Bethlehem paid homage to both its religious roots and modern festival culture when the Steel Stacks hosted a papal mass viewing party for the Pope’s visit in Philadelphia last Sunday.
The all day event was a fusion of carnival, concert and church.
Included in the crowd of about 3,000 were children licking ice cream cones, couples sipping beer and families waving Vatican City flags and clutching rosaries. One priest wore an “I <3 Pope Francis” t-shirt while another man donned a fake bishop’s hat, remarking it was a “huge hit in Philly” the day before. White tents of vendors dotted the walkway selling funnel cake and Pope Francis bobbleheads. A local rock band played “Surfin U.S.A.,” while images of the crucifix flashed on the screens of the two jumbotrons airing the mass.
All fell quiet though just after 4 p.m. when Pope Francis emerged on screen and the mass the spectators had been waiting for began. A stretch of lawn chairs filled the grass of the Levitt pavilion and a cardboard cutout of Francis presided over them. Instead of mouthing along to lyrics by their favorite artists, viewers mouthed along to the familiar hum of Catholic hymns and prayers being recited on screen.
Robert Lawrence, a Bethlehem resident and Moravian student, said he liked the event because he saw a lot of people he knows in the community there.
“A lot of time when you come down here for a concert of larger event you see a lot of out-of-towners,” he said. “But this one sort of brings everyone together.”
With approximately 4.6 churches per square mile, Bethlehem, founded by the Moravians and known as the Christmas City, has no shortage of physical reminders of the town’s religious origins. While today some of these buildings are desolate and abandoned, the city’s influx of hispanic residents over the past few decades has kept Christianity in Bethlehem alive during a time when nationwide church membership has been on the decline.
“I had an elderly Hispanic woman approach me and she wanted to pray with me,” said Francine Gore, a volunteer at the event. “So I took out this prayer card and we read it together.”
While Pope Francis’ stop in Philadelphia was important to many Catholics in the crowd, others came to watch it just the same.
“You don’t even have to be Catholic,” said Linda Galitis, a Bethlehem resident. “My husband’s Greek Orthodox and he is so impressed with this Pope. We needed a good change for everybody.”
While Gore said these days it is difficult to get many different cultures together at once, the people came together because they admire Pope Francis.
“They feel like they’re being blessed by coming here,” she said.