The Way to Curb Greed

Invite the pope to visit your city:

Even as hundreds of thousands of people thronged the Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sunday for Mass with Pope Francis, his weekend visit to Philadelphia apparently failed to deliver the economic boon predicted by organizers.

Some businesses closed early, some downtown hotel rooms went unfilled and normally bustling city streets were deserted over the weekend as residents either stayed home or left town, and pilgrims kept their wallets in their pockets.

Celebrity chef Marc Vetri, whose eponymous restaurant is a fine-dining landmark, took to Facebook to rail against city leaders who he said “decided to roll out the red carpet for everyone making the pilgrimage, and roll us up in the carpet to place in storage until Monday.” He said he was “haunted by the empty streets and shuttered windows.”

One of Vetri’s smaller pizzerias, at least, was enjoying a brisk business as people were leaving after Mass and the global gathering ended; the pizzeria near a security checkpoint was packed with an hour wait for a table. And at an outside tent, it was doing a brisk business selling pizza by the slice, pies, and drinks.

At Midtown III restaurant, co-owner Vivian Tafuri rented a refrigerated truck, filled it with $7,500 worth of food and spent another $1,000 on a parking space.

“It’s all wasted,” Tafuri fumed Sunday. “All the time our mayor was saying a million and a half people, and nothing. Wasted.”

Liz Furey, a bartender at the restaurant, said the pope’s visit chased away the regulars.

“The people who are visiting are having a good time at the parkway. But as far as the local businesses were concerned, what we were promised didn’t happen at all,” Furey said.

The World Meeting of Families, the Vatican-sponsored conference that drew Francis to Philadelphia, had estimated 1.5 million people would show up for the pope’s weekend visit, with 10,000 staying overnight and business sales of $390 million.

Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive of Visit Philadelphia, the main tourism marketing agency, acknowledged Sunday that many shops and restaurants were hurting for business. Pilgrims went to Philadelphia to “be in the aura of the pope,” not to spend a lot of money, she said.

“To look at a grassroots spiritual event in terms of immediate economic benefit is asking too much of it,” she said.

City officials who for months had issued dire warnings about long walks and security lines to reach Pope Francis’ events recalibrated their message last month amid fears they were scaring people away, launching an “I’ll be There” campaign as well as the OpenInPhl hashtag for city businesses.

But their efforts came too little, too late for some merchants.

With sales down more than 50 percent, Robek’s, a juice and smoothie shop, decided to close early Sunday.

Manager Dave Deener blamed the intense security, including concrete barriers and a vehicle checkpoint near the entrance. National Guard troops and a police officer sat on folding chairs nearby.

“It’s awful. Everybody got scared off because of the security detail,” he said.

Philly Cupcake went all out for Pope Francis’ visit, making papal and Jesus cupcakes and plastering the windows with his picture. One window even had a big sign showing the pontiff holding a cupcake as if it were a communion wafer.

“A lot of people take pictures with it, but they don’t come in,” said store associate Silvia Pulido.

The impact of the pope’s visit on business was especially apparent Saturday night.

Some Center City hotel rooms went unfilled – though officials said it was a near sell-out – and tables could be had at some of the city’s trendiest restaurants. On normally bustling South Street, bars, restaurants, sneaker stores and smoke shops – usually filled on weekends with city residents, suburban gawkers and tourists – were empty.

Stephen Starr, one of the city’s most prominent restaurateurs with about 20 eateries, told The Philadelphia Inquirer the pope’s visit “affected business worse that Hurricane Sandy.”

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Giving Old Meaning to Celebrity Pastor

Can you imagine the mayor of Grand Rapids taking a delegation of city officials to Willow Grove, Pennsylvania, the home of the OPC’s headquarters, to solicit last year’s moderator of General Assembly to attend this year’s assembly in Grand Rapids? I can’t. You can’t. No one can. The reason is that a moderator of an OPC General Assembly is not someone who is going to generate tourism dollars for local business. At best, last year’s moderator will show up (if not a commissioner) and plunk down maybe $1,400 in expenses between room, meals, parking, airport taxes, and miscellaneous items.

The reason for this thought experiment is the news that Michael Nutter, the mayor of Philadelphia, received a bit of a cold shoulder from Pope Francis earlier this week. For a cash-strapped city, it is not enough to be hosting a world conference on families thanks to the Archbishop of Philadelphia’s responsibility. The conference scheduled for next should draw hundreds of thousands to the city. But Nutter wanted to persuade the pope to attend. Since Nutter is not a Roman Catholic (to my knowledge) and since Philadelphia’s origins are Quaker, the only logical explanation for Nutter’s arm-twisting is commercial. With the presence of the pope, maybe those flocking to Philadelphia will double?

Such attention to the papacy, however, has its downside:

The truth is that the more the world flatters the Catholic Church by fixating on the papacy—and the more the internal Catholic conversation is monopolized by speculation about the intentions of one man—the less likely it is that the church will succeed in moving beyond the confusions and conflicts that have preoccupied it since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). The church desperately needs to reclaim its cultural and spiritual equilibrium; it must find a density and richness of worship and mission and a renewed public presence, which far transcend mere loyalty to the pope. Lacking such equilibrium and self-possession, the church cannot find its true voice. But to find this voice, Catholics will have to turn not to Rome but toward one another, which is where both the problems and the solutions lie.

The fixation on the papacy trivializes the faith of Catholics, the vast majority of whom throughout history have had little knowledge of, and no contact with, any pope. Traditionally, the papacy was the court of last resort in adjudicating disagreements among the faithful. But in the last century or so it has increasingly become the avenue of first resort, determined to meddle in every theological or ecclesiological dispute. If American nuns are flirting with novel styles of ministry, the Vatican intercedes. If translations of liturgical texts incorporate a bit of inclusive language, Rome takes out its red pencil. This meddling Vatican infantilizes the church’s bishops, who seem to change their tune (as well as their dress) in response to every new papal fashion. Bishops in turn demand deference from the clergy and laity. The consequences have been all too clear: As in any heavily top-down organization, local initiatives fail to gain a foothold, or fizzle out for lack of dynamic leadership, and apathy prevails in the pews. Institutional gridlock and paralysis have become the norm. Seminaries are empty, and clerical talent is thin on the ground.

At the same time, the advantage of the papacy is the one that goes with monarchy more generally. Imagine Mayor Nutter having to fly around to all of the largest dioceses in N. America, Africa, and Europe, to persuade archbishops to attend the conference and to pay for some of their parishioners to visit Philadelphia. It would break the Mayor’s travel budget. So with one person in power comes efficiency and decisiveness (no consensus-building among committee members).

And for that reason, Roman Catholicism will have trouble ever finding the road to the spirituality of the church even when the pope’s real power is merely spiritual.