PHILADELPHIA – When Pope Francis visits the area in September, vast crowds are expected to party — and pray — in the streets.
But the pontiff’s stay won’t be marked solely by celebrations, church leaders say.
Symbolism is expected to play a big role, too, as Francis seeks to deliver his views to a massive audience.
“The pope has a huge pulpit,” said Bishop David O’Connell, leader of the Diocese of Trenton. “He has the potential for really making a difference. That’s what we’re waiting to see.”
Francis’ visit will coincide with the World Meeting of Families, a Vatican-sponsored event being held for the first time in the United States.
The gathering will draw more than 10,000 delegates from 150 nations to the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia from Tuesday, Sept. 22, to Friday, Sept. 25.
The pope’s visit will include two public events on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway — a Festival of Families on Saturday, Sept. 26, and a Papal Mass one day later.
Up to a million people are expected for the Saturday festival, with some 1.5 million expected at the Sunday Mass, said Donna Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting.
“There are a wide variety of locations, beyond the Parkway, being evaluated for possible papal events but the decision regarding Pope Francis’ itinerary lies solely with the Papal Household and the Vatican,” Farrell said when asked about a potential stop in South Jersey.
“We will be ready to welcome him wherever he chooses to go.”
A LOOK BACK: ELECTION OF POPE FRANCIS
Before coming to Philadelphia, Francis will address a joint session of Congress in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 24. He’ll appear before the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 25.
A specific schedule won’t be known until mid-summer, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The trip is Francis’ first visit to this country since his papacy began in March 2013. The Delaware Valley last saw a pope in October 1979, when more than a million people turned out for a Mass celebrated on the Parkway by John Paul II.
On previous trips, Francis has taken steps to connect with local residents — and to promote his message of a modest lifestyle and concern for those in need.
For instance, when Francis visited South Korea in August 2014, he eschewed the traditional Pope-mobile or a luxury vehicle, noted Mary Lou Hughes, co-director for family life and formation at the Diocese of Camden.
“He traveled around in a Kia Soul,” observed Hughes, referring to a humble hatchback made by a South Korean firm.
And in an interview earlier this month, Francis said he had considered starting his American trip with a brief stop in Mexico. That way, the pontiff explained, he could enter the United States at a border crossing regularly used by Hispanic immigrants.
Francis said he decided against that, however, because he could not pay “a fleeting visit” to Mexico, according to a report on the Vatican’s website.
Marianne Duddy-Burke, a Boston woman who leads DignityUSA, a group of gay Catholics, said she’s hoping for a symbolic gesture from Francis.
“As a gay family, we’re going (to the World Meeting) to talk about our experiences,” said the married mother of two. “We want them to know what it’s like to try to live an authentically faithful life as a Catholic family with two moms.
“I think a visible sign of the pope listening to our stories would be important,” said Duddy-Burke.
Indeed, any comment or action by Francis is magnified by his prominence, said O’Connell.
“This guy has the world’s attention,” said the Trenton bishop, who was Francis’ guest in the Vatican over the Christmas holidays. “I think it’s because of his tone. His tone is gentle; he talks about mercy and compassion.
“He wants to create a kinder, gentler church that will be open and inclusive so that people won’t leave it or run away from it.”
Bishop Dennis Sullivan, leader of the Camden Diocese, offered a similar view. The pope’s visit “will generate great enthusiasm among all people and remind Catholics that our relationship to God is not part of our lives but defines who we are,” he said.
O’Connell added the pope may be challenged to preach directly to many Americans.
“He doesn’t speak English real well,” the bishop said of Francis, whose parents were Italian immigrants to Argentina. O’Connell noted the two communicated with a mix of Spanish, Italian, Latin and English.
But Msgr. Michael Mannion predicted the pope’s message would go beyond words.
“His heart will be a great communicator,” said Mannion, director of the Office of Community Relations at the Camden Diocese. “He can walk into a crowd of a million people and smile, and he’s communicated his message.
“I think he’ll have a strong message of the family as a vehicle that God uses to see Christ in others and to share with others so they can survive and grow,” he said. “It’s a family that extends to all of God’s children.”
Reach Jim Walsh at email@example.com or (856) 486-2646. Follow him on Twitter @jimwalsh_cp
Francis in Philly
•The papal visit will highlight the 8th World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, a global gathering being held for the first time in the United States. While a schedule’s not yet set, Francis is expected to participate in the meeting’s closing events on Sept. 25. He’s also expected to take part in two events on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway — a Festival of Families on Saturday, Sept. 26, and a Papal Mass one day later.