Philadelphia abuzz over prospect of papal visit

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Three-and-a-half decades have passed since a pope last visited the Keystone State -- when a vigorous, young John Paul II drew as many as 2 million people in Philadelphia and received a reception that would make a rock star envious.

So news of a possible Philadelphia visit by Pope Francis -- who has become such a rock star in his own right that he has literally made the cover of Rolling Stone -- has fired the imaginations of Roman Catholics in that city and beyond.

The Vatican has not confirmed the pope's plans, but the National Catholic Reporter cited inside sources as saying Pope Francis wants to visit the city.

"We are moving full speed ahead and planning as though the holy father is going to come," said Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the next World Meeting of Families, a triennial, international conference planned for Philadelphia in September 2015. "We don't have any official confirmation, but we have every hope that he'll be coming."

Pope Francis' arrival would be a landmark in a papacy that has drawn intense interest and popularity in the United States. Pope Francis, a former Argentine archbishop who was little known in this country before his election last year, has electrified followers for his denunciations of clerical privilege and his call for the church to be in solidarity with the poor. While not suggesting any change in the church's opposition to same-sex marriage, his conciliatory gestures toward gays and lesbians have been widely seen as groundbreaking.

Even without such drama, southwestern Pennsylvania Catholics could be expected to attend a papal visit by the busloads, as they did most recently in 2008 Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington and New York and conducted stadium Masses.

"Anything that Pope Francis is doing these days is exciting, and to think he would be coming to the United States, especially for an event that is focusing on the family, would be thrilling," said Pittsburgh Bishop David Zubik.

"So many people are thrilled by his leadership; it's going to energize both Catholics and non-Catholics alike," Bishop Zubik said, citing the pope's reputation for simplicity as one who "not only talks the talk but walks it as well."

Jerome Zufelt, editor of the Catholic Accent, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Greensburg, echoed the thought.

"When the pope comes to the United States, that is a big event for Catholics; and when the pope comes to a place in the United States that is in close proximity, that is very exciting," he said.

John Paul II inaugurated the World Meeting of Families in 1994. The Philadelphia meeting, scheduled for Sept. 22-27, 2015, would be the first on American soil. The gatherings include a series of talks, personal testimonies and worship with the stated goal of strengthening "the sacred bonds of family across the globe."

The Philadelphia event is expecting delegations from 130 foreign countries, Ms. Farrell said. The sitting pope doesn't always attend, but Benedict presided at a Mass that drew 1 million people in conjunction with the last such gathering in Milan in 2012.

A papal Mass would likely be held at the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, she said.

In 1979, when the charismatic John Paul II was still a fresh face after his election as the first Polish pope the year before, he drew massive crowds in his visits to Philadelphia and other cities during his inaugural visit to the United States.

An estimated 1 million people thronged to the open-air Mass celebrated by John Paul on a custom-built three-story platform at Logan Circle, with about a thousand priests serving Communion, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Between this event, his motorcade trips and other appearances, about 2 million people laid eyes on him, the paper reported.

But much has changed with the status of the church since that visit, when then-Mayor Frank Rizzo knelt at the airport and kissed the ring of the arriving pontiff.

A visit in 2015 would bring Pope Francis into an archdiocese that has been especially hard-hit with the crisis of sexual abuse by priests and cover-up by their superiors. Two grand jury reports have documented extensive cases in which abusive priests were reassigned to new parishes where they could abuse again. Visiting Philadelphia will likely bring scrutiny to how Pope Francis has handled cases of abusive priests and those who protected them.

At the same time, a papal visit could be a boost for Philadelphia Catholics.

"Everyone decides on their own how they want their morale to be, but it absolutely would be a tremendous lift for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia," Ms. Farrell said. "The recent years have been incredibly difficult, very painful for Catholics" there.

While the World Meeting of Families predates the recent wave of legalizations for same-sex marriage, attending any event related to family life would likely draw media scrutiny to the church's resistance to redefining marriage -- despite its rapidly growing acceptance both in the U.S. and the pope's native Latin America.

But Bishop Zubik noted that Pope Francis already plans to confront such changes at an upcoming synod on family issues.

"I don't think he's afraid of addressing all those issues," Bishop Zubik said.

Pope Francis has solicited input from grass-roots Catholics on shaping discussions at the upcoming synod -- which will include how to respond to same-sex marriage -- and several thousand have responded to questionnaires in the Pittsburgh diocese and beyond.

Peter Smith: or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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