Are Papal Events Too Disruptive? Perception Leads to “Popecations”, Low Turnout

2015-09-25 12.03.28A traffic map on Friday afternoon in preparation for Pope Francis

On Friday afternoon, the City of Philadelphia was a ghost town.  While some streets were already blocked off in anticipation of tomorrow’s Festival of Families and Sunday’s Papal Mass, the streets were much clearer than most days in the City of Brotherly Love.  The map above is intimidating, but it was easy to walk around Center City Philadelphia Friday.  That is partially because people left.

Weddings and corporate events are essentially non-existent today.  The World Meeting of Families scared people away.  The reality is, during the week there were only about 17,000 people attending the conference.  While that seems like it is a lot, it is less than one-fourth the crowd of a typical Philadelphia Eagles game.   So with many people heading out of town, Center City Philadelphia has been very light.

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Speaking of the Philadelphia Eagles, they are playing up in the Meadowlands against the New York Jets on Sunday, so they will not interfere.  The Phillies will be in Washington, D.C., playing the Washington Nationals.  So, the Sports Complex will be free and clear and no traffic will be headed to South Philadelphia.

Early estimates of 1 million visitors sent many Philadelphians running out of town.  “Popecation” and “Popepocalypse” are two terms popular on social media.  With schools closed and many businesses closed, people took advantage of the long weekend to take trips out of town.

Patrick Franklin, who until recently even worked in one of the parishes in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, headed to Walt Disney World for the weekend.

“Have fun with the Pope, everybody”, Franklin’s Facebook reads.  “I’m so glad to get away from the mess.”

However, the Festival of Families and the Papal Mass will take place on a fenced in area of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.  With a limited number of tickets, there will be a limited number of attendees.  An Associated Press report makes it seem like those allowed in the ticketed area will be relatively light:

“The Secret Service told The Associated Press that about 80,000 people with tickets distributed mostly through local parishes and an online lottery will fill the first three blocks in front of the pope’s altar for the Mass on Sept. 27.

The rest of the mile-long Benjamin Franklin Parkway, stretching to City Hall and also within a secured perimeter, is projected to hold from 150,000 to 200,000, special agent David Beach said.”

80,000 is just 10,000 people more than fill Lincoln Financial Field for a Philadelphia Eagles game.  Tall fences create a barrier keeping those without tickets out.  In order to get into the enclosed area, people will need to pass through metal detectors.   Tickets will be necessary to get in.

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The entire City of Philadelphia has 1.5 million people, so it seems that the early attendance estimates are overstated.  It is reasonable to think that the 17,000 who went to the World Meeting of Families will attend, though many of them are Philadelphians already.  As we mentioned before, some people took tickets as a souvenir, without planning to attend at all.

For comparison, the annual July 4th celebration on the same Benjamin Franklin Parkway has “hundreds of thousands” in the same space.

It is indeed true that the event required extra work for many to make this happen.  Philadelphia police are working four 12-hour days in a row, and planned vacations are canceled.  The State Police, National Guard, Park Rangers, and various branches of the military are all in town making this event go smoothly and keeping everyone safe.

So while there is the buzz of a major disruption or some sort of city shutdown, everything appears to be smoothly moving along.   There is the possibility that after this is all over, people will look back and ask, “What was the big deal?” and wish they had stuck around.


  1. Most certainly, if I lived in Manhattan or in downtown Philadelphia, I would leave town during the papal visit. Papal Masses and “events” (a new category?) are often loud and chaotic. Besides, a Mass said by Pope Francis is no more or less holy than the wartime Masses the Servant of God Fr. Emil Kapaun said on the hood of a Jeep. I sense that some mistakingly think that a grand pontifical Mass with the Holy Father is somehow of greater worth than the most humble and furtive low Mass.

    Akin to the Second Vatican Council (but certainly without the same magisterial force), the teaching authority of Pope Francis as contained in his homilies and sermons remains in the transcripts. It is better then to read the transcripts. Hearing Pope Francis’s Masses in person or through the media is of secondary importance.

  2. Jordan Zarembo : I sense that some mistakingly think that a grand pontifical Mass with the Holy Father is somehow of greater worth than the most humble and furtive low Mass.

    I recall vividly Archbishop Philip Hannon of New Orleans grabbing the microphone off the altar during the 1987 (Saturday afternoon) papal Mass in NOLA and announcing to the TV audience that there was a special treat coming their way: enough hosts had been consecrated at the papal Mass so that every Catholic attending Mass in his archdiocese the next day would receive communion consecrated by the Pope.

    Certainly Church teaching does not give greater worth to one Mass over another. That’s not the issue when a bishop presides over a stational Mass in his diocese. The issue is an ecclesiological one: a more visible manifestation of the Church at worship.

  3. Father Ron, I completely agree with your take on ecclesiology. Yours is the balanced and orthodox understanding of pope visiting and offering Mass with the faithful. However, there is a line between the Holy Father offering Mass as a profound display of unity, and the reduction of the Holy Father to a celebrity.

    As with the example you gave from the papal Mass in New Orleans, popes will be treated as celebrities to be constantly followed and commented on during trips abroad. While I wouldn’t immediately move to uniformly label this papal adulation papolatry, I am convinced that for some persons their adulation for the pontiff merges into a cultic faux-honor for the pontiff. In the latter case “cultic” does not refer to the Latin cultus, or a particular worship, but rather the more recent English connotation of an ecstatic and apparently charismatic excitement of viewing the pope in processions and Masses etc. Seeing the pope, buying a souvenir, etc. assumes an almost relic-like significance for those who bestow a false honor on the pope. It is this disposition which greatly bothers me, as the orthodox ecclesiology you mention Father is obscured by a character cult.

    Only in the 20th century and with the advent of television have many Catholics seen the pope. Throughout the many previous centuries, relatively few knew what the pope looked like and perhaps did not care. The great multitude of saints who lived and died in the arms of the Church are counted among this number.

  4. For me their value lies in attracting the world’s press and getting his message out as a result.
    The glitz and stadium-rock star elements sit uncomfortably for me.

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