When Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington, DC, in 2008, I was working near the National Mall and had virtually no interest in religion. But I learned he was going to be cruising down Pennsylvania Avenue in his Popemobile, and really, how often do you see that?
So I took a long lunch and ran through thick, sweaty throngs of devoted Catholics, Protestant protesters, official PopeGear© hawkers, and looky-loos like me to watch a little foreign man sitting behind Plexiglass. He rode by at 10 miles an hour, waving to the crowd in a halty, mechanical motion, and then he was off to his next papal adventure.
Pope Francis’ US visit later this month will draw enormous crowds. If you can go, by all means see him! Go for the history, go for the amusing anecdote. Just don’t go for spiritual fulfillment, because, when you’re shoved into a space with thousands of other bodies and you’re hot and tired and hungry, a two-second glimpse of a man in a car is not going to cut it.
If you want spiritual fulfillment, try these places instead:
1. The Baltimore Basilica
America’s first cathedral was built in the early 19th century in Baltimore, Maryland. Today it is a hodgepodge of neoclassical design, modern renovations, and a spectacularly spooky underbelly. Though open to the public 7 days a week, John Paul II was the last papal visitor.
2. Cathedral of St. Matthew
Located in Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, many Washingtonians walk by this historic landmark every day without ever giving it more than a glance. Its plain exterior is deceptive, though, for inside boasts soaring ceilings, intricate, shimmering mosaics, and the largest pipe organ you’re likely to ever see. The Cathedral of St. Matthew is where part of JFK’s state funeral was held, and it is also a favorite for visiting popes–Pope Francis is meeting with bishops for a midday prayer here.
3. The National Gallery of Art
Though DC’s National Gallery of Art isn’t bursting with papal visits, it is bursting with Catholic imagery. With everything from coinage to Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, the galleries are the ideal place for quiet, spiritual reflection.