Ardent Eccentric: Pope Pop Culture

Pope Francis gives his thumb up as he leaves at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter's square at the Vatican, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2013. (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

I had this feeling recently that pop culture was starting to invade all aspects of my life. I was TV obsessed, I wrote articles for Doc Palindrome, I obsessively scoured Reddit for spoilers and fan theories. I attended cons on a regular basis.  I needed a break. I needed to just be around “regular” people for a while, people who perhaps were on a spiritual journey, rather than on the latest hunt for this autograph or that photo at a con (admittedly, some will argue this too is a spiritual journey, but I’m talking outside the Church of the Fonz).

So a few weeks ago when Pope Francis was visiting the United States, I had to be a part of the phenomenon. It was too close to home to not participate, and while not a current practicing Catholic, I have a great deal of respect for Pope Francis and his efforts to improve the world and international relations. Plus, I thought, this will be a day to get away and catch up with a good friend, talk about the confused spirituality of our teenagers, human rights, and other difficult topics, and share in something with someone I respect immensely.

What I experienced was not what I expected. While I did have some small spiritual moments throughout the day, I more so found myself reflecting on how pop culture had even infiltrated the Pope’s visitation. It also gave me a far better understanding of one of my favorite shows, but I’ll get to that.

Our trip to Philadelphia was sponsored by the local archdiocese, which was awesome, because I couldn’t imagine trying to drive up there myself and find a place to park. We were gifted with special embroidered hats and rosaries as part of our travel package, which I found a little amusing when my friend and I had first signed up for the trip – to me it seemed like we were receiving “swag.” I thought swag was a little contradictory for a pilgrimage to see the pope, but hey, I am always about getting a good deal, and this made me somehow feel like the money I paid for the bus trip was worth it. Conventions do this too-that corporate sponsored bag with its tiny giveaways you will never use again make you feel special, make you feel like you are getting the most for your dollar. I doubt I will wear that hat ever again, but I have something that someone who didn’t go doesn’t, so the souvenir aspect of it appeals to me.


The papal SWAG

When we got to Philadelphia, there were thousands and thousands of people milling about the bus parking lot, which again, reminded me of San Diego Comic Con. I was not intimidated in the least, as the maps we had been provided showed us that there were at least 15 city blocks in which to wait to see the Pope-there was plenty of room for everyone. I did find all of the clergy amusing, however-I realize they were dressed in their habits as a sign of respect, but all I kept thinking was “weirdest…cosplay…ever.”

After an hour waiting in line to get on the metro to downtown with again, literally thousands of other people, we arrived in downtown Philadelphia, where there were massive screens placed at various points along the route. As we made our way along what we believed was the Pope’s parade route, there were people hawking t-shirts, pins, prints, lanyards – anything that you could put the Pope on, they were selling. Which again, the Pope souvenir swag seemed weird to me, but people were all about it.

We found a spot near the front of a gated off area on the parade route and were super excited, since we had a clear shot of him for pictures. We found out soon after that the Pope was not taking this route, but by then, it was too late to move.
While I was disappointed, I held out hope that the police officers were wrong and that Pope Francis would make an unexpected turn down our street. When he came down a side street near us, the screams were deafening. People began pushing forward in an attempt to see and photograph the jumbotron on the corner of our street. The gate in front of us swayed and I honestly was terrified that I was going to be crushed by a group of zealots intent on taking a picture of something they could have photographed on their television at home. I can honestly say that I have never, ever, ever experienced anything like that at a con, not even San Diego. Even the Twihards several years ago in line for Hall H for days had the common courtesy of not trying to kill each other for a photo of Robert Pattison.

After that, I needed to get away for the celebration of the Mass. There were too many people and I was terrified of being crushed. My friend and I went to the mid level of a building near City Hall, which put us level with the top of one of the jumbotrons. There were still so many people in front of us on the building that we could not see the Mass clearly. Defeated, we sat down behind the crowd and tried to follow along as best we could.
All hope was not lost, however – I did have a couple of moments where my faith in humanity was restored. At one point, we all prayed aloud together a specific prayer. To hear at least 10,000 people around you say the same thing together is a rather overwhelming experience, and makes you wonder why we can’t unify for other things in our world. And I was offered the sign of peace by at least 40 people in 6 different languages, which also moved me to tears.

However, it wasn’t enough to make me want to stay for the whole Mass-I convinced my friend that we should make our way back to the Metro before the crowds came. This was folly-many, many people had the same idea.

And suddenly I realized how shows like Fear the Walking Dead and The Walking Dead could occur.

pope francis zombies

Quick! See if you can identify which picture is from the papal visit to Philadelphia!

We were trapped in a crowd of people attempting to leave from a Metro station (Philadelphia only had two stations open in and out of the city to control the flow of people) for two hours. And this was just to get down to the actual train. People pushed, shoved, yelled. They moved ahead as if no one else mattered.

And again, this was after a spiritual pilgrimage to see the Pope.

We did finally make it back to our bus, three hours after we started towards the station. And the next day, I had to shoo my husband and child out of the house as much as possible just so I could be alone for a bit – the idea of being near people was horrifying to me.

San Diego Comic Con, with its 125,000 attendees doesn’t bother me-but close to a million? Yeah, that’s my limit.
So my day of hoping to get away for a spiritual journey to see the Pope was instead filled with swag, pushy crowds, extreme fangirling, unwanted photography and trying to get into an event, only to be disappointed. Sooo…not very different than many of my cons.

But it was also filled with laughter, shared interests, swag (I haven’t decided if that’s a plus or a minus), and cosplayers (ok, sort of-I’m calling the nuns cosplayers because many of those habits were awesome).

And the fact that above all else, I can say “I was there.”