The pope visits a city and for two or three frenzied days we receive updates on our timelines about highlights of speeches and photos of crowds. I know this, because I’ve had the good fortune to observe all of this as it occurred in Washington, DC and New York while I sit in the comfort of a growingly militarized Philadelphia. Pope Francis will arrive in Philadelphia tomorrow, ending his three-city tour of the United States and capping months of Philly’s preparations, announcements, counter-announcements, map releasing, press conferences, mayoral cheerleading, grumbling, towing, complaining, and celebrating.
Many of my fellow citizens have, by now, fled the city. But I recognize this as sort of a Forrest Gump moment, a chance to witness and observe hysterics and history. From the front line of my humble home just steps away from South Broad Street, at this moment when the infamous “pope zone” (or … secure perimeter) has been established – I can only report the eerie quiet, the calm before the storm. It’s as if all sound has melted away, as if some giant hand has wiped away all of the traffic and people, and what we are left with is some dream-city, stripped of all its normalcy, dotted with banners, flags, signs, and the military, and encircled by a giant fence. Shops and restaurants inside the pope zone are filled with provisions, stacks of boxes and bottled water (since no vehicles are allowed to drive into the secure perimeter for the weekend), and festooned with posters of a holy leader’s smiling face. Welcome, Pope Francis.