Philadelphia Fitting Destination for Pope Francis

The vision of William Penn makes Philly a good host to the Holy Father.

A crowd awaits Pope Francis' arrival at Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on Sept. 26 in Philadelphia.
A crowd awaits Pope Francis' arrival at Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on Sept. 26 in Philadelphia. (photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — When enemies of Pennsylvania’s founder, William Penn, became enraged about his advocacy of religious liberty and decided to circulate the most vicious rumors about him that they could imagine in 1682, they settled on two: William Penn was dead, and William Penn was a Jesuit.

Neither was true. In fact, Penn, upon hearing the rumors, wrote, “I find some persons have had so little wit, and so much malice, as to report my death; and, to mend the matter, dead a Jesuit, too. … However, to the great sorrow and shame of the inventors, I am still alive and no Jesuit; and, I thank God, very well.”

In spite of his statement, after many 17th-century Catholics seeking religious tolerance fled from Maryland, a large number fled to Philadelphia because of Penn: Penn had an inclusive vision of a society where people of differing faiths could live, worship and participate in government.

About 350 years later, that vision of Penn’s makes Philadelphia a fitting city to host Pope Francis, a Jesuit. In fact, when Pope Francis arrives on Sept. 26 for the conclusion of World Meeting of Families, he will be greeted by a city gripped by nothing short of “Pope Mania.”

The Pope will be staying at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, across the street from St. Joseph’s University, a Jesuit institution, where he is expected to be greeted by hundreds of students, alumni, faculty and staff, who plan to line the four-lane City Line Avenue, waving signs and banners in hopes of getting a glimpse of the wildly popular Pope.

There are also four billboards with images of the Pope to welcome pilgrims, with sayings such as: “My Phillyosophy: Great cities attract great leaders” and “My Phillyosophy: Sometimes it’s good to pontificate.”

To make the children of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia even more excited about the prospect of the Pope coming to Philadelphia, Catholic classes in the archdiocesan schools were canceled so that teachers and families can participate in the events.

In the lead-up, most nightly news programs and area newspapers had reporters covering nothing but the preparations for the big event. Streets all around the city were temporarily closed while work crews made improvements in preparation for the Pope’s visit.

Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director for the World Meeting of Families 2015, said it’ll be worth heading into the city for what she called “an incomparable moment.”

“Everyone who is gathered on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will be given the unique opportunity to see Pope Francis up close as he travels among the crowd to participate in two papal parades — one prior to the Festival of Families on Saturday, Sept. 26, and one prior to the papal Mass on Sept. 27,” she said. “During the ‘Francis Festival’ — as we have officially deemed the two-day papal weekend — our international guests and local residents will be able to experience the energy of downtown Philadelphia throughout the festival grounds, while participating in celebrations surrounding the papal events. This truly will be a historic moment for Philadelphia, and I urge everyone to seize this opportunity and commit to being there!”

The Philadelphia Orchestra, renowned Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli and Colombian pop star Juanes will perform at a free concert for the Pope at the festival, among others. The orchestra will also accompany the papal Mass and provide liturgical music for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s choir.

The scenic, tree-lined, mile-long Benjamin Franklin Parkway is sometimes compared to the Champs Elysées in Paris, as it is the viewed as the cultural heart of Philadelphia. The road itself starts at Philadelphia City Hall, curves around Logan Circle and ends before the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Some of the city’s most impressive sites loom large along the flag-strewn avenue, including an outdoor sculpture garden that includes works such as The Gates of Hell by Rodin, Jesus Breaking Bread by Walter Erlebacher and Joan of Arc by Emmanuel Fremiet. And, of course, there’s the “Rocky” statue.

The Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, the mother church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, is also located just off the parkway. The groundbreaking of this magnificent structure began in 1846 — under the guidance of Archbishop Francis Patrick Kenrick and nurtured by none other than St. John Neumann, who was then the bishop of Philadelphia — and was completed in 1864 by Archbishop James Frederick Bryan Wood.

Helping out on the parkway will be hundreds of volunteers. Tom Monaghan, assistant vice president of alumni relations at St. Joseph’s University, said the support is overwhelming.

He said 436 volunteers will be working on the parkway alone for the Festival of Families and the papal Mass. Volunteers from St. Joe’s will also be running a volunteer call center throughout the World Meeting of Families to assist the thousands of volunteers.

The university also scheduled a series of events, including a preview of the documentary Urban Trinity: The Story of Catholic Philadelphia, which highlights the plight of the first Catholics in Philadelphia as they struggled to preserve traditions in the face of Protestant opposition. The Jesuit university also planned a picnic with a “Pope Francis Tent,” where people can get a picture with a pope cutout and sign a big “Welcome to Philly” card or paint “Welcome Pope Francis” signs. Limited-edition SJU/Pope T-shirts will also be offered.

“Over 700 community members have signed up to volunteer,” said Monaghan. “Our alums, students, parents, faculty and staff have really stepped up.”

Matthew Archbold is a Register blogger. He writes from Philadelphia.