Church and civic leaders are heading to Rome soon with hopes of wooing Pope Francis to an enormous international church gathering in Philadelphia next year.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Mayor Michael Nutter, and Gov. Tom Corbett said at a Friday news conference that they will meet with the pope at the Vatican to discuss the Eighth World Meeting of Families and invite him to attend.
"I hope we'll have a very special visitor," Mr. Corbett said.
The Philadelphia gathering will be the first time the event will be held in the United States.
The March 23 to 27 trip to Rome would focus on planning for the event with Vatican officials, Archbishop Chaput said, but the three will meet in a private audience with Pope Francis on March 26.
A celebration of traditional family life and values, the five-day gathering of prayer, teaching, and jubilee will promote Roman Catholic values, Archbishop Chaput said, but will have an "interfaith" and "ecumenical" feel.
Mr. Corbett said the event could bring "hundreds of millions of dollars" to the region.
Mr. Nutter predicted it would be "an incomparable moment for the city of Philadelphia" and the largest event in its history. He voiced confidence that the city could accommodate the crowds even if they reached two million.
"We're the big-event city in the United States," Mr. Nutter said. "The world's eyes will be on us, and we will shine brightly."
Asked if he and Mr. Corbett might lean on President Barack Obama to urge a Philadelphia visit when he meets with Pope Francis in Rome on March 27 -- the day they depart -- Mr. Nutter joked "only in Philadelphia would people talk about trying to 'seal deals' with the pope."
Scheduled for Sept. 22 to 27, 2015, the world meeting will include lectures and programs at dozens of venues across the Philadelphia area, with separate programming pitched to children and adults.
Archbishop Chaput said he expects the largest stream of visitors will come from North and South America, but that with many also coming from Europe and Africa, it will be a multilingual affair.
Million-plus crowds are not predicted unless the pope pays a visit to the meeting, but it has been a tradition since the gatherings began in 1994 for popes to say Mass at the close. Pope Benedict XVI did not attend the 2009 World Meeting of Families in Mexico City, however.
The 2012 world meeting in Milan, Italy, drew about 350,000 people from 153 countries, and about a million people streamed to the city for a Mass celebrated by Benedict. It was at that meeting that Benedict announced Philadelphia as the next host city.
On his return from Milan, Archbishop Chaput said he hoped to limit the meeting's crowd size because of the cost and logistical demands the event might impose on his financially strapped archdiocese.
On Friday, however, he voiced confidence the local church could manage an event of any size.
"I was very nervous about all the problems" last year, Archbishop Chaput said. But since then "the response has been extraordinary" from the business and philanthropic communities, which he said had already pledged $5 million.
He said he could not predict the cost of the five-day event, since it is still in the planning stages, but he conceded that a papal visit would add significant costs, including for security.
The Vatican "does not have the resources" to contribute financially, he said, and fundraising will ultimately be his responsibility. "We will need considerably more" than $5 million, he said, and later offered an estimate of $10 million to $15 million.
Noting this will be the first world meeting since Pope Francis' election to the papacy a year ago, Archbishop Chaput said it might have a different tone than previous meetings. The Vatican's Pontifical Council on the Family will officially announce its theme March 25.
Regardless of its theme, the event will be "very positive," Archbishop Chaput said, and will seek to help families "be themselves, and grow in grace and holiness."
"All of us belong to a family," he said. "It's a Catholic gathering led by the pope, but he's loved by people around the world. I think people from all backgrounds will be happy and welcome."
First Published March 7, 2014 12:18 PM