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Marylanders join throngs to see pope, in person or on screen

PHILADELPHIA — The five friends from the Church of the Nativity in Lutherville made an impromptu pew with their folding chairs at an intersection, facing not the actual Pope Francis, but a live stream of the Mass he was celebrating before the lucky million or so who got in.

So many flocked to see the grand finale of the wildly popular pope's six-day visit to the United States, many who had traveled from Baltimore couldn't get through the jammed security checkpoints. They instead created makeshift sacred spaces around the giant screens erected for the overflow.

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"It would have been nice if we could have gotten in," a slightly dejected Eileen Phelps of Perry Hall said as she and her four friends gathered in front of a screen at 17th Street and Benjamin Franklin Parkway. "I'd like to have gotten Communion."

And just like that, servers bearing wafers from the papal Mass being celebrated on the other side of the Parkway appeared at the intersection. If it was not quite a miracle, it was at least an answer to a prayer, a symbol of the inclusionary spirit that this pope has come to represent.

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Phelps and her friends joined the line to receive the bread, and returned with moist eyes and blissful expressions.

"For me, all the people who came here to celebrate a Mass and celebrate our Pope — it was definitely inspiring," said Kathy Latrobe, a Nativity parishioner who lives in Mount Washington.

As in his previous stops in New York and Washington, the 78-year-old pontiff drew openly emotional, even weeping crowds. Riding throughout the streets in his open-sided popemobile, he thrilled those who caught a glimpse before he headed to an altar set up on the steps of the columned Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Yes, the "Rocky" steps.

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With a towering golden crucifix behind him, Francis told his audience that their presence itself was "a kind of miracle in today's world," an affirmation of the family and the power of love.

"Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love for the sake of all the families of the world," he said to the hushed crowd spread out along the tree-lined boulevard before him.

About 900 people took buses organized by The Catholic Review from the Baltimore area to Philadelphia for the Mass. Arriving at noon at the Philadelphia sports complex, they then boarded the subway to Center CIty and started the hike to the Parkway.

Many got no further that a couple of blocks from the security checkpoints, and as the clock ticked closer to the 4 p.m. Mass time, some abandoned the lines for the nearest big screen.

"Follow me," one priest called out, we're going to a Jumbotron!"

Before the screens scattered throughout the area, the shut-out prayed and sang along. They held hands for the Our Father and hugged strangers at the sign of peace.

"Just being a part of something much bigger than you are is pretty exciting," said Rene Marburger, who traveled from the Buffalo area. "Holding hands with hundreds of thousands of people and saying the Lord's prayer — I just thought it was very powerful."

Marburger, her husband, Eric, and their two teenagers joined a bus caravan that traveled from Ithaca, N.Y., arrived at 2 p.m. and quickly realized they would not get through security in time for Mass. They headed to a big screen at City Hall.

"It wasn't bad, everyone was friendly," Rene Marburger said. "It wasn't like watching on TV, it was really moving and I'm glad we were part of it."

There were groups dressed in African attire, others waving the flags of Canada and other countries, still others in matching T-shirts from various schools or churches. The Maryland group could be spotted in bright yellow baseball hats bearing the state's distinctive flag, but in the shape of Philadelphia's liberty bell.

"It's a unique opportunity of a lifetime," said Kim Frazer of Ellicott City, who brought her 9-year-old son, Kameron. "I couldn't miss this, it was so close by."

Kameron, going native in a Phillies hat, had some mixed feelings.

"I'm excited, and I'm kind of in a way also scared," he said. "I've never been to a place with so many people."

Indeed, the crowds were close to overwhelming, and the lines to catch the subway or to get to security checkpoints seemingly endless. T-shirt hawkers, ticket scalpers, even cart-pushers selling cheesesteaks found a captive audience.

Analia Pels, also of Ellicott City, could barely sleep Saturday night as she looked forward to seeing the pope.

"I really like the way the pope talks, the message he gives to the people of the whole world — to be good and to help the people who don't have enough food," said Pels, a mother of three originally from Paraguay. "I think Pope Francis' message really touches people's hearts."

The pope spent much of his time in the U.S. speaking out on issues near and dear to his own heart: climate change, immigration, inequality, family life. In addition to meeting President Obama and other leaders, he has made a point to reach out to those on the margins, visiting soup kitchens and, in Philadelphia, a prison.

His Masses and popemobile parades drew crowds who were charmed when he would stop to kiss a baby or bless a disabled person.

The Argentine son of Italian immigrants, Francis is the first pope from the New World. Hispanics, the fastest growing part of the U.S. Catholic population, have embraced him.

"He's the first Spanish-speaking pope," said Fernando Rubira, who with his wife Alicia and their three sons made the trek from Waldorf.

"This is easier for us to understand," the native of Spain said.

Leticia Perez, 13, traveled from Amarillo, Texas, with her family, and got a glimpse of the pope during one of his many events over the weekend.

"He's like a role model to me," she said. "When we saw him, it was to me, it was awesome."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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