PHILADELPHIA – Signs that Pope Francis will soon arrive in the City of Brotherly Love abound. At a local Irish pub not far from the Center City hotel that’s hosting a few hundred journalists gathered for the Religion Newswriters Association conference, gold and white Vatican flags waft from the rafters and patrons are greeted with a white and green banner reading, “McGillin’s Welcomes Pope Francis.”
Airport shops are stuffed with pope memorabilia, and cardboard standups of the pontiff are here and there, their owners inviting passersby to take a selfie for a small fee.
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So will Philadelphians actually turn out to greet the pontiff?
For weeks, reports of an impending pope-pocalypse – driven by intense security measures and crowd control concerns – have driven some here to question whether hosting Pope Francis on Saturday, Sept. 26 and Sunday, Sept. 27 is worth the trouble.
A Baptist church near the epicenter of the pope’s visit will suspend its regular Sunday service.
“It’s clear that we won’t be able to have church on Sunday,” said the Rev. Leslie D. Callahan, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church. “So we have to figure out when we will worship.”
She also worries what will happen to the city’s homeless who spend time on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the site of the papal Mass.
Those concerns, plus reports that it would be too difficult to see the pope in Philly, were recently exacerbated by a local transit agency that released a map that resembled something of a blast zone, showing pilgrims how many hours – up to 11 – they could expect to walk if they wanted a glimpse of the pope.
I asked Meg Kane of the World Meeting of Families if all the worry was warranted. Her answer was an unequivocal no.
Concerns about participants being able to access the events, including the papal Mass expected to draw about 1 million worshippers, have been overblown, she said.
Not only are there still 200,000 special papal event tickets still available for the local commuter rail, but there are plans in place to get buses close to the action, in addition to walking routes of less than 2 miles from several directions. Plus, she said, some hotels in Center City still have vacancies.
Sure enough, a quick search on Hotels.com proves her right: There are rooms available for booking, smack in the heart of the city during the entire World Meeting of Families, including the papal visit, albeit at seemingly inflated prices.
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And then there are the out-of-towners. With less than a month to go, do empty hotel rooms mean crowds may be smaller than organizers expect?
This has been the case with other papal visits to the United States. For example, when Pope John Paul II visited Miami in 1987, concerns about dealing with potentially huge crowds scared people off, and the final tally was much smaller than expected.
So Kane and her team are focused on making sure potential visitors know that Philly is open for business.
They’ve launched a social media campaign, #OpenInPHL, encouraging businesses to show their papal pride by displaying signs in their windows exclaiming “Welcome Pope Francis” and “I’ll Be There.”
Posting selfies with the #OpenInPHL hashtag could pay off: One business owner and one family will each win a free trip to Rome.
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Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput told reporters at the conference yesterday that the World Meeting of Families is shaping up to be larger than expected. Organizers originally planned for 250 exhibitors and 15,000 registrants. They’ve surpassed 400 exhibitors and expect to draw 17,000 participants. In an essay in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, Chaput has a message for Philly Catholics: Be not afraid.
But one area where the World Meeting of Families remains a bit under projections is fundraising. The fundraising goal of $45 million has not yet been met, Chaput said.
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Once Francis arrives, what will his message include?
Several priests, professors, and prelates spent most of Friday explaining to journalists that predicting what the wildly spontaneous Francis will say and do is impossible. But that didn’t stop them from trying.
Maryann Cusimano Love, a professor at the Catholic University of America, said she thinks Francis will touch on what she calls the four Ps: poverty, the planet, people, and peace. What he won’t do, she said, is delve into politics.
But Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he hopes — and expects — that not only will Francis wade into the thorny issue of immigration generally, but call on US lawmakers to enact comprehensive immigration reform.
Several panelists said they expect Francis to talk about religious liberty, which has emerged as a priority for US bishops in recent years. In the United States, this fight revolves primarily around same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate.
But with anti-Christian persecution in places such as Iraq and Syria reaching genocidal levels, one wonders what situations in particular Francis will have in mind should he touch on this topic.
Several panelists hammered away on the point that Francis hasn’t strayed from Church teaching on anything, from marriage to contraception to divorce and the environment, despite his perceived openness to hold conversations about all of the above.
Others sought to dispel the notion that US bishops are at odds with the pope when it comes to priorities.
Earlier this summer, for example, US bishops voted on their priorities for the next three years, which included family, religious freedom, and life, but not poverty or immigration; Francis has made poverty and the environment his top issues. Some bishops noted the discrepancy and publicly challenged their peers.
But Chaput said his office spends more than $4 million per year on so-called social justice efforts, compared to just $200,000 annually on anti-abortion efforts.
Kurtz said that the priorities of the bishops’ conference are areas they feel need improvement, not where they’re already doing a good job.
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Francis will see a small swath of the United States when he visits, never leaving the so-called Acela Corridor between New York and Washington, DC. That raised an eyebrow among demographers who report that Catholic growth in the US is far from those seats of governmental and financial power.
Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, for example, noted that the 7,000 infant baptisms performed in his archdiocese are greater than those in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, and DC — combined.
Still, the Hispanic Church in the United States will be heavily involved in the pope’s visit, including the canonization of Junipero Serra.
Gomez rejected critics who say the pope is making a mistake in elevating Serra because the 18th-century Franciscan was complicit in the slaughter of Native Americans at the hands of Spanish explorers.
“The fact that there were some abuses committed at that time doesn’t take away from the fact that Serra was totally committed to the service of the people in his care,” he said. “He was the first one who really defended the Native Americans from the abuses done by the Spanish military in California, was probably the first one to talk about the human rights of the natives.”
And there will be other hallmarks of the Hispanic Church coloring the trip as well.
Francis is fluent in Spanish and Italian, but he is uncomfortable speaking English. That won’t matter too much, as the Mass he’ll celebrate in DC and his address to the United Nations will be in Spanish.
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Speaking of languages, the pope may have to brush up on another.
Chaput announced that parts of the Mass at the World Meeting of Families, the largest public event during the pope’s tour, will be celebrated in the universal language of the Church: Latin.