By LOU BALDWIN, Catholic News Service | Published September 18, 2015
PHILADELPHIA (CNS)—Sometimes, the folks in charge have to skip the platitudes and listen to the people.
Take the visit of Pope Francis to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families Sept. 26-27. Who doesn’t love Pope Francis? Of course most people want to be there, to be part of it.
The public Mass to be celebrated by the pope Sept. 27 will take place on Philadelphia’s premier boulevard—museum-lined Benjamin Franklin Parkway, which stretches northwest from Logan Square to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The papal altar will be located in a different area than was the case when St. John Paul II visited Philadelphia in 1979.
But regulations and concerns, mostly because of conditions that did not exist in 1979, have arisen: How you should get there? How far you should have to walk? How long you would have to stand? Mostly the regulations have been dictated by the security concerns of U.S. Secret Service, which is charged with ensuring the safety of Pope Francis as a visiting head of state.
Most people who wished to attend any of the papal events would have to walk some distance and arrive very early. Never mind that probably half of the church-going Catholics in the Philadelphia Archdiocese are at an age where they are collecting Social Security and many are unable to do this.
It recently became clear that a number of people seemed to have decided they would sit this one out, and watch the television coverage from the comfort of their home.
Earlier, after the announcement that Francis was coming to Philly, virtually every hotel within 50 miles was booked solid for the days of the Pope Francis Mass and for the Festival of Families the previous night. The few rooms available were at outrageous prices.
A quick check on Hotels.com now shows 19 hotels within the city with rooms available during the papal visit and some with reasonable prices. Ed Grose of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association said Sept. 3 that about one-third of the city’s 11,000 hotel rooms are still available.
Early in the process, the guesses were 1.5 to 2 million would come down to center city just for the chance to see Pope Francis. Now that number seems less likely.
The problem started when it was announced that a huge swath of center city would be closed to automobile traffic for security reasons. Anyone coming would have to travel by bus, on foot or by public transportation, at least that transportation which would be still running. Most of the trains would have limited stops and would drop passengers a mile or two from the Art Museum area of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Tickets had to be purchased in advance.
Probably the hardest hit were people from New Jersey who normally use the Benjamin Franklin Bridge to enter the city across the Delaware River. They were expected to walk across the bridge, then continue to the parkway a total distance of more than four miles, stand for a good part of the day and then walk back.
The first wake-up call came in mid-July when SEPTA—the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority—put its special papal visit tickets on sale through the Internet, expecting to sell them out almost immediately. After the website crashed, a lottery system was put in place but the tickets didn’t sell out, and they still haven’t.
The number of buses registered to come to Philadelphia, mostly to park in the stadium lots in South Philadelphia with passengers then taking the subway to get to the parkway.
From an early estimate of 5,000, the number of registered buses as of early September stood at 1,100.
Recently, the World Meeting of Families has taken some steps to alleviate public concerns. A limited number of tickets have been given to all 219 parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that will entitle people to stand on the parkway between 20th and 22nd Streets, which is between two to four city blocks from the papal altar on the Eakins Oval in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the same for the Festival of Families.
Tickets were also made available to those who are attending the World Meeting of Families which will be held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Sept. 22-25, as well as to the other dioceses in Pennsylvania, the Dioceses of Camden and Trenton in New Jersey and the Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware.
The World Meeting has not said how many tickets have been issued for that section or for the VIP section closer to the altar. In addition, a number of tickets have been issued for Pope Francis’ visit to Independence Hall Sept. 26.
As a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article noted, the estimated standing-room capacity on the entire parkway would be only about 400,000. It is clear most visitors will not be able to see the altar or even reach the parkway, so the World Meeting of Families organizers have arranged to have 31 Jumbotron screens situated at various points down the parkway and beyond.
More Jumbotrons will be scattered around the much more confined Independence Hall area, where Pope Francis will give an address.
It was announced Sept. 3 that prior to the Sept. 26 Festival of Families, a mini-parade that will take Pope Francis from the Eakins Oval, down the parkway and around City Hall, so people lining the streets will see him. A shorter, similar parade will take place before the Sept. 27 Mass.
The other papal events—St. Charles Borromeo Seminary where Pope Francis will stay during his two-day visit, the Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul for clergy, religious and lay Catholics of the archdiocese and the visit to Curran Fromhold Correctional Facility—are not public events, but will all be broadcast on the Jumbotron screens.
The biggest concern from the public point of view is transportation. For security reasons, the Secret Service dictated what stops could be made by the trains and subways to discharge passengers into the affected area as well as the closure of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. None of the bus routes that normally come into center city will do so during the papal visit.
As for the decision by SEPTA and other carriers to limit the number of stops the trains will make outside of the security perimeter and to limit the number of tickets sold, that was presumably for safety reasons. The commuter rail lines mostly will travel nonstop from their suburban terminus to a designated city rail station, with no pickups in between.
Full details train and bus transportation—including approximate distances from the train stations to various stops—is available at the SEPTA website—www.septa.org.
On the bright side, none of this affects the Sept. 22-25 World Meeting of Families itself. To date, there are 17,000 registered participants.
Because the pope will not be at these sessions, the security regulations and travel restrictions do not apply, and the Pennsylvania Convention Center where it will be held can easily accommodate that number.
Baldwin writes for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.