VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis said he would attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September, making it the first confirmed stop on what is expected to be a more extensive papal visit to North America.
The pope made the announcement Nov. 17 in a speech opening an interreligious conference on traditional marriage.
“I would like to confirm that, God willing, in September 2015 I will go to Philadelphia for the eighth World Meeting of Families,” the pope said.
The announcement had been widely expected, since Pope Benedict XVI had said before his retirement that he hoped to attend the Philadelphia event. Popes typically fulfill their predecessors’ publicly known travel plans, as Pope Francis did in July 2013 when he attended World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who was in Rome for the families meeting, told Catholic News Service the announcement was “a surprise in the sense that it was announced so early; you know usually they don’t make these announcements — four months out is the typical and here we are 10 months away, and the Holy Father said he is coming to Philadelphia.”
Catholicphilly.com reported the archbishop noted that Pope Francis has focused “on the many challenges that families face today globally. His charisma, presence and voice will electrify the gathering.
“As I’ve said many times before, I believe that the presence of the Holy Father will bring all of us — Catholic and non-Catholic alike — together in tremendously powerful, unifying and healing ways. We look forward to Pope Francis’ arrival in Philadelphia next September, and we will welcome him joyfully with open arms and prayerful hearts.”
In August, Pope Francis told reporters accompanying him on the plane back from South Korea that he “would like” to go to Philadelphia. The pope also noted that President Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress had invited him to Washington, D.C., and that the secretary-general of the United Nations had invited him to New York.
“Maybe the three cities together, no?” Pope Francis said, adding that he could also visit the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico on the same trip — “but it is not certain.”
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told reporters Nov. 17 that Pope Francis wanted to “guarantee organizers” that he would be present at the meeting in Philadelphia, “but he did not say anything about other possible stops or events during that trip. And for now I do not have anything to add in that regard.”
Although few details of the papal visit have been made public, organizers for the families’ congress expect Pope Francis to arrive Sept. 25 for an afternoon public visit with civic officials.
That would begin his first trip as pope to the United States and the second papal visit to Philadelphia in a generation; St. Pope John Paul II visited the city in 1979. He will be the fourth sitting pope to visit the United States.
During his visit, Pope Francis is expected to attend the Festival of Families Sept. 26, a cultural celebration for hundreds of thousands of people along Philadelphia’s main cultural boulevard, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The announcement has prompted dioceses across the country to consider attending the families meeting. In the Diocese of Knoxville, Bishop Richard F. Stika is planning to lead a pilgrimage to the historic meeting.
Donna Farrell, executive director for the 2015 World Meeting of Families and its chief planner, said although Philadelphia has hosted St. Pope John Paul’s visit, the city has “not had anything like this unique Festival of Families. It’s really going to be something special.”
Registration for the congress opened in mid-November. The meeting will be a weeklong series of talks, discussions and activities.
Pope Francis is expected to celebrate a public Mass for an estimated 1 million people on Sept. 26 on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in full view of the crowds arrayed from the museum down the Ben Franklin Parkway.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and former bishop of the Diocese of Knoxville, welcomed the pope’s announcement.
“The presence of Pope Francis at the World Meeting of Families in our country will be a joyful moment for millions of Catholics and people of good will. Our great hope has been that the Holy Father would visit us next year to inspire our families in their mission of love. It is a blessing to hear the pope himself announce the much anticipated news,” Archbishop Kurtz said.
After the announcement that Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia next September, the reality of the challenges and joys of the event is sinking in for planners, civic officials and ordinary Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Daniel Hilferty, chairman of the World Meeting of Families executive leadership committee, said the event will require unprecedented coordination and support.
Hilferty called on the region’s business community to contribute financial and corporate support to the event. He said the fundraising effort was “more than halfway toward the goal,” which he did not state. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has said he plans to announce the status of fundraising efforts early in 2015.
That is just one of the issues facing organizers before next fall. One thorny issue had been the inability for people registering for the families’ meeting also to secure hotel rooms for the three days of the papal visit — because it was unconfirmed, the rooms were not made available. Now they can be booked.
Another challenge that Mayor Michael Nutter acknowledged was security for what he called “the largest event in the city’s modern history.” Those challenges and others stem from the immense throngs of people expected for the weeklong events.
About 15,000 people are expected to attend the families’ congress at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Sept. 22-25 in two tracks — one for adults with keynote talks and break-out discussions, and another track for children and teenagers with an emphasis on hands-on activities.