With a couple of hours in between papal events in the City of Brotherly Love Saturday afternoon, I decided to go for a walk to see how the city was coping with the influx of more than 1 million people descending on the city, all eager for a glimpse of Pope Francis.

Getting to the heart of Philadelphia this weekend requires visitors to go through intense security, where police, TSA agents, and Secret Service agents search bags. There are some limits on what you can carry through with you.

Security was certainly tight in Washington and New York, but there’s a much more visible presence in Philadelphia. National Guard troops are stationed in small groups on many street corners, joining in with local, state, and federal law enforcement officials. At a press conference in Washington last night, the Vatican’s spokesman said the host country is responsible for security decisions, which have kept Pope Francis from wading into crowds here.


Businesses had expressed concern about employees being able to get to work in light of the many road closures. The World Meeting of Families launched a campaign, #OpenInPHL, to keep stores and restaurants open, and many not only heeded their call, but are celebrating the pope’s visit.

The city is decked out in banners and signs welcoming Pope Francis, paid for, apparently, with corporate sponsorships.

On his way to speak to immigrant families and to give a talk about religious liberty, Francis kissed a baby dressed in white papal robes, handed to him by a member of his security detail. But it’s not only babies getting in on the action.

Then there’s the amount of Pope Francis swag available on the streets, which is overwhelming: bobbleheads, magnets, plush dolls, rosaries (Two for the price of one!), and even this T-shirt, riffing on one of the pope’s more memorable phrases.

Of course, not everyone is thrilled with the pope’s arrival in Philadelphia.

But Francis has fans who live on the margins, who happen to be closest to this pope’s heart. 

Pope Francis wraps up his visit to the United States Sunday evening.

— Michael J. O’Loughlin

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Pope Francis’ raucous welcome in the US so far resembles something more of a Justin Bieber concert than the visit of a religious leader.

As he was leaving the nunciature — the Vatican ambassador’s residence where the pope is staying in DC — to go the White House, hundreds of faithful, mostly teenagers, were there to wave him goodbye, chanting in English, Spanish, and French.

The pope looked to be in a great mood, spending more than 10 minutes greeting them, taking his time to give hugs, make eye contact with those talking to him, pose for selfies (a phenomenon that he once said makes him feel like a great-grandfather) and even bless the security personnel.

The official welcome ceremony on the White House South Lawn was a bit more formal, but when the pope and President Barack Obama ended their speeches and turned to enter the White House, a lone voice yelled emotionally, “We love you, Pope Francis!”

During the almost 45-minute motorcade from the White House to St. Matthew’s along the Ellipse and the National Mall, all pretense of formality went out the window. Francis happily waved to the screaming crowds as he does every week in St. Peter’s Square, and the public responded in kind, jumping up and down, calling his name, and waving flags that showcased the wide representation of American Catholics, flags from Portugal, Colombia, and the pope’s native Argentina.

The pope respected a Secret Service request that he not get off the popemobile to go over to the crowds. But as the motorcade inched along, the head of his security detail from Rome kept bringing children over to him for a kiss and blessing.

US security forces have labeled the papal visit a “national security special event,” made evident by the number of official cars surrounding the pope’s vehicle, which carries the license plate SCV 1 (Vatican City State in Italian).

— Inés San Martín

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Pope Francis will address about 300 US bishops Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

Located in Washington’s fashionable Dupont Circle neighborhood, the cathedral has hosted many historic events, including the funeral mass for slain President John F Kennedy in 1963 and a visit from John Paul II in 1979.

But for me, this is sort of a homecoming, as St Matt’s was my home parish for five years while I lived in DC up until about a year ago.

The cathedral is home to a vibrant and diverse community, with a Mass in Latin Sunday morning, a Mass in Spanish in the afternoon, and a contemporary Vatican II hymn-infused Mass in the evening.

One of my favorite Masses of the year would come in October, when most of the Supreme Court justices would gather, along with other DC public faces, including Vice President Joe Biden, for the Red Mass.

It’s become somewhat controversial in recent years, with some justices foregoing the Mass, citing the tendency of many homilists to preach against abortion. But still, a majority of justices continue to show up to greet the cardinal and receive a blessing of their work.

