PHILADELPHIA — Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia welcomed the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to hold the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia as a moment of “grace” that will provide an important opportunity for families to celebrate and share their distinctive role as the domestic Church.

The archdiocese had just released a financial report confirming a $12.3 million budget deficit for the last fiscal year, and it is still grappling with multi-million dollar payments for internal clergy abuse investigations and legal bills, including the defense of a former senior archdiocesan official now on trial for child endangerment.

Yet the city’s new archbishop expressed heartfelt joy that the Pope had chosen to host the global meeting in his back yard, and his remarks suggested that his “disheartened” flock might share his choice to embrace the hope inspired by the unexpected “grace” of welcoming faithful Catholic families to their city.

“It’s fitting that this gathering, which celebrates the cornerstone of society, will take place in America’s cradle of freedom. The Holy Father’s choice is a gift to the local Church in Philadelphia and to the whole nation,” said Archbishop Chaput in a statement on June 3, following the Pope’s announcement at the 2012 World Meeting of Families in Milan, Italy.

“The family is founded on a deep and loving union between one man and one woman for mutual support and the nurturing of children. This meeting in Philadelphia will be a wonderful opportunity to highlight the family as the basic evangelizing unit of the Church. Every effort to promote marriage and the family serves not only the Church, but also the common good.”

At this year’s World Meeting of Families, Archbishop Chaput was joined by a U.S. military family from South Carolina, selected by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to represent their country at the gathering. The American family was also invited to a large lunch with the Holy Father, and “surprisingly, the six of them were invited to the same table as the Pope,” recalled the archbishop.

During lunch, one of the young children “went around the table and hugged him, which was a beautiful experience,” he said, noting that the family, who traveled to Italy in a military transport, “sacrificed” to make the trip possible. “It was a great joy to see their joy,” he said.

Yesterday, back in Philadelphia, a buoyant archbishop spoke at a press conference where he shared the details of his own experience at the World Meeting of Families in Milan and his enthusiasm about the 2015 event.

Blessed John Paul II established the World Meeting for Families in 1992. Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family, the five-day event is held every three years and is designed to fortify the sacred bonds of marriage and family.

This year, Pope Benedict joined the meeting for the last two days, and Archbishop Chaput noted that the Holy Father planned to headline the 2015 event in Philadelphia.

That said, the archbishop recalled that during his June 3 meeting with the Pope, who is 85, Benedict expressed his desire for a reunion in Philadelphia, while also noting his advanced years.

“He trusts God’s providence, and I do, too,” said Archbishop Chaput.


Pivotal Time

The Vatican’s decision to select Philadelphia as the next host of the global gathering comes at a pivotal time for the Church in the United States, which has rallied the faithful to oppose both the legalization of same-sex “marriage” and a federal rule mandating that private employers, including Catholic hospitals, universities and social agencies, provide contraceptives, abortion drugs and sterilization in their health plans.

“In a secular culture increasingly ignorant of and hostile to what Christian marriage and family contribute to society, the World Meetings on Families in Philadelphia will be a great opportunity to make known the rich, life-giving teaching of the Church here in the United States,” said Mary Shivanandan, a professor of theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage & Family at The Catholic University of America and the author of Crossing the Threshold of Love: a New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology.

“Pope Benedict XVI has made it a mandate of his pontificate to build on the legacy of Blessed John Paul II, increasingly linking the well-being of society with the indispensable role of the family as the school of a civilization of love. The conference will provide a venue for Christian families to gather in support of each other as well as witness to the family as the heart of the New Evangelization.”

About two and a half months ago, the Vatican contacted Archbishop Chaput to raise the issue of hosting the 2015 meeting in Philadelphia.

After conferring with his senior staff, the archbishop said, “I wrote back that we would welcome the opportunity to receive the Pope, but were concerned about the cost,” he recalled, and he said he proposed that the cash-strapped archdiocese might have to scale back the scope of the event to 60,000-80,000 people in attendance.

A month later, “I got a letter that said they had chosen Philadelphia,” he recalled with satisfaction. “It was a great surprise to me that this option became available to us. I don’t know where to turn in my gratitude, but God is providing good news. … It is an unexpected gift.”

In fact, while this year’s event in Milan was expected to attract about 300,000 participants, official estimates placed the numbers gathered for the closing Mass at 1 million. “So I don’t know how much I can control” how many people will come to Philadelphia, admitted Archbishop Chaput.

He said the local Church would soon establish a corporation to raise funds from Catholics across the nation and the world.

The Pontifical Council for the Family will lead the effort to organize the 2015 event, he said. A final date has not been set, though the meeting is expected to be scheduled in the late spring or early summer, when families are free to travel. Serious planning will commence by October.

“It’s important for everyone to understand, including myself, that we are not the planners,” the archbishop wryly observed.


Morale Booster?

In the meantime, the cathedral in Philadelphia will be graced by the special icon of the Holy Family that serves as a symbol for the global meeting. The icon is a mosaic and will be shipped to Philadelphia from its present home in the Archdiocese of Milan.

This month, the archdiocese released its latest annual financial report. In an accompanying letter, Archbishop Chaput confirmed the consequences of a 2011 grand jury report and subsequent indictments against Church personnel would be felt for years to come, leaving many local Catholics — and their archbishop — “disheartened” and “saddened.”

“Following the grand jury report, nine separate civil lawsuits were filed in Philadelphia County against the archdiocese and certain individual defendants based on alleged clergy sexual abuse of minors. As fiscal [year] 2011 closed, the archdiocese learned that its former CFO had embezzled nearly $1 million over a period of years.

“The cost of responding to the grand jury report, the investigations related to priests on administrative leave, the subsequent criminal and civil legal proceedings, and the investigation into the embezzlement has been heavy. … While roughly $1.6 million of these extraordinary costs took place during fiscal 2011, most of the financial burden will be reflected in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2012, and thereafter. For the nine months ending March 31, 2012, legal and other professional fees for these extraordinary costs exceeded $10 million.”

The letter stated that the “resources to pay for these costs have not — and will not — come from contributions to the Catholic Charities Appeal (CCA) or Heritage of Faith-Vision of Hope (HOF-VOH). Rather, they are being funded through cash and investment reserves, cash proceeds generated from the sale of excess real estate holdings or other assets owned by the archdiocese itself."

During yesterday’s press conference, one reporter asked if the archbishop expected the 2015 event to lift “morale” among the faithful. And revealing his characteristically straightforward style, Archbishop Chaput responded that it wasn’t possible to predict whether morale would be boosted or not.

“People either choose to be hopeful or they don’t,” Archbishop Chaput suggested. “When people talk about bad morale, the first thing they need to work on is their own morale.”