Earlier this month, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation announced that the bus company working with the World Meeting of Families will be able to use roads otherwise closed to traffic during the September international gathering. SEPTA and PATCO have plenty of capacity still and will put you right in the center of activity with about a one-mile walk at the most.
In other words, buses and public transportation will be more than adequate for groups and individuals that travel into the city, especially for the concluding papal events.
That's very good news.
In just over three weeks, World Meeting of Families (WMOF) — Philadelphia 2015 will begin. Enthusiasm for the congress, both nationally and globally, is very strong. We had hoped for 250 exhibits. We now have 446. As of today, we have more than 15,000 registered participants — not counting hundreds of scholarships given to attendees from poor countries — and the number may finally reach 17,000.
In other words, Philadelphia is already the largest World Meeting of Families in history by the number of congress registrations, and it's double the size of the last family congress in Milan in 2012. For the visit of Pope Francis, we hope for somewhere near 700,000 for the Saturday Festival of Families and roughly one million for the Sunday papal Mass.
Yet the men and women spearheading the WMOF effort — Philadelphia business and civic leaders from every background — do have one concern. And they need our help in overcoming it. The only thing standing between an enormously successful World Meeting of Families and one that's "merely" successful is we, ourselves — and I mean the whole Philadelphia community. We can defeat ourselves by not being part of the Francis Festival and the city's welcome for the Holy Father, and by giving in to the anxieties and worries that go along with any major effort like this.
The media have been wonderful and very positive in covering this event for many months. We're grateful for their help. But as we get closer to Sept. 22, there's a natural temptation to focus on the inconvenience and challenges of a mass gathering. And when that happens, people can begin to wonder if the effort of coming to Center City is worth the time and energy. I promise you that it is.
This is a moment of grace. Memories will be made. The World Meeting of Families will be spectacular. Nothing can stop that except our own unwillingness to take part in something extraordinary.
Or to put it another way: Nowhere in Scripture do we find Mary, Joseph, or Jesus worrying about security, transportation, or logistics.
Somehow, Mary and Joseph managed to make their way to Bethlehem and have a baby in a stable. Somehow, they managed to find the adolescent Jesus in the Temple. And somehow, Jesus managed to preach his Gospel all over Judea despite robbers, brigands, and demons — and without downtown parking or even a SEPTA pass.
What's the lesson? Philadelphians have a reputation for durability. We earned it. We're nothing if not determined and resilient.
Pope Francis is one of the most popular and magnetic world leaders in the past century. His visit here is an irreplaceable moment in history. It can spark a whole new spirit of life in our region, our city, and in our own hearts. But we need to own that spirit by welcoming him with our presence and our personal involvement, not just with our words. And we can do that best by joining him in the streets of Philadelphia — on Independence Mall, at the Festival of Families, and on the Ben Franklin Parkway for his Sunday Mass.
If Pope Francis, at the ripe young age of 78, can travel tirelessly across oceans to share a message of joy, then surely we can bear a little inconvenience to greet him in person. We're staging a Francis Festival, not a "traffic box" with overtones of Jurassic Park. The World Meeting of Families is a gift — a pure gift. It's a moment of grace for all of us. And we need to be there, all of us, to share in it.
We're the City of Brotherly Love, one of the truly great cities of a great nation. It's time to show that to the world. So I look forward eagerