Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Blurry Pope of '79

Pope John Paul II visited Philadelphia in 1979. As an 11 year old I took this photograph of my mom waiting for the Pope on Broad and Shunk.

You can see me in the reflection of her sunglasses.

I wore a pale yellow "Pope"  t-shirt the nuns at my elementary school had us buy. We were supposed to hold something up as he drove by--it would be blessed.

We waited for hours on Broad Street on an an mild October day. Over a million people lined the streets--more than would turn out for the Phillies World Series parade a year later. I remember it snowed a few days after the Pope visited.

However, the memory that stands out strongest is the ultra-brief glimpse we had of him in his Popemobile.

Running late from his flight, Pope John Paul II blew by us in a bullet proof bubble. I wasn't prepared for the speed or the presentation.  He went by. Zoom.

A growling and accelerating motorcade transformed the promised leisurely cruise down the main thoroughfare of Philadelphia into a panicked teenager trying to make curfew. No one knew what was going on--and rumors quickly spread through the crowd: he was sick! someone tried to harm the Pope!

Was that him? Is that it? 

After hours and hours of waiting, the thousands of people sharing the intersection with my mom and me just stared at one another.

I wanted to press down on that bubble in frustration to see if he joggled around like dice. We stood in a crowd for hours in order to wave to the notoriously charming Pope and had no explanation for what happened in the moment. I had my camera--I was ready for the money shot with the Pope.

Instead we got a white smear and a sonic boom.

Later that week, we debated at school as to whether or not our icons were blessed. Some frowned that he couldn't have blessed anything at that speed. Of course, some kids said he looked at them dead in the eye and sent his holy blessing at their Pete Rose autographed baseball mitt or their popsicle stick framed picture of the Pope.

Local history will remember that the Pope delivered an outdoor mass in Logan Circle and that he found the time to wade through the crowds, smiling and charismatic, like a triumphant Donald Trump who strides through his casinos as if he is Caesar crossing the Rubicon. That is the Pope I wanted to see when I was a kid. But I didn't. I got the blurry Pope.

As the smoke went up today in Italy, I was prompted to look at my only worthy memory of that day and the blessing that is and has always been my mom.


  1. What a great story and a memory that you will have for a lifetime. Too bad he went by in a blur. It was great that there was a debate as to whether your icons were blessed. Like Santa, I guess you have to believe.

  2. Great story! I was fascinated by the black and white smoke at the Sistine Chapel today, what a crazy ancient tradition in today's modern world.

  3. Ha!! What a great memory! And I love the line, "I got the blurry Pope." Thanks for sharing!

  4. So many great lines, "I got the blurry Pope." and "I wanted to press down on the bubble to see if he joggled around like dice." Do you have a photo of you in your POPE t shirt? I love the photo of your mom. Thanks for sharing this great memory.