Miracles on the Ben Franklin Parkway

Miracles on the Ben Franklin Parkway

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In his final homily in the United States, given at the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families to a crowd of hundreds of thousands gathered on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Pope Francis talked about small miracles —”the miracle of love” expressed in simple familial gestures.

“[Jesus] asks us to go through life, our everyday life, encouraging all these little signs of love as signs of his own living and active presence in our world,” he said.

It was a weekend full of miracles.

On Saturday, crowds flooded the Parkway for the Festival of Families, a concert and formal ceremony, where Pope Francis would listen to the testimony of families from around the world and offer remarks on the family.

As the crowd waited through the afternoon for the 7:30 p.m. festival to begin, one group of priests from Ohio held impromptu confessions in front of the Rodin Museum Square on the Parkway.

By 3:30 p.m., the priests had already been listening to confessions for nearly three hours.

“Having confessions in public like this is a really great testament to the Catholic faith,” said one of the priests’ fellow pilgrims, Luke Brown, 16, of Mason, Ohio. “We’re all about forgiveness.”

Further up the parkway, Margaret Compagna was at a jumbotron, one of the many along the parade routes, handing out water bottles. The 74-year-old volunteer from Tacony, Pa., had been standing on two replaced knees since 9:30 that morning, there to help out and to be part of the excitement.

“I’m so glad to be here,” she said. “I just love seeing all of these people, all the different nationalities and cultures, all of the young people.”

Later that night her fellow volunteers would help her stand on the stacks of water bottles nearly four feet high to get a view as the pope passed by.

John McAllister, a parishioner of St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Gibbsboro and Director of Strategic Sourcing at Wawa’s headquarters in Media, Pa., explained that the company had donated 1.5 million water bottles for weekend’s events.

He, along with 100 volunteers from Wawa, had boarded a bus at 6:30 a.m. that morning, and he planned to stay on the parkway until 8 p.m. that night giving out the water bottles.

“The pope doesn’t come to our area but once in a lifetime,” he said. “It seems like this pope has a mindset to build a bridge with the people. Hopefully he’ll reenergize people to get reengaged with the church.”

At 4:45 that afternoon, every jumbotron speaker suddenly boomed with the crash of the opening notes of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” and every face turned to the nearest screen to watch Pope Francis make his formal entrance to the Philadelphia public through the doors of Independence Hall.

From the historic national monument, he urged Americans to remember their past, a theme of his addresses in Philadelphia, where he several times held up the richness of the memory of the elderly and the important role of grandparents. In a similar way, he encouraged immigrants to the U.S. to hold on to their roots, and for Americans in general to respect their common heritage of religious diversity and freedom.

“I ask you not to forget that, like those who came here before you, you bring many gifts to your new nation. You should never be ashamed of your traditions,” he said, addressing Hispanic Americans in particular. “Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land.”

That evening, the popemobile made its first of two parades, passing by thousands of screaming faithful who became frenzied for the brief seconds when the pope was in their direct line of sight.

The Miller family, parishioners at St. Rose of Lima Parish, attended the Festival of Families: all five of them were able to be on the Parkway: Kathy, David and their three children.

“We wanted to meet people and see the pope, and we have done that!” said Kathy Miller. “We’ve met people who have come from all over the world, from all different states to be here.”

After listening to the testimonies of six families from around the world, Pope Francis discarded his prepared speech and spoke joyfully about family life to the delight of the crowd.

“Forgive me, but I have to say, the family is like a factory of hope. It’s a factory of resurrection. God opened this path, this possibility,” he said, noting that Jesus was born into a family.

Later he offered practical advice: “Never let the day end without making peace. In a family, you can’t finish the day off not being in peace.”

The musical performances by headliners like Andrea Bocelli, Juanes, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Aretha Franklin lasted into the night. Fireworks closed Pope Francis’ first day in Philadelphia.

In Center City’s parks and open spaces, whole families slept in the open air on cardboard and in sleeping bags, ready to greet the next day from the Parkway.

Sunday began early for Susan Pianoforte and her family. They were up at 3:30 a.m., leaving their home in Bucks County, Pa., at 5 to drive into Philadelphia for the papal Mass. Their early morning paid off: they had carved out a space on the Parkway as far up as a typical ticket-holder could go, with a view of the altar through a chain-link fence.

Why make the trek to Philadelphia so early to wait on the Parkway for hours?

“Because I love him so much. He is bringing me back to my church,” Pianoforte said.

After suffering the loss of three of her children, she said she stopped going to Mass.

“I haven’t prayed in years. Watching and listening to him brought me back. It’s like a miracle,” she said.

It would be her first time at Mass in two years. When asked what she hoped the experience would give her, she replied simply: “An answer.”

Ann Katz, a parishioner of St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Sicklerville, had also found a place close to the front of the Parkway where she settled in with her two daughters-in-law at 7 a.m. for a 9-hour wait for Mass. They were on the first PATCO train out of New Jersey at 6 a.m. that morning.

Katz remembered standing on Broad Street in Philadelphia for Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1979.

“I think it brought me closer to the pope and to the church. I still remember it as clear as day and all I did was see him drive by,” she said. “That’s what I want my family to experience today. It’s something they’re going to be able to tell their grandchildren.”

As the hours ticked by, groups on the parkway prayed the rosary. Some began to sing. Others relaxed in foldable lawn chairs and waited, listening to the musical performances that took place throughout the day. The flags that line the Parkway were mirrored in the crowd below, draped over shoulders and waved in the air representing the vast diversity of the pilgrims.

After a second popemobile parade, with some watchers hanging from the Parkway’s trees to get a view, the long awaited Mass finally began.

“Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love for the sake of all the families of the world, and thus overcome the scandal of a narrow, petty love, closed in on itself, impatient of others!” Pope Francis said in a homily delivered in Spanish. “And how beautiful it would be if everywhere, even beyond our borders, we could appreciate and encourage this prophecy and this miracle!”

At the close of Mass, he asked the crowd in English, with signature charming humility: “Pray for me;” then, smiling: “Don’t forget.”

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