‘Father Family’ Preps Philly to Welcome Francis

Father William Donovan has been fine-tuning the myriad details that are his responsibility.

Father William Donovan (l) with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and his wife, Susan Corbett, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in Rome. Courtesy of Father William Donovan
Father William Donovan (l) with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and his wife, Susan Corbett, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in Rome. Courtesy of Father William Donovan )

FROM PHILLY TO ROME. Father William Donovan (l) with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and his wife, Susan Corbett, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in Rome. Courtesy of Father William Donovan


After many months of working in Rome as liaison of the archbishop of Philadelphia to the Vatican for the World Meeting of Families, Sept. 22-27, Father William Donovan has been dividing his time between the two cities, fine-tuning the myriad details that are his responsibility.

The Register caught up with him in August at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., where the Holy Father, religious dignitaries and Father Donovan will be staying during the events.

The gregarious priest stresses that his most enjoyable experiences include meeting people from all over the world. Not surprisingly, interacting with Pope Francis has been a highlight.

“I have been with him many times, and he is always serene and even funny,” he said. “One day, I addressed him by a title which was not entirely accurate, and he smiled, then hugged me!”

“Imagine this Irish kid — who loves all things Italian, from art to architecture, to food and museums — gets to live and work in Rome, where everybody calls him, ‘Father Family from Philadelphia!’”


We can see the seminary is being spruced up for Pope Francis. What specific arrangements can you discuss?

While we cannot go into specific details about the Holy Father’s living arrangements, let it suffice to say that he will be sleeping at the seminary and taking meals there also. Extra nuns are being brought in to do meal service, and he will be part of the group of visiting dignitaries as well as seminarians who live here.


People here at the seminary say that Pope Francis plans to meet with the young seminarians while he is in residence.

Yes, that is true. They are very excited at the opportunity to do that while he is here. You can only imagine how enormously important this once-in-a-lifetime thrill is for all of them.


As the reality of the event approaches, what are some of the most demanding aspects of your job?

Security has always been a major concern for us, as well as the city of Philadelphia. I interface for these matters with the papal trip organizers, the Vatican security services, including the Gendarmerie and Swiss Guards, the Holy See Press Office, the Secretariat of State and papal household.


Didn’t a contingent from Philadelphia that included Archbishop Charles Chaput, Mayor Michael Nutter and delegates from the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management travel to Rome to discuss issues? What was that about?

The meeting was meant to coordinate with the Vatican Safety and Security Office, as well as with the mayor of Rome, who is a lovely man and surgeon, who, incidentally, studied at Thomas Jefferson University [in Philadelphia] some years ago. Among things we discussed were traffic, necessary services, such as trash removal and cleanup, and many other essential issues. I am coordinating with the Swiss Guards, as well as all other protective agencies.


Didn’t an Italian group come to Philadelphia from Rome?

Yes, papal trip organizers, Vatican security and media came to Philadelphia. When I was not escorting them to a myriad of meetings, I gave them an architectural and historical tour on a bus all around the city. Afterward, we allotted time for a de rigeur stop in South Philadelphia for a taste of authentic Philly cheesesteaks, which they loved.


It sounds as if the volume of work is reaching a real crescendo during this final month before the storied event.

Well, the volume of work is certainly enormous, as requests and correspondence in many languages are pouring in from every country in the world. I am only one person, and I strive to serve as a conduit to connect individuals who have questions or issues with the correct people in our World Meeting of Families [office] in Philadelphia or in the Vatican who can best address them. Don’t forget, we are preparing to welcome an official delegation from every country in the world in Philadelphia. There will be more than 80 different meetings at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. The Pope will attend a family festival on Saturday, Sept. 26, on Benjamin Franklin Parkway and lead the Mass the next day outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The anticipated 5,000 buses coming to the city looms as a massive organizational challenge, but planners are still looking for host families to aid with the housing shortage.

Beyond the work itself, it is important to keep in mind that all of us are coming together at the invitation of the Holy Father to celebrate the great gift of God to humanity, of marriage and the family. Perhaps, in the natural order, after the precious gift of life, the second greatest gift God has given humanity is the family. God desired that we would be happy, be loved, be safe and be valued. So it is perhaps the family which is the most sacred place where God’s desire for us is fulfilled, and we are able to feel loved, valued, protected and safe. Consequently, people of different cultures, from different lands can joyfully come together and be united in their appreciation of the gift of family.

Marion Fox writes from