Following Francis: Do Jumbotrons do it?

Pope John Paul II's trip to Philadelphia.

Zowie. Labor Day. In a week and a half I head to Rome to get my credentials and airplane tickets for Pope Francis’ trip to Cuba and the U.S. On the 19th we in the Vatican press corps depart with him for Havana.

As just about everybody in the Philadelphia region knows by now, the original occasion for his imminent trip was solely the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families here in Philadelphia. Then, Speaker of the House John Boehner invited him to address Congress, the U.N. invited him to address the General Assembly, they tacked on the canonization of Juniper Serra, an 18th century Mexican missionary in California, and Cuba said “Why not pop in for a few days en route?”  And the New York archdiocese evidently didn’t like looking like an afterthought, so it lobbied for a papal motorcade through Central Park and got that.

So now, slightly three weeks shy of Francis’ much anticipated visit to Philadelphia, the residents of the City of Brotherly Love and its environs are all atwitter (translation: stamping mad) over the logistics of seeing Francis when he finally appears here.

What’s emerged in recent months, of course, is that Philadelphia simply does not have the vast, open plain needed to accommodate the estimated 1.5 million originally predicted to turn out for Francis’  Sept. 27 Mass, or the 750,000 or so expected for the Festival of Families the day before.

It’s interesting to note that the organizers are now using one million as the prediction for the Mass, perhaps in light of all the public hand-wringing over the travel and transit logistics, the long walk required to get the viewing areas, and now – just last week –  news that the 57 acres closest to the stage and altar on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will be reserved for about 15 percent of the crowds.  

These will be people from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s 219 dioceses – though the archdiocese isn’t saying how many of them – and the 17,000 attending the four-day Congress of the World Meeting (which is the predicate for the whole papal visit) and the nuns and brothers who serve in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and surrounding dioceses, some homeless people, workers in Catholic social services, and probably a few more categories I haven’t heard of.

Everyone else – 850,000 or so, if a million turn out for the Mass – will be invited, or steered, into, a 31-acre secure zone behind 20th Street near Logan Circle, and a 58-acre secure zone on Saturday that runs southeast towards Love Park and City Hall and onto South Broad Street and neighboring streets. There they will be able to mingle with one another and watch the festivities on Jumbotrons.  Pope Francis will also be the centerpiece of a motorcade parade that goes down the Parkway and around City Hall and back up the Parkway to Eakins Oval on Saturday, and a similar but shorter parade on Sunday.

As I noted in my story that ran on the front of Sunday’s (9/7) Inquirer, the planners are taking a lot of heat for what is being called a two-tier viewing arrangement. In phone calls and emails and online commentary, I’ve heard it described as “elitist” and “unfranciscan” and much worse. In my article, though, Mayor Nutter and Donna Farrell, director of the World Meeting, both defended the zoning and ticketing as necessary and appropriate. Nutter’s position was mostly logistical: there are only so many sightlines to the stage, only so many people who can stand east of the stage/altar and look west,  and only so many people who could ever fit on the Parkway. And he’s right. In fact, even for a great many of the folks with tickets in the “red zone” closest to the stage/altar, Francis will STILL be a fleck in the distance. From 20th Street, the eastern boundary of the red zone, even the mighty Philadelphia Museum of Art sort of fits under your thumb. And people – even popes – are tiny indeed.

So in their emails and phone calls many of my readers are howling mad at the archdiocese and Nutter, with the word “moron” a particularly popular epithet.  Many  who felt daunted by the transit issues but were willing to brave them are now asking themselves if it will be worth it to “only” see Francis on a Jumbotron, or see him pass by in the “popemobile.”  

I suppose I could get into the whole question of whether the World Meeting’s made the right decision by  giving the best visual access to the active parishioners, to the religious who have devoted to their lives to the Church, to the folks coming in for the Congress, etc.  But this blog is not an editorial board, and I must report on these things, so I must stay out of it.

Still, I have opinions, and so I will say here that I sincerely hope this papal visit turns out to be happy time and a happy memory for the Archdiocese and the city of Philadelphia. It really will be an enormous  challenge to bring so many people into the interior of a city so quickly AND make it safe for a world leader who could be the target of, well, evil. Both the city and the church, along with the Secret Service and public transit and public safety agencies, were wringing their hands more than two years ago over where in the city to hold it. (They were considering Philadelphia International Airport.)

As The Inquirer’s religion reporter I started writing three years ago about the World Meeting coming to Philadelphia. I wish now that I had raised the question of sightlines, ticketing, distances and access long  ago, and told readers unambiguously that only a fraction of visitors would ever be up close enough to see Francis’ smiles and  waves and other small gestures.  One of our City Hall reporters, Julia Terruso, who has been reporting for us on the logistics and crowd control for the papal visit, says that whenever she asked the city about  ticketing she was told it  was being handled by the World Meeting , and that the city had no information about it. To the best of my knowledge, however, the World Meeting  provided no particulars about ticketing and zoned access until last week.

