(Vatican Radio) One of the scores of thousands of pilgrim participants in the Religious Freedom rally on Independence Mall in Philadelphia on Saturday afternoon was Clara Dorfman, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh. She shared with Vatican Radio her impressions of the event and the day.
The area around Independence Hall in Philadelphia had been buzzing from around 7am. Early birds gleefully claimed spots near to the stage, set up in front of the building where the Declaration of Independence was signed 239 years ago by America's founding fathers. The day before Pope Francis' historic appearance at this site, a group of Hispanic tourists getting in a last-minute walkthrough of the building began to sing a heartfelt rendition of "Cristo nos da la Libertad" - "Christ gives us Liberty" - upon entering the room where that signing occurred.
The crowd that showed up here for the world's first Latin-American Pope on the afternoon of September 26 was overwhelmingly Spanish-speaking, perhaps because it had been announced that the Pontiff was to speak Spanish at this particular event.
When a few state troopers hinted at where the pope would be passing by, around noontime, the excitement starting mounting - even though the pope wasn't due for another four hours at least.
The Festival of Families at Independence Mall, part of the World Meeting of Families' planned itinerary for the papal visit, began shortly thereafter. With performances by cultures from all around the globe, this celebration of families, and international ones in particular, was a touching way to prepare crowds for the pope's anticipated speech on immigrants' unique role in US society.
I've been to a number of events for the current pope, only ever in Rome, and I'm always impressed by the stamina of the crowds. They appear so prepared and even delighted to wait, in hopes of what may or may not be a glimpse of the Holy Father. It's fair to say, however, that the wait times in Philadelphia were unlike anything I'd ever experienced before; after nine or ten hours, more than a few of the people sitting around me were starting to fade.
All that seemed suddenly forgotten when, with a subtle grin, police officers in the vicinity began announcing the pope's imminent arrival. It was 4:30, blue skies and warm, after a decidedly chillier morning. The crowds around me began inching towards the barriers along Market Street, where the pope was meant to be passing on his way to the stage.
It was hard to believe at first - even after months of preparation and hearing rumors running all day through the smartphone-equipped crowd: "the Pope's landed in Philly", "he's at the Cathedral of Peter and Paul," "I heard he's headed to lunch." But before long, after the police motorcade and the multiple escort vehicles, came the final proof: it was the man himself. Pope Francis was really here.
The hordes of papal security guards were visible first, then the unmistakable white popemobile - then the Pope. His smile and enthusiasm were undeniable - he waved with a vengeance at the screaming, beaming crowds, seeming to give off enough electrifying energy to match theirs.
For Elizabeth Dierkes, who had her first ever papal spotting today, it was a little surreal. "It didn't click that he was there until five minutes after he had passed," she said. She explained that in the moment of spotting Francis, she'd felt the sudden need to make the sign of the cross. As of this writing, Elizabeth says she's still in shock and can't quite believe what she's seen.
Francis appeared to ad lib at one point in his address to the Independence Hall crowd, which focused on the continued need to embrace America's history and legacy as a nation of immigrants. He looked up at the crowd and said, in Spanish, "what I just said a few moments ago was about globalization. I don't mean that all globalization is bad - globalization can be good!" He went on to explain that a globalization which embraces and celebrates our differences while uniting us to one another, rather than eliminating our differences, is what moves modern society forward.
A few days ago while addressing Congress, Francis endeared himself to many Americans by his grand, heavily accented pronouncement of "God bless America!" In a way, though, I think the Pope's proclamation at the end of this address, following his standard request that we all "pray a little bit" for him, was even more touching: "God bless you all."