Pope Francis expert: Papal panic nothing new

Austen Ivereigh has seen how cities react when the Pope is coming to town. The London-based Catholic journalist and Pope Francis biographer has watched the excitement and the fear play out on multiple continents.

He was traveling when I asked him to comment on the tone of things in Philadelphia thirty days out and responded this morning. Ivereigh, who wrote the Francis biography “The Great Reformer,” has two reassuring observations - none of the Philly papal panic is new and once the Holy Father gets here, it’ll all be a distant memory:

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Austen Ivereigh has followed the impact of Pope Francis around the world. He says the lead up he's seen in Philly mirrors many visits worldwide.

“It’s always amazed me how the Pope’s plane wheels touching down instantly transforms the coverage. In the lead-up to every papal trip I can remember, the stories are of panic and angst: there’s the "how the services won’t be able to cope with the numbers” story, followed by the “numbers at Pope’s Masses will be way below what’s expected” story, and almost always the “terrorists plan major attack during pope visit” story.

In the pre-visit news vacuum, virtually every protest group wants us to know that the Pope is a gay-bashing, woman-hating, power-crazed absolute monarch who should be behind bars, and there’s barely a pollster who doesn’t find that most people don’t know or care about the Pope coming at all.

But then he arrives, and all this stuff melts away. The crowds surge as planned, the media are on it 24/7, and the nation is fascinated and moved by this man in white among them. Catholics talk about the “grace” of a papal visit — the way it somehow blesses everyone. There’s this joy about it that’s contagious. Even the Church’s sternest critics find themselves taking a break, and, despite themselves, just enjoying it.

My favorite part is seeing who is in the crowds. It’s not like a rock concert or a protest. The people that turn out for the Pope are the ones you never normally see, at least not in numbers: they’re old and young, sick and healthy, fit and disabled — and every skin color you can imagine. Maybe that’s what makes a papal visit so joyful — it’s ultimately a celebration of ordinary humanity. I think it’s as close as any of us can get to that feeling in the crowds in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, when Jesus rode in on a donkey.”

Look for upcoming columns from Ivereigh in the Philadelphia Inquirer.