St. Matthew is the patron saint of civil servants, after all, and so it’s fitting that his cathedral is just a mile or so north of our nation’s most potent symbol of power, the White House.

While the cathedral certainly hosts more than its fair share of powerful people, it’s also known for its social justice ministry, with box lunch program for the homeless, an LGBT outreach group, and a vibrant young adult presence.

Francis, unfortunately, won’t be able to visit too many parishes while he’s in the United States, but the Cathedral offers a decent snapshot of Catholic life in the US.

— Michael J. O’Loughlin

* * * * *

Some Roman Catholic schools will close for Pope Francis’ visit to New York on Friday.

A spokeswoman says the New York Archdiocese’s 31 Manhattan elementary schools will close Friday.

Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem will be on Francis’ itinerary. But it will not be open for a regular school day.

Catholic high schools in Manhattan will decide on a school-by-school basis whether to close.

Catholic schools in the Bronx, Staten Island and the northern suburbs will remain open.

Some Westchester schools will close at noon Friday. That’s so people who have tickets to see the pope’s motorcade in Central Park will have time to get there.

— The Associated Press

* * * * *

When Pope Francis travels around the United States later this week, he will fly on an American Airlines jet that temporarily will be christened Shepherd One.

American will take the Pope from Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, where he is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly on Friday.

On Saturday, the Boeing 777 will take the Pope from JFK to Philadelphia. And on Sunday night, it will fly him back to Rome.

An American Airlines spokesman said the plane was chartered by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He said the pilots and other crew members are American Airlines employees from around the country and represent different religions.

American, which is based in Fort Worth, Texas, plans to put the plane back into regular use after the Pope goes home, he said.

American last carried a pope, John Paul II, in 1993, flying him from Denver to Rome.

Pope Francis used Alitalia to fly from Rome to Cuba on Saturday and on to Washington on Tuesday.

— The Associated Press

* * * * *

Talk about a study in contrasts.

After his arrival at Joint Base Andrews and a quick meeting with President Barack Obama, Pope Francis got into the car that would take him to Washington as he begins his American journey. The motorcade contained several large, black sport utility vehicles, but figuring out which vehicle contained the pope was simple.

“It’s very easy to recognize where the pope is, because it’s the smallest car in the motorcade,” Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi joked at a press conference Wednesday evening.

Indeed it was: Francis rode not in a customary limousine, but in a small, dark gray Fiat 500. The starting price is less than $20,000.

The Rev. Manuel Dorantes, who assists the Vatican’s press office, said Wednesday that the choice of car wasn’t an homage to Italian automakers, but yet another sign of the simple lifestyle Francis leads.

The Fiat made its way to the Apostolic Nunciature on Massachusetts Avenue, across from the US Naval Observatory where the vice president lives, with crowds lining the route to cheer on the pope.

Francis will spend two nights there before departing for New York.

— Michael J. O’Loughlin

* * * * *

If you’ve been watching Pope Francis over the past three days in Cuba, you may have seen him grimace once in a while, usually while getting up or sitting down, or noticed that he’s sometimes ill at ease walking, especially if he has to cover a lot of ground.

Those perceptions are entirely accurate, but they don’t betoken any hidden health crisis for the 78-year-old pontiff, who will turn 79 in December. Instead they’re likely a product of his longstanding problem with sciatica, a condition that produces pain running down the leg from the back.

Vatican officials quietly confirmed shortly after his election that Francis has sciatica, after it seemed clear that he had difficulty walking long distances. It’s flared up before, and in June 2014 caused Francis to decide not to take part in Rome’s traditional Corpus Christ procession on foot.

While sciatica can be painful, it hasn’t prevented Francis from keeping up a breakneck pace so far on his Cuba trip, nor from the spontaneous encounters for which he’s become legendary.

During the flight from Rome to Havana on Saturday, for instance, the pontiff spent roughly an hour making his way through the press compartment to personally greet each of the 77 journalists covering the trip. (So many items were handed to the pope as he made his way through, by the way, that aides nearly required a luggage cart to haul it all back up to the front of the plane. A Spanish-speaking TV crew gave him the Emmy they‎ won for conclave coverage; I gave him my Time bookazine.)

