With Pope Francis set to arrive here Saturday, many schools, offices and businesses closed Friday. That left the streets of downtown Philadelphia to police and National Guardsmen, prayerful Catholics – many from other places – and vendors hawking Pope hats, Pope buttons, Pope T-shirts, Pope bobble heads and small wave-able flags bearing the seal of Vatican City.
Security is tight in the City of Brotherly Love, with barricades and fences closing off many streets and National Guardsmen in Army fatigues directing car and pedestrian traffic. City buses are shortening their usual routes, and cab companies are starving for passengers.
“I hope it is a positive thing for the city,” taxi driver Adrien Jacques said Friday about the pope’s visit, “but closing everything down is hurting my business.”
Still, there was a palpable sense of anticipation Friday as some street corners were outfitted with jumbo-trons that will carry images of the popular pope during a 4 p.m. Sunday Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway – the high point of Francis’ two-day trip to Philadelphia.
As many as 1 million people are expected to attend Mass, though all the talk about street closings, security and long lines could cut the turnout some among Philadelphians. But 10,000 busloads of Catholic pilgrims have been streaming in from all over the country. And Catholics from all over the world have been in the city all week attending the World Meeting of Families at the Philadelphia Convention Center.
On Friday, a group of about 30 Hispanic Catholics from the Cathedral Chapel of St. Vibiana in west Los Angeles paraded up 20th Street reciting the Rosary in unison.
“It’s a pilgrimage to see this pope. He’s sent by God,” explained Janet Mendez, a member of the group, which has attended Mass every day during its stay. “Everything he has said in the United States, like to Congress, has definitely been God-sent.”
Just outside the Archdiocese’s cathedral, Saints Peter and Paul, a long line of Catholics stood for the chance to write a prayer of petition on a slip of paper and attach it to a temporary grotto built for Pope Francis’ visit. The pope’s first event in Philadelphia will be a 10:30 a.m. Saturday Mass at the cathedral.
Among the personal prayers written and attached to the grotto structure: “Bring my mom peace,” “First day of high school and soccer tryouts,” “Healing of my marriage,” and “Bless Nina! Give her courage and babies.”
That same spiritual intimacy was on display on a street corner by the convention center, where pedestrians scribbled their names and prayers and messages for the pope on a large drawing of Pope Francis’ face.
But for anybody wanting to buy a memento of the pope’s visit, vendors at every street corner and in shops all over town offered a wide range of merchandise.
Tselaine, a women’s accessory boutique and gift shop, had already sold out of $28 Pope bobble heads by Friday. But manager Laura Lewis was happy to pose with one of the store’s other hot sellers: The Solar Pope for $24. “You put them in the sunlight and they wave at you,” she said.
Lewis said Philadephians of all faiths – not just Catholics– are excited enough about the pope’s visit to buy something marking the occasion. Including tiny pope and saint charms for key chains – or to attach to your dog’s collar.
Speaking of dogs, Philly.com, the Web site for the city’s two daily newspapers, led Friday with this headline: “Papal craze: People dress pooches like pope.”
At the convention center’s media filing center – 500 or so journalists are expected to cover the pope here – reporters stood to shoot selfies next to a life-size image of Pope Francis.
And just outside, on the street, a homeless vendor hawking a Philedalphia newspaper “produced by those without homes for those with homes” assured passersby that Pope Francis would want them to buy a copy.
“Papa Francis says help the homeless.”