Officials on a mission to have Pope Francis visit Philadelphia

Pope John Paul II talking with children in Philadelphia in 1979. At the close of the World Meeting that year, the pope celebrated Mass at a specially constructed altar in Logan Circle.
Pope John Paul II talking with children in Philadelphia in 1979. At the close of the World Meeting that year, the pope celebrated Mass at a specially constructed altar in Logan Circle. (Inquirer File Photo)
Posted: March 24, 2014

PHILADELPHIA If all goes according to plan, Mayor Nutter, Gov. Corbett, and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will meet Sunday afternoon at Philadelphia International Airport, hold a short news conference, and board US Airways Flight 718 to Rome.

The men represent very different entities - a city, a state, and a church - but a common purpose is taking them to a unique place that is all three of those things: Vatican City.

There, they will meet midweek with Pope Francis and other Vatican officials to discuss what could be the largest gathering in Philadelphia's history: next year's Eighth World Meeting of Families.

A five-day celebration of Roman Catholic family values, the international gathering in September 2015 could draw more than 300,000 people to the Philadelphia region. And if Francis comes, the numbers could triple.

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.

The highlight of the trip will be a private, two-hour audience that Francis will hold Wednesday with Chaput, Corbett, and Nutter. At a March 7 news conference Chaput called it an opportunity to "share the excitement and momentum surrounding this event" with the pope.

Additionally, they and their staffs will meet Tuesday with officials of the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Vatican agency that sponsors the World Meetings. At a joint news conference with Chaput, council officials will announce the theme of the 2015 gathering and unveil its agenda.

On Monday, Chaput, Nutter, and Corbett will also be guests of honor at a reception at the home of Ken Hackett, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Yet a giant question still looms over their trip - and next year's World Meeting: Will Francis come to Philadelphia next year?

Odds are favorable that he will. Since the inauguration of the World Meeting of Families in Rome in 1994, popes have said Mass at the close of all but one. For health reasons, Benedict did not attend the gathering at Mexico City in 2009.

Francis has not announced his intentions. But his presence could transform the event by bringing a million or more visitors to the city.

Such predictions are based on the crowd of one million that turned out for Pope Benedict XVI, who celebrated Mass at the close of the 2012 World Meeting in Milan. Pope John Paul II attracted a similar crowd to Philadelphia in October 1979, when he celebrated Mass at a specially erected altar at Logan Circle.

Corbett, a Catholic, and Nutter, a convert to Baptist from Catholicism, spoke warmly at the news conference earlier this month of Francis, family, and the World Meeting's worthy values.

But both men acknowledged the pope's presence would bring much tourist revenue to the region. When in Rome, they will be rendering unto Caesar, trying to ensure that Francis comes.

"We'll use every mode of persuasion," said Nutter, who envisioned "an incomparable moment for the city of Philadelphia" and promised his city could handle two million visitors or more.

"We're the big-event city in the United States," the mayor said. "The world's eyes will be on us, and we will shine brightly."

Corbett, too, talked in millions. He envisioned the World Meeting as a "tremendous opportunity" that could bring more than $100 million to the region and the state. "I feel we'll get him here," he said.

Nutter agreed.

"Only in Philadelphia," he joked at the news conference, "would people talk about trying to'seal deals' with the pope.

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or or #doreillyinq on Twitter.

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