Francis is, of course, nearing 80, and is still missing the piece of his left lung that was removed when he came down with a severe respiratory infection at the age of 19. As is always the case when popes travel, he’s being accompanied by his personal physician, Fabrizio Soccorsi, who was appointed to the post in August and is an expert in liver diseases and surgical medicine. (Interestingly, Soccorsi’s last name is the plural form of the term Italians use for “first aid.”)

That said, there’s no indication this Energizer bunny of a pope has any intention of slowing down. Among other things, he’ll preside over a Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome just days after he returns from the United States, and in November he plans to visit Kenya, Uganda, and the war-torn Central African Republic.

So if you see him wince once in a while as he’s moving around the States this week, don’t be unduly alarmed that something serious is going on.

— John L. Allen Jr.

* * * * *

WASHINGTON — Three former US ambassadors to the Vatican are endorsing GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush, a Catholic. Last week, the Catholic right blew a gasket when it was revealed that some gay Catholics and abortion right advocates would be among the 15,000 folks at a Rose Garden reception for the pope Wednesday. And a GOP congressman is boycotting the pope’s address to Congress Thursday because he doesn’t like his stance on climate change.

Pope Francis’ apostolic visit to the United States is bigger than politics, right?

That’s what I’ve been saying all week on radio and television interviews, anyway, and in light of the above, it bears repeating today.

I arrived in Washington Monday, about 24 hours before Pope Francis touches down on US soil for the first time in his life.

During a walk through the city – past the Cathedral of Saint Matthew the Apostle where he’ll speak to bishops, up through the Catholic University of America where he’ll canonize Junipero Serra, and then back downtown where some of our nation’s most iconic landmarks will serve as a backdrop to a papal parade – I felt reassured that my interpretation of the visit is correct.

I talked to a couple of volunteers who are beautifying the campus of the Catholic University of America to prepare for the crowds who will celebrate the canonization of a new saint. There are reports of New Yorkers clamoring for – and sometimes paying exorbitant sums for — tickets to see Pope Francis take a jaunt through Central Park. And I heard from students embarking on seemingly endless bus rides or sleeping on hard gym floors in Philadelphia just to catch a glimpse of the pope.

In most of my conversations and interviews about the pope’s visit in the months and weeks leading up to today, I got the sense that people want to see this pope because they already feel as though they know him.

Through his tweets, homilies, speeches, and the many, many media reports about this papacy, Francis has shown himself to be a master communicator, and his flock is responding. This pope is a pastor at heart, and his authenticity, integrity, and humility have clearly made an impression: Most Americans hold him in high regard.

Of course this visit has political elements. Francis has encouraged Catholics to be engaged in political life, and he’s a shrewd tactician when it comes to getting the Church’s position inserted into the public square.

Francis will speak to a joint meeting of Congress, after all, and give an address to the United Nations in front of most of the world’s political leaders. He’ll speak to some of our most vexing political challenges: immigration, inequality, poverty, the environment, religious freedom, and what he’s dubbed a “throwaway culture” that holds little regard for the disabled, the sick, and the weak.

As a reporter, those grand events will certainly be something to behold.

But it’s the quieter moments, when Pope Francis is acting not like the Supreme Pontiff, but like a pastor, that will be most fascinating. This is when Pope Francis is at his best, when he speaks from the heart, and when we get a glimpse of what’s really on his mind.

I’m thinking of his visit to Catholic Charities in Washington where he’ll meet with homeless folks, of his trek into Harlem to visit a Catholic school, and a stop at a prison in Philadelphia to meet with inmates.

It’s during those encounters that the point of this visit to the United States will become clear.
As he prepared to depart Cuba Tuesday, Francis gave a farewell address to families in Santiago.
He reflected on family life, its messiness and craziness, noting rather matter-of-factly, “there are no perfect families,” while calling on relatives nonetheless to be there for one another.

“In the home, there is no room for ‘putting on masks’” he said. “We are who we are, and in one way or another, we are called to do our best for others.”

For millions, Francis is who he is: inspiring, if sometimes confusing; a pastor trying to do his best for others.

This trip is about more than American politics, and that’s the angle I’m looking forward to covering this week.

— Michael J. O’Loughlin