er done), or evacuate the city. Yes’m, just leave town and head for the Poconos or the Jersey shore until all the fuss is over. If you stay in the city, make sure you hit the grocery store and stock up on milk and bread and other essentials (don’t bother filling the tank, that dog won’t hunt), and don’t forget the pharmacy to fill prescriptions.

Millions of the faithful are expected to descend upon Philadelphia in September for the World Meeting of Families and the presence of Pope Francis I. City officials have urged its citizens to keep calm. Pregnant women, having due dates near or around the pontiff’s visit are concerned about whether they can get to a hospital to deliver. Medical and health care workers are worried if they can make their shifts. The Secret Service will cordon off much of the city. “Traffic boxes” have been designated within a three-mile radius of the pope’s venues. Major highways will be shut down.

Owners of chic restaurants, delis, hot dog stands, cheese steaks joints, bars and taverns are all scratching their heads. How can they get their employees to work and how will they get home? Should they pre-order deliveries of food and drink because of demand or close shop because they’re within the security zones?


Mass transit, SEPTA (the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority), had to pull its website after an overwhelming response to its $10 dollar offer to ride on the rails during the papal visit on a first-come-first-serve basis. The demand was too much to handle. Instead, it offered a one-day lottery, which was extended, because, I think, most people are simply confused. In any event, the lucky ones get to ride, everybody else has to hoof it. Traffic, to and from the city, will be a huge headache. It is anyway on any usual day during rush hour. That’s Philly and always has been. There is simply no easy access to and from the city. But now it’s that times ten or maybe twenty. Even river traffic on the Delaware is expected to be busy. The Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which crosses into New Jersey, will be shut down in order to accommodate pedestrians hiking and bikers biking across the river – but, wait, there will be checkpoints. And there will be fences – lots of them.

Rental properties are seeing previously unseen and unsightly profits for their landlords because hotel rooms within a hundred mile radius of Philadelphia have been booked for months.

I live in Lower Buck County, just north of the city. A neighboring municipality has issued a Declaration of Emergency for the duration of the pope’s visit because it has a transit station within its borders. More towns and townships are expected to do the same.

Across the river, governmental and transit officials in New Jersey are wringing their hands.

This is an unprecedented security maelstrom never before seen in American history outside of wartime.

Some, including those in the media, are questioning whether the security arrangements are way over the top. After all, Philadelphia welcomed Pope John Paul II in 1979 without many of these extreme measures. When the Phillies won the World Series both in 1980 and, again in 2008, the “City of Brotherly Love,” delirious in celebration, managed to cope and survive.

So, are we being too cautious? Have we become so anxious and afraid that we cannot welcome a most-welcomed guest without causing a massive disruption of city and suburban services and lifestyle? Or have we simply lost our ability to cope and accept inconvenience for just a few days?

The archdiocese is frantically trying to accommodate religious who are expected and needed at all of the venues. For a city highly anticipating and joyfully willing to welcome a beloved pontiff, many residents now realize they may not have that chance.

Get Your Walking Shoes on

Times have changed. We, Philadelphians, and Americans in general, are not the same as we were in 1979, when John Paul II came to our city. A million-and-a-half people welcomed him. There were no incidents, no violence, and certainly no unruly conduct among the citizenry and the visitors to the International Eucharistic Congress. There was only joy.

It is, of course, quite true, that 9/11 changed our nation’s psyche. Anyone, now in their twenties, would agree. Anyone living or working in Manhattan on that infamous day, or serving us in the Pentagon, and all their extended family and friends would insist that it did and rightfully so. The bombings at the Boston Marathon only reinforced this.

Not that long ago, when the USSR was still on the world’s map, the Kremlin wanted the pope dead. He was that much a threat to a super-power. Now, it’s Islamic fanatics. So, the Secret Service is calling all the shots to make sure an assassination of a popular pope doesn’t happen in Philadelphia, or New York (where Francis will address the so called United Nations), or Washington D.C. (where Francis will speak before a joint session of congress).

When I was the Training Coordinator for a counter-terrorism task force in southeastern Pennsylvania, we meticulously, through training and exercise, prepared and planned for situations like presidential visits, political conventions, chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and bombing scenarios, even natural disasters like hurricanes and crippling snow and ice storms. But, this beats all. I don’t envy those who we rely on, in emergency services, hospitals, fire, and law enforcement, who must take this burden upon their shoulders in order to keep us all safe. God bless them in their efforts.

And then there’s the man: Jorge Bergoglio. He’s a bit unpredictable. He may be Pope Francis I, but he’s more a pastor than a pontiff. He’s a “people person.” He needs the people and they need him.

There are rumors. There are always rumors. What if he decides to do something – well, unscripted? It’s not as if there are no precedents in his papacy for (lack of better phrase) a “joy ride.”

So, we will all walk together, or hobble on canes, or roll on wheelchairs in search of hope and healing, because we have faith in God and in the dignity of all humanity come what may; perhaps over bridges, through the streets and between alleyways, across fields, the way people used to do centuries ago. As they have for over two millennia.

Philadelphia has always been a town folks liked to walk through, rain or shine, from parish to parish, from neighborhood to neighborhood. Think of this as a pilgrimage where the faithful used to walk many miles to a sacred shrine in search of grace and forgiveness, maybe even a heavenly favor.

Think of this as a two-foot snow storm in September. Think of this as an opportunity to minister and serve. Offer it up. Give glory to God for aching feet.

Oh, and remember the cops walking the beat beside you. Say a quiet prayer for them, their families, and their honorable service.

And, maybe – no, decidedly – invoke the intersession of both St John Neumann and St. Katherine Drexel, our home town saints. Ask them to make Philly proud.

George J. Galloway


George J. Galloway is a retired history teacher, now freelance writer and novelist. He is a father of three and married to Cathy, his bride of 33 years. He writes from his little Cape Cod in Fallsington, Pennsylvania. You can read his blog at

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