In my phone interview with Nutter on Saturday he marveled that in all the news conferences he conducted or took part in, no reporter ever asked about ticketing for these papal appearances. “I  kept wondering when it would come up, and it never did,” he said. (I’m quoting here from memory; my notes are on a queue I can’t access from home.)

And he also urged me to take a look at the aerial photos of Pope John Paul II’s Mass on Logan Circle in 1979, which reportedly drew a million pilgrims. He said (again, this is from memory, but essentially faithful) “There were a lot of people who could not see the pope, could not see the altar. But they had a great time. They talk about it to this day as one of the best days of their lives. And I’m not even sure they had Jumbotrons back then.”

They didn’t.

So let’s talk about the experience of Jumbotrons.

The Vatican uses them a lot in St. Peter’s Square, and the religion beat has taken me there many times over the past 20 years. All I can say is, they work. They bring to the crowds an immediacy and a sharing --- perhaps even an intimacy – that is simply not available to any but the few seated in the first quarter or so of the square. 

When John Paul died in April, 2005 I flew to Rome the next day to start our coverage. I ended up there for three weeks,   and was in the square for the “Habemus Papam” when Benedict’s election was announced. But the most remarkable moment of those three weeks for me was watching as John Paul’s body was being carried out for the lying-in-state, which came about four days after his death. St. Peter’s Square was filled to overflowing, and so I found myself about midway on the Via De Conciliazone (which I am surely misspelling) that runs for about three blocks from the end of the square to the Tiber. It, too, was packed, but there were Jumbotrons all along the route.

On the screens we could watch as cameras inside the papal apartments showed the members of the papal household enter the room where John Paul was lying in state – not in a closed coffin but on an open bier – and lift him to their shoulders. Then, escorted by Swiss Guards and followed by a great many cardinals, they escorted him through the papal palace – along corridors, down stairs – until they, and he, emerged onto the front steps of St. Peter’s Basilica.

It seemed a time out of ordinary time: medieval, or of the Renaissance, surreal and solemn and grand and so very final. (I’d covered JP for so long, and met him once, that I felt some personal connection.) And all the while I found myself glancing from the vivid, detailed images on the Jumbotrons to the far distant façade of the basilica and the papal apartments. The amazing – and very moving – thing was that I was present,  inside, as the bier moved through those corridors. Or so it felt, because I was “there” by virtue of my physical presence out on the street, blocks away, yet able to see what was happening up close.

It remains a particularly vivid moment from my many years covering religion. And in terms of immediacy, or intimacy, it far surpasses standing deep inside St. Peter’s Square two or so weeks later when Benedict appeared for the very first time on the loggia, or balcony, to greet the (scarily, scarily) dense crowds.  Without Jumbotrons (and I don’t remember seeing any) he was a fleck in the distance.

What’s more, the crowds were so dense as to be frighteningly claustrophobic, and part of me wanted badly to get out of there. I remember a pregnant woman – eight months or so – becoming quite concerned for the safety of the child she was carrying and saying “scuzi, scuzi” as she tried to exit. But it was impossible, and she started crying, though she made her way out OK when it was over. Still, I wonder to this day what might have happened if there’s been a loud bang somewhere that scared the crowd into sudden movement. Brrrr.

So, I would argue that the World Meeting folks and the Secret Service had legitimate reasons  for keeping the zone closest to Papa Francesco on the Parkway relatively uncrowded. How they chose to populate that zone will likely be a matter of debate that lasts a while.

But I would end by revisiting just how close I felt to the movements and extraordinary moments within St. Peter’s days earlier, when I was standing way back and toggling my views between the Jumbotrons and the physical spaces where John Paul’s body was being borne. All I can say is: it worked. I was present in a way I could not have been had I been watching on TV at my hotel.

So for all the frustration and anger and uncertainty that folks are feeling about the logistics and sightlines and Jumbotrons and walking distances to get the papal appearances here,  I would say: If Pope Francis means something to you, and you have the health and stamina for the trek: Go. DO it. You will have stories to tell and moments to remember that might not yet be imaginable, even if you aren’t up front and Francis can’t look you personally in the eye.

Back in 1969 my car broke down on the way to the Woodstock Festival, about eight miles away from the site. My college friend Tim Casey and I got a a six pack of beer and sat on a split rail fence in the pouring rain, talking about what we wanted to do with our lives. We were 20. We never saw Jimi Hendrix, or Max Yazgur’s farm, but those two days, and that conversation, remains a particularly fond memory of my youth. Cool things happen if you’re open to them.

Yikes. Another long blog post.  I DO go on, don’t I? And I have a lawn to mow.