As Pope John Paul II's van turned left from Pratt Street onto Light, and we watched him coming toward us, looking pale, looking frail, a slight smile playing across those ancient craggy features, we heard the deeply reverent tones of a vendor, crying:
"Pope-o-matic cameras. He might not be back for a while. Don't wait for a Second Coming."
We wondered if John Paul saw the sign on Light Street: "Pope Tattoos. Great Stocking Stuffers." Or if he noticed the police sharpshooters atop downtown buildings, or the guys trying to sell baseballs autographed by that other figure of worship, named Cal Ripken.
The pope's visit was a mix of the sacred and the profane. As crowds gathered along the parade route outside Camden Yards, watching the service on giant video screens, a peaceful calm seemed to descend on downtown. As the pontiff finished his morning of prayer at the ballpark, and 48,000 celebrants cheered him, you didn't have to be Catholic to feel fahrklempt.
"I'm not Catholic, but I get chills around this man, and I'm not
even inside the stadium," said Loris Hardy, sitting with a couple of friends on Light Street. She works for Procter and Gamble. "Today I feel Catholic. The pope's not a god, but he's godlike."
In a little shaded area along Pratt Street were three waitresses -- Leonora (Peaches) DiPietro, Mary Giorgilli, and Cindy Catayas -- from Sabatino's, in Little Italy. They'd worked until 4 o'clock that morning, raced home to change their clothes, then headed straight for the parade route.
"This pope radiates holiness," said DiPietro, "and I wanted to be a part of it. This is my dream come true. I never in my life thought I'd get this close to him."
"We got here 7 o'clock this morning," said Pete Martinez, who stood with his wife, Sally, and his six-month old baby, Molly, just outside Camden Yards. "I could have gone to the mass. I had tickets. But I gave them to my in-laws. They came here all the way from Ohio."
When all else was stripped away -- the American urge to cash in on any venture, holy or not; the deep emotional divisions within this pope's church, affecting other religions or not -- there is something about this man that touches many of us in ways we hadn't anticipated.
We're moved, not necessarily because we believe -- but because we want to believe. We want to believe in a God who makes moral judgments, whose hand guides us through difficult seasons. And here is this man who holds onto the ancient beliefs and leads his life in ways that most of us let slip away. We want back our lost innocence, which he has magically held onto. He reminds us how nice that used to feel.
He does this, despite being a figure of great contradictions: the man of strength now stooped, now moving slowly, whose vulnerability touches us. The man of ferocious beliefs -- intransigent on contraception and abortion in a time of population explosion and sexual disease and family breakdown; and on priests' celibacy, in a time of stunning revelations that speak of the loneliness and frustrations of priests' lives.
And yet the very strength of John Paul's convictions moves even those who disagree with him. Sunday at Pratt and Light, there he was on the big video screens, and on TV sets across the state. Television is the place to see actors, where we've learned to spot the phony gesture, the empty, insincere move. But, in this man, we sense the depth of his beliefs and, by extension, the things we long to rediscover in ourselves.
How much of his preaching will we carry with us in the days to come? The pontiff asked Americans to remember the needy. He dined Sunday at Our Daily Bread. He asked us to look out for the destitute.
At Howard and Lombard streets Sunday, as the big crowd began making its way home, there stood Bernard Reed, 28, who held up a cardboard sign: "Homeless and Hungry. Need Work and Food. Please Help. God Bless You."
Reed said he sleeps in a shelter in East Baltimore. His hands were empty now. He said he hadn't heard the pope's message, but apparently it hadn't sunk in with many who had heard it.
"I guess people got other things on their mind," Reed said. "They're not used to seeing homeless people. They don't want to see me. I'm here every day."
In a normal day, he said, he collects about $10 from people passing by. On this day, the day Pope John Paul II came to Baltimore and asked us to remember the poor, Bernard Reed said he'd collected $1.