Traveling to the World Meeting of Families?

Here’s What to Expect

PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia will experience an influx of people unmatched since Pope St. John Paul II visited in 1979 for the World Meeting of Families.

Approximately 15,000 pilgrims will begin converging on the city for the Sept. 21-27 event (

When the Pope arrives on Saturday, Sept. 26, for the “Festival of Families” closing events and a papal Mass the following afternoon, that crowd is expected to balloon to 2 million people. It’s important to note that the World Meeting of Families and the papal events are separate events. The meeting is at the Convention Center and requires admission (see sidebar), while the weekend events are on and around the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and do not require tickets.

The forces involved in planning everything and preparing the city to receive such a vast influx of people are formidable, ranging from local, state and federal agencies responsible for security to an army of 10,000 volunteers that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia hopes to recruit to make everything run smoothly.

“Pope Francis will be standing on the iconic Benjamin Franklin Parkway overlooking the millions who come together to share in this once-in-a-lifetime moment,” said Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of Families. “It will truly be the largest event in Philadelphia’s modern history.”  

The priority in all planning considerations is public safety.

Visitors should expect all the usual features of a major international event in the post-9/11 world. The World Meeting of Families and the papal visit have been designated a “National Special Security Event” (NSSE) by Jeh Johnson, secretary of Homeland Security. Once such designation happens, the U.S. Secret Service assumes its mandated role as the lead agency for designing and coordinating security across all law enforcement and public safety agencies at the local, state and federal level.

Robert Hoback, spokesman for the Secret Service, said the agency’s work involves creating a security perimeter, which he described as a “multilayer buffer surrounding a venue and offering sufficient size to mitigate a variety of threats. That includes law enforcement, physical barriers and checkpoints. We take a public-safety view. The plans are pretty elastic but allow us to draw on the full force of the government to protect not only the Pope, but the attendees as well.”

The details outlining that security perimeter will be made public in a press release two to three weeks prior to the event. This release will outline the size and nature of the security perimeter, checkpoints, prohibited items and any public transportation and road closures.

Attendees should check Homeland Security, Secret Service or the World Meeting websites to find the latest information.

The Secret Service is also assisting with credentialing for the event, in order to determine who will be allowed access to various areas.


Getting Around

After security, the other major challenge is accommodating and moving all of the people. Hotels are being booked, and the archdiocese has asked Catholics within a two-hour radius of Philadelphia to consider hosting a family. The World Meeting of Families has partnered with a global travel company,, for its “Host a Family” program. Residents within 120 miles of Philadelphia can provide lodging to pilgrims for a modest fee. Currently, more than 1,000 families have signed up to offer their homes, but there is still a need for thousands more; and the organizers and archdiocese are trying to spread the word through parishes, schools and other ministries. For more information, visit

Hotel space is still available for Tuesday, Sept. 22, to Thursday, Sept. 24, for those registering for the meeting. For people seeking rooms for the papal visit alone, many hotels are waiting for a better sense of the Pope’s schedule before opening their inventory for booking.

Philadelphia has all the features and challenges common to any modern major city when it comes to moving people around. Kenneth Gavin, director of communications for the archdiocese, said, “We have been working closely and productively with many regional authorities, including SEPTA, Amtrak, N.J. Transit, PATCO and the Philadelphia International Airport, among others, to ensure a convenient, enjoyable travel experience for all during this global event.”

“The World Meeting of Families has also hired Michael Pitts as its director of transportation. He has more than 40 years of international and national transportation experience, with successful projects ranging from the 2015 XLIX Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., to the 2014 XXII Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, to the 2008 and 2012 Obama-Biden inaugurations.”

Philadelphia is an easy city to get to. Centrally located along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor, it’s about two and a half hours from Washington, 90 minutes from New York and five hours to Boston by train. People traveling by train will arrive at the 30th Street Station, which is a little over a mile from the Convention Center where the meeting events will be held. Those holding an Amtrak ticket can take SEPTA Regional Rail to the Convention Center, with trains departing every few minutes. Unless policy changes, an Amtrak ticket will allow riders to make this trip for free.

People flying in will land at Philadelphia International Airport, which services 28 carriers offering about 600 nonstop flights a day. Downtown Philadelphia is about 20 minutes from the airport via the Regional High Speed Airport Line. People using this line will get off at the Market East Station.

