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World Meeting of Families 101: What to expect when the Pope comes to Philadelphia

The Pope is coming in September? Why? Well, it ain’t for the cheesesteaks. The papal visit comes as part of the 8th World Meeting of Families conference, which Philadelphia is hosting. The event will kick off September 22 at the Philadelphia Convention Center, with hundreds of thousands – potentially millions – expected to attend at least one event, including a massive outdoor Papal Mass that Sunday on the Ben Franklin Parkway.

With favorable popularity among Catholics and non-Catholics (88 percent and 61 percent approval rates in 2014), Pope Francis’ arrival will most likely be one of the “largest events in the city’s modern history.” This year’s WMF, an event held every three years, will be the first in the United States, as well as the Pontiff’s first visit to our neck of the woods.

So what’s the big deal? Billy Penn gives you the breakdown on what to expect during the event and everything that comes along with it.

What is The World Meeting of Families exactly?
Created by Pope (now Saint) John Paul II in 1994 in Rome, the WMF is the World’s largest Catholic gathering, a meeting meant to “strengthen the bonds between families and to witness to the crucial importance of marriage and the family to all of society,” according to the WMOF website. This year’s theme: “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.”

Why Philly?
According to the WMOF’s website, “there have been Catholics in the Philadelphia area since its colonization.” The National Catholic Reporter spoke to the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles Chaput, who said that the Pontiff’s “deep care for the institution of the family” lead to choosing Philly as the host. Chaput also stated that Philly “was important to history, not only of the United States, but of the world…to celebrate the importance of families.” Also, the last pope to visit Philadelphia was Pope John Paul II in 1979; a Pontiff is well overdue.

Is there anything especially Philly about the gathering?
Ok, so the cool thing about this is that Philadelphia gets to make this event their own. First, the Philly Diocese gets to write The Preparatory Catechesis, a kind of introduction to the event that is “a collection of what Catholics believe about human purpose, marriage, and the family.” The hymn that will be performed at the WMF, titled Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom, was composed by Normand Gouin, a former music director at Old City’s Old St. Joseph Church accompanied by the lyrics written by South Philadelphia native Father Andrew Ciferni, O.Praem, a musician and liturgist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, as reported by the Catholic News Agency. Also, the Holy Family Iconic Painting, meant to evoke thoughts and emotions around God and the family, was painted by Neilson Carlin of Kennett Square.

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So it’s just Catholics, right?
While plenty of those will be filling rooms of the Convention Center to discuss current issues facing families and their faith, other religions and viewpoints are on the schedule. Amongst the many there will be “In the City: Concerns of the Urban Family,” lead by Senior Pastor of the First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia, Rev. Terrence D. Griffith and also “Always Consider the Person: Homosexuality in the Family,” by Ron and Beverley Belgau from cityofgod.net. Here is a complete list of all of the sessions that will be held that week.

So what is Pope Francis going to do on his visit?
This will be Pope Francis’s first WMF conference (and first trip to America) since he became Pontiff on March 13, 2013. The only popes to have attended the WMF conferences are the late Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Events that are definitely on the Pontiff’s schedule are the Festival of Families on Saturday, Sept. 26 and a Papal Mass on Sunday, Sept. 27. NBC news reported that the Pope’s exact itinerary is still in the planning stages but that potential visits to Ground Zero, the White House and the United Nations are on the list. Though the main event of WMF will be held in Philly, it will most likely not be the only destination on his trip to the U.S.

Where else has it been held?
Every three years, crowds arrive by the thousands to share their “thoughts, dialogue and prayers.”  Since 1994, the WMF conference have been in Rio de Janeiro (1997), Rome (once in 1994 and again in 2000), Manila (2003), Valencia (2006), Mexico City (2009) and Milan (2012).

Over 1 million people for one event? Is the city up for that?
Philadelphia is the first American city to host the conference, and just to give you an idea of what to expect: The 2012 conference saw nearly 7,000 attendees at the WMF conference, 350,000 were at the Festival of Families and an estimated one million attendees were at the Papal Mass. Needless to say, hotel rooms in the city are being snatched up like hotcakes. But this is not Philly’s first rodeo. Since the Pontiff’s official announcement that he would be coming to Philly in November 2014, the city has been making preparations. Donations from non-profits have been gathered and already account for over half of the 45 million the city needs to cover the event.

Aren’t things going to get out of hand, though?
The anticipated large-scale security and bumper-to-bumper traffic are going to come as no surprise to visitors and Philly residents but a game of “score the hotel room” is sure to commence in the coming months, rooms and venues are already being booked up. Another potential issue is that Pro-Life organizations are asking Planned Parenthood clinics for an abortion moratorium during the Pontiff’s visit. Philly Alive is one such organization joining the protest. In a letter that they plan to distribute to the city’s clinics, they state, “…we would specifically ask that you do not perform any abortions the week of September 20–27… This will be the Holy Father’s first trip to America and it would violate his teachings as a world and faith leader to take the lives of innocent children…” Other than some picket protests and demonstrations, there doesn’t seem to be a cause for concern.

So can I go?
Of course! This is a global event so basically, the entire world is on the guest list. The specific breakout sessions and speakers, which will take place at the beginning of the week (Sept. 22–25), are only for those who register in advance, however. But the Festival of Families and Sunday Papal Mass is completely, 100 percent free. Needless to say, the Ben Franklin Parkway on the last two days of the conference will be packed to the brim; much like the annual Fourth of July celebration but four times as big. Just giving you all a heads up.

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