A message of love

Pope Francis blesses an inmate at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Holmesburg on Sunday morning. SOURCE: SABINA LOUISE PIERCE

Tom and Natalie Morgan did not plan to join the hundreds of thousands of papal pilgrims on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sunday, but something called them there.

Tom, a Juniata Park native and 1968 Northeast Catholic alumnus, and his wife, a St. Maria Goretti grad from South Philly, now live in Blackwood, New Jersey. As Pope Francis embarked on his first trip to the United States with visits to the Capitol, White House and Catholic University in Washington, D.C., followed by sojourns to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the National September 11 Memorial and Madison Square Garden in New York City, the Morgans monitored his activities closely through mass media.

And defying the myriad of travel obstacles, they found their way to 20th Street and the Parkway on Sunday where, shortly after the start of the 4 p.m. Mass, they discussed their inspiration.

“We were just watching the pope, how he handled everything and how the crowds responded to him. We decided yesterday afternoon that we were going to come to the city,” Tom Morgan told the Northeast Times.

“We wanted to feel his presence,” Natalie Morgan said.

Just then, the couple turned and saw two more familiar faces. Astonishingly, it was their daughter Donna Cristino and her son. They hadn’t planned to meet there. Only an extraordinary optimist might’ve even attempted such a rendezvous considering the sea of humanity surrounding them.

“I had no idea I’d be running into them. It’s crazy,” Cristino said.

Maybe it was fate — or spiritual intervention — that on the ultimate day of a week during which Catholics from around the globe gathered in Philadelphia to celebrate the family, that the Morgans would be reunited with their family to hear the Gospel … and to take a group selfie.

“I’m overwhelmed just to be here,” Natalie Morgan said. “The pope went right by me. He’s wonderful. He’s brought everybody together. I hope his presence continues to permeate the people.”

“We had no expectations. We just wanted to come down and be involved in any part of it,” said Tom Morgan, a board member of the Northeast Catholic Alumni Association, which still awards more than $250,000 in college scholarships annually although the school was closed in 2010.

Morgan’s joyous sentiments were universal among the multitudes, regardless of nationality, ethnic background or even religious beliefs.

Valentine Akubueze was among about 120 members of the Catholic Association of Nigeria who spent the week in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and the Papal Mass.

“We’ve been planning for more than a year. We are a religious nation,” Akubueze said. “We came to celebrate with the pope.”

The CAN contingent dressed in matching traditional garb, all cut from the same green and white patterned cloth. Their leader, Sister Regina, suggested the attire. They set up chairs and blankets on the grass along the Parkway near the green and white Nigerian flag.

“I wanted the opportunity to see the pope,” Akubueze said.

St. Pope John Paul II went to Nigeria twice, in 1982 and 1998, but Akubueze was unable to attend the events surrounding either papal visit. That changed on Sunday.

“I took his picture. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That’s what I told the embassy in Lagos,” he said.

“You can see we didn’t have much access. There are a lot of people here and we came a little late. (But) we’re here to celebrate Mass with the pope. It means a lot to us.”

Contrary to some detractors, Akubueze found Philadelphians to be welcoming, too.

“They’re very friendly. America is good,” he said.

Hospitality extended well beyond the Parkway. Inside West’s Tavern at 15th and Callowhill streets, the staff set up a hot buffet and served drinks to travelers, some rapt with anticipation of seeing the pope and others weary from walking. On Sunday afternoon, several Pennsylvania National Guard members occupied a table as the Philadelphia Eagles game aired on nearby televisions.

General Manager Sean Everitt, a Father Judge graduate whose family has owned the business for five years, showed a framed certificate of appreciation given him by Guard members earlier that day.

“It’s really cool to be part of history,” Everitt said. “Everybody’s been really nice and friendly. The National Guard officers have been great.”

Everitt called in several pals, like Bustleton native Michael Hunt, to bolster the staff in case business got really heavy. Another staff member, Rob Convery, got into the spirit with a “Pope is dope” T-shirt.

“We’ve been here all weekend. Friday was kind of busy, Saturday not so much,” Hunt said. “Everybody’s been buying cheesesteaks because they’re not from Philly.”

“It’s been rushes,” said Everitt, who met people from Argentina, Philippines, Mexico and Italy, among many other nations.

“Diversity is everywhere,” Hunt agreed.

The cultural melting pot took center stage on Spring Garden Street, which was one of the dedicated walking routes outside the gated security zone of the Parkway. A few dozen worshippers from the Diocese of Orlando, Florida, gathered on the steps of an office building and sang a Spanish language medley tribute to Pope Francis while waving Mexican and Argentine flags.

A couple of blocks west, musicians from St. Michael Church in Old Kensington — a parish formed by Irish in 1831 and now populated largely by Latinos — led a circle dance of multi-national missionaries, who waved Mexican, Brazilian and Salvadoran flags.

Also on Spring Garden Street, a man wearing a white graduation gown and a cardboard hat resembling a papal mitre drove a bicycle taxi, offering free rides. The cyclist encouraged bystanders to take notice of hashtags scrawled on his vehicle that promoted environmental causes such as “#ClimateAction” and “Renewable2020PHL” among others.

Near the end of Mass on the Parkway, when hundreds of clergy fanned out among the faithful to deliver Communion wafers, a man reached the front of one queue but didn’t know the protocol for the sacrament. A priest reminded him that you have to be Catholic to receive Communion.

In contrast to the bike taxi pope impersonator, pilgrims like Kanra Magnatta of Gladwyne had no real interest in grabbing a sliver of the spotlight. It was all about Pope Francis. She used a park bench to get a bird’s eye view of the papal procession.

“It sent chills through all of us,” Magnatta said. “We were mesmerized, the fact that he was going so slow and stopping and picking up children. There was a sea of people. It was amazing. He seems to be the people’s pope. Everybody seems mesmerized no matter the religion.” ••

Pilgrims from around the world gather along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sunday to witness the Papal Mass. MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO

The people’s pope: A sea of people assembled along Benjamin Franklin Parkway to see Pope Francis in his popemobile on Sunday. The pontiff stopped to kiss babies and bless the sick during his parade through Center City. MARIA S. YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO