Joe Scafidi, 68, was early for 7:30 a.m. Mass on Friday, so he stood on the steps of St. Paul's Church on Christian Street and smoked a cigarette. A few people passed him on their way in, but, let's face it, not too many.

The Anastasia produce truck was parked out front. Gone are the days when St. Paul's was the talk of the city, burying mobsters like Philip "Chicken Man" Testa and his son Salvatore. The old-timers still remember how people in the neighborhood disapproved.

Now, eh, it's just Scafidi, Charlie "Chollie" Zambirro, 75, and a few other daily Mass-goers "keeping it real," as the Rev. John Large likes to say. Friday, an odd day in the life of a city waiting for Pope Francis, where giddy people rode on bicycles past national guardsmen on empty streets, there were nine.

"When I see Charlie in that first pew," said Large, reassigned to St. Paul's two years ago after Mater Dolorosa in Frankford was closed, "I know the world's going to be all right."

Large is making the best of it, shaking things up a little at St. Paul's. He loves his little band of daily Mass-goers - "the boots on the ground" of his faith, he said - even if it underscores a concerning trend in the Catholic Church.

He's a kidder, but allowed that he hopes the pope's presence in Philadelphia might trigger a communal "moment of divine experience" for the city. It might have started on the steps outside St. Paul's on Friday.

Zambirro, usually quiet, got a little worked up after Mass, standing outside the church with Large. Maybe it was the rare quiet of the usually cacophonic Italian-Market Christian Street that allowed for some contemplative thoughts. He lingered.

This won't be his first brush with a pope. He saw Paul VI in 1964, in Rome, on his way home from Germany, where he was stationed. He's been coming to daily Mass since his mother died, usually with Sister Josephine.

"I'm glad he's coming to see us," Zambirro said. "Bring some holiness to the city. But why is our church so empty? Everybody wants to be near the pope. Everybody's Catholic, but where is everyone? Society is unspiritual."

Large was impressed. He'd never seen Zambirro so vocal, and he was only getting started. "You're powerful, Charlie," he said, smiling. The pope had brought something out, maybe.

As for Scafidi, he hasn't been able to talk much above a whisper since pneumonia seven years ago, but he has quite a life story. Former engineer, laid off at 45, hard times, homeless for a while, now back on his feet, pretty much. Never married.

Twenty years ago, he wanted to become a priest, but he was told he was too old. So he continues to go to daily Mass, sits in the back. He wants to see the pope but when asked what he would say to him, replied, "I can't tell you that." He's got some things he keeps to himself.

Zambirro is not going to see the pope because, he said, he can't take a crowd. He'll watch on TV, which won't count as a Mass obligation. But he's about showing up for the real thing at St. Paul's anyway.

They don't normally have a Mass on Fridays at St. Paul's, but since Large is going to the pope's private Mass on Saturday, he switched days. "I wasn't going to go, but the pope called me and asked me," he joked during the Mass. Gone are the days when people might have objected to the joking.

There's so few people at Mass, all spread out, that instead of shaking hands in greeting, everyone just kind of turns and waves. It all goes quickly. No collection baskets. No singing. A visiting priest from Detroit who dresses up like St. Nicholas attends. Another, from Slovenia, also staying at St. Paul's, is still eating breakfast.

Minutes after the Mass ended, Father Large had his robe off and is back to a T-shirt and slacks. A big bowl of cereal and bananas awaited. He's grateful for the company this week. Parishioner Dolores Macrina is helping out with laundry.

For Scafidi, who mostly sat with his arm draped across the back of the pew, the 7:30 a.m. Mass was only the first of two on Friday. Since he usually goes to the noon Mass at St. John the Evangelist in Center City on Fridays, with the rescheduled Mass at St. Paul he had a twofer.

The noon Mass was a world of difference. Visiting pilgrims filled the pews, there was singing, a long line stretched out onto 13th Street with people waiting to see the touring "Major Relics of St. Maria Goretti," on display in the lower church. When the moment came for greeting, Philly shook hands with the Philippines, Jersey City with California, Los Angeles with Cleveland.

Scafidi said he would go to St. John's every day, but St. Paul's is his parish, the one where he was baptized. He took his second Communion of the day.

"That's enough," he said. "I'll go home and watch the pope."

609576-1973

@amysrosenberg