Although plans for a private audience did not pan out, Gov. Tom Corbett and others in a Pennsylvania delegation met briefly with Pope Francis at a public audience in St. Peter's Square where they extended a public invitation for the pope to make an official visit to Philadelphia next year.
The delegation, which also included Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Archbishop Charles Chaput, traveled to Rome earlier in the week to extend a formal invitation to Philadelphia in September 2015 for the World Meeting of Families, a triennial international Catholic gathering designed to promote family bonds.
The governor's press office had announced earlier in the week that his schedule included a private meeting with Pope Francis on Wednesday. It came a day after the delegation met with Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family. Mr. Corbett said Archbishop Paglia told the delegation that holding the meeting at the general audience, while brief, would enable it to be done publicly and recorded by the media. The brief meeting took place under a canopy amid a public audience that Mr. Corbett said drew about 100,000.
"I thanked him for inviting us, for his service to the church and the world, and explained to him we would really love to have him join us in Philadelphia," Mr. Corbett said. "He had a big smile on his face."
The governor said that, based on his years of arguing cases before juries, "I used to try to read faces, and I'm very optimistic."
Kenneth A. Gavin, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said that "schedules at the Vatican are fluid and often change up to the very last minute."
He added: "All members of the leadership delegation did have 'face time' with Pope Francis. The only difference is that it happened at the General Audience and not at Domus Sanctae Marthae (the pope's residence). Each person, including Gov. Corbett and Mayor Nutter, were presented personally to the pope and had the opportunity to exchange a few words with his Holiness. The planned gift exchange also took place. All of this happened in front of the eyes of the world instead of behind closed doors."
The delegation came bearing numerous gifts, including a Liberty Bell replica, Philadelphia sports jerseys, ceramic tiles representing the writers of the Gospels made at Moravian Pottery and Tile Works in Doylestown and an inscribed children's book on the story of Noah by Philadelphia artist Jerry Pinkney. Also presented were letters to Pope Francis from students of Good Shepherd Elementary School in Camp Hill, Cumberland County.
Based on the most recent World Meeting of Families, which took place in Milan in 2012 and included a Mass by Pope Benedict XVI, officials in Pennsylvania believe a papal visit could draw a million people to Philadelphia and generate an economic impact of $100 million.
The last pope to visit Philadelphia was John Paul II in 1979, who is estimated to have drawn 2 million to various events.
Peter Smith: email@example.com, 412-263-1416 or Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. First Published March 26, 2014 10:09 AM