Pope Francis in Philly: The Countdown Begins

Will the pontiff’s visit next month leave a lasting impact?

In case you haven’t heard, Pope Francis is coming to Philadelphia in September. But, of course, you knew that. It’s been big news ever since it was announced last November.

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About 1.5 million visitors are expected to descend upon Benjamin Franklin Parkway outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a chance to see the popular pontiff, who was dubbed “The People’s Pope” by Time magazine. I understand the excitement at having an opportunity to see this world leader. I remember my own pope sighting.

I was working as a reporter at The Baltimore Sun when Pope John Paul II, now canonized a saint, made a scheduled stop in the city on a breathtakingly beautiful October day in 1995.

Downtown was practically pulsing with excitement as thousands of people made the pilgrimage to the Inner Harbor to watch the pope on JumboTrons or, if they were lucky enough to get tickets to Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles stadium, where he celebrated Mass.

It’s not too often that a Catholic service is preceded by the thumping pop rhythms of Boyz II Men. But the guy group was a welcome warm-up to the main event. At one point, the pope circled the baseball field in his popemobile to greet his followers.

He scored a homerun. The crowd thundered their approval with cheers and applause. Some worshippers were so moved they fell devoutly to their knees, despite the bone-crushing concrete floor. Unrestrained tears rained down on the ballpark’s concourses.

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I know this firsthand because I was assigned to cover the pope from inside the stadium that day. It is an event I’ll never forget. I have never seen such a display of piety and devotion.

To prepare for Pope Francis’ visit to Philly, we asked writer Kevin Noonan to have a conversation with Bishop W. Francis Malooly of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington. Malooly, who has led the diocese since 2008, will have an opportunity to meet the pope during his visit to the United States.

In Kevin’s story (page 50), the bishop reflects on what the pope’s appearance means to us, especially Catholics. “To have Pope Francis visit America, and especially to have him come to our backyard, so to speak, is a real shot in the arm,” he says. “The pope has such a joy about him, and that really comes through.’’

If you’re planning to make the trek to Philadelphia during the pope’s visit Sept. 26-27, be prepared to walk a lot and to be patient. At least, that’s the advice Kevin gives us in a primer (page 50) on how to maneuver the city on those days.

I won’t be able to be there in person this time, but I’ll be watching the proceedings somewhere on a TV, reliving the good will I witnessed many years ago. I guarantee you will be moved by the event whether you’re religious or not.

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The pope’s visit comes during troubled racial times here and while dangerous conflicts are raging abroad. One can only hope the world will respond in kind when the pontiff ends his Mass with, “Go in peace.”


Executive Editor Suzanne Loudermilk

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