Reflections from the road: Feet for Francis Day 8

The final full day of the Feet for Francis/Pilgrimage of Love and Mercy began with a jolt to the nervous system. Maureen Cromer had to get from the gym at the former St. Philomena School to the 30th Street Train Station bright and early Sept. 27 to greet the Amtrak express from Baltimore – an aspect of the day pilgrims being shepherded by the archdiocese and Catholic Review Media that had been the genesis of our walk. Hearing horror stories about security in Center City, Maureen rode shotgun while I started her car at around 5:20 a.m. We were stopped at a red light on Baltimore Pike without a whiff of coffee, when a gleaming set of teeth that resembled the Chesire Cat came out of the dark and a hand pounded on her window. We jumped and screamed, until we recognized Matt Pieper. The father of Shanon and Logan needed to rendezvous with another daughter, to watch the Papal Mass with her.

He hopped in the back seat, and I let the two of them off at 38th Street, the western security perimeter. Twenty minutes later, it made for a light moment during a radio interview with WBAL’s Robert Lang.

Back at St. Philomena, pilgrims were waking and packing for the final time. All were given a golden ticket, courtesy of Father Paul Castellani, the pastor. Like most outside the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, we had been thrown a curveball when organizers announced that a ticket would be required for admittance above Logan Circle to the papal Mass along Benjamin Franklin Parkway. For the most part we struck out Sept. 9, when some extras became available online. The next morning, Father Paul said not to worry, he had set aside tickets for his guests from Baltimore.

His gym is decorated with banners of CYO basketball championships, no small distinction in what I consider America’s best basketball town. “Come back in a few weeks,” Father Paul said. “We’re honoring one of the teams that included Phil Martelli (the longtime coach of St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia). Phil’s dad is in (7:30 a.m.) Mass right now.”

So was Mary Bergin, unbeknownst to the rest of the pilgrims. Search parties couldn’t locate her until 8:30 a.m., when she came across the parking lot pushing a wheelchair she had procured for Madelyn Milstead, who had been hobbled with an ankle injury for several days. We folded the wheelchair into the back of the St. Ignatius van – aka the Baltimore Popemobile – which I piloted 4.5 miles to the corner of 38th and Market Streets, where I waited in the Corner Bakery with Madelyn; her mom, Catherine; and others for Father Jack and the walkers. Leaning on his roots in Oregon, Kevin Brown drove the van back to St. Philomena, then ran down Father Jack’s group, yeoman duty he repeated later that day.

Some wait out the morning at the Corner Bakery at Market and 38th Streets. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)

They arrived at 10:35 a.m., according to a group text I sent the media. The minutes before and after were giddy with anticipation, as pilgrims passed out prayer cards and told visiting religious women that their money was no good, “let me pay for your coffee.” With little more than a mile left between us and Pope Francis, it seemed that we crossed the Schuylkill River on air rather than on Market Street. Turning north on 21st Street around 11:30 a.m., everything ground to a crawl just past the portable toilets under JFK Boulevard. It took us nearly two hours to move as many blocks, a wait made terminable by the universal church made visible and all of those little babies in tow. When pilgrims complained of claustrophobia, I told them to turn around and look back, at all of the faces behind them, rather than the backs in front.

Patience was required on 21st Street, near Arch. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)

Without Madelyn getting us access to a handicapped entrance, we probably would not have made it through security in time to line up along a snow fence and watch the papal motorcade before 4 p.m. Mass. That I took the following video on Maureen’s mini-tablet is not noteworthy: the miracle is that I sat down on the grass, fired up Chris Gunty’s mobile wireless hotspot and e-mailed it to her in three segments. Somehow, God graced me with the patience and presence to slow down and follow the prompts appearing on the mini.

Watch a video of the pilgrims greeting the pope.

Transmitting that, I multi-tasked and opened the bag lunch that Laura Hamilton and other moms had prepared – my PBJ was better than filet mignon. Around me, it was as packed as a Preakness infield, but with an entirely different sense of decorum, one evidenced during communion, when others waved strangers in the direction of lines for communion. I had seen the Holy Father, albeit from a greater distance, in St. Peter’s Square last April. Attempting to process the afternoon and the week it took to get from Baltimore to Philadelphia, I realized that, at least for me, the journey was the destination.

From left, Eun Ya Williams, her husband, Bob, and Mary Bergin watch the papal motorcade, moments after it had passed in front of them. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)

We picked up Father Jack and his through walkers by van around 50th Street on Baltimore Pike, and drove them back to St. Philomena. Leftover pizza from Saturday night became our final meal on the road, and I think Pope Francis would have approved. Some asked for other pilgrims to sign their T-shirts. I second-guessed what we would change – put “Feet for Francis” on those, introduce 9-year-old Philomena Tiller to the faithful at St. Philomena and hire a media consultant – but then I thought of all that went right.

Adult pilgrims on chairs, with youths on the floor, give thanks at the end of an eight-day journey that had some walk 110 miles. (Paul McMullen/CR Staff)

There was the manner in which very private pilgrims became rather public evangelists, as reported that evening by the NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt.  There was also the weather that God blessed us with, as we beat the remnants of Hurricane Joaquin by a week.

Speaking of forces of nature, Father Jack tossed this into an Oct. 7 email:

“Wanna talk to you about another project I am working on sometime!”


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