If direct or cheap fares into Philadelphia are not available, airports in Newark, N.J., New York, Baltimore and Washington are all less than two hours away by mass transit.

In terms of traversing Philadelphia itself, there is the mass-transit system, comprising buses, light rail, trolleys and subways, but it can be fairly intimidating for the novice. SEPTA offers maps as well as mobile apps for iPhone and Android. The main website offers a “Plan My Trip” feature that allows users to enter origin and destination and then plan the best route using available public transportation.

Travelers should do their best to leave their cars behind.

Philadelphia’s own Diana von Glahn, host of The Faithful Traveler on EWTN (see related story on page B5), said, “Use public transportation, come with a group or prepare to sit in traffic. I don’t know the official details of what is being planned, but I am sure many roads will be closed off, especially for Pope Francis’ visit.”

“As it is, Philadelphia is a difficult city to navigate to, in and from,” she added. “The roads going into the city are frequently lined with traffic — the Schuylkill Expressway is a two-lane highway that always has bumper-to-bumper traffic, even on a good day. The roads in the city are narrow, and people love to double park here.”

Thanks to mass transit, staying outside the city in New Jersey or the Philadelphia suburbs is a real option. Most hotels should be at least running shuttles to the trains if not to the Convention Center itself.

Tokens and passes can be purchased at SEPTA’s headquarters (1234 Market St.), ticket offices, the Independence Visitor’s Center (6th and Market Streets), major newsstands at downtown street intersections or at in advance.


Being Prepared

The goal is to make the event as efficient, enjoyable and safe as possible, but the logistical challenge is formidable. The Church, the city, the federal government and an army of volunteers, security and event professionals are working to make sure it all comes together and Pope Francis will receive a warm welcome in the cradle of liberty.

“As Mayor Michael Nutter so often says,” said Gavin, “‘We’re the big city for big events.’ The World Meeting of Families will be one of the most important events to take place in Philadelphia’s modern history, and we are working hand in hand with the city of Philadelphia to ensure that visitors will enjoy everything our world-class city has to offer in September 2015.”

“With less than seven months until the World Meeting of Families, preparations for the event are well under way,” he added. “Currently, our focus is on the many operational needs and logistics required to successfully host this global event, including safety, technology, transportation, labor, lodging, registration and much more. I can assure you that our team is working diligently to deliver a flawless event that will be a memorable experience for all in attendance.”

Thomas L. McDonald has been a technology journalist for 25 years.

He blogs at GodandtheMachine.

He will be part of the Register’s team covering the World Meeting of Families.




Deadline: Early registration, through April 30; advance registration, May 1-Sept. 15; on-site registration, Sept. 16 onward


Adults (18 and older)

Full Package: Congress registration, two buffet-lunch tickets, $100 debit card, SEPTA trail pass, World Meeting of Families welcome kit; $325/$350/$400

Modified Package: Congress registration, $100 debit card, SEPTA trail pass, World Meeting of Families welcome kit; $250/$275/$325

Basic Package: Congress registration, World Meeting of Families welcome kit; $125/$150/$175

One-Day Only: Congress registration, World Meeting of Families welcome kit; NA/NA/$95


Children (Age 6-17)

Full Package: Youth-track registration, two buffet-lunch tickets, SEPTA trail pass; World Meeting of Families welcome kit; $199

Modified Package: Youth-track registration, SEPTA trail pass, World Meeting of Families welcome kit; $125

Basic Package: Youth-track registration, World Meeting of Families welcome kit; $95

One-Day Only: Youth track registration, World Meeting of Families welcome kit; $25


Optional Purchases

Lunch-buffet ticket (per lunch): $45

SEPTA trail pass: $53 (valid only Sept. 21-28)



Where to Stay

Hotels: Registrants to the World Meeting of Families will receive a list of hotels and their prices upon registration.

Host a Family: If you are located within 120 miles of the Center City District of Philadelphia, individuals and families can share a furnished guestroom, apartment or home with a visitor(s) in exchange for a nightly fee.

“Host a Family” registration is free. Once a guest confirms a stay, he or she will be charged 10% of the total stay in a non-refundable booking fee by



(CNA icon image shown: The World Meeting of Families 2015 image is unveiled in St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Philadelphia on Sept. 7, 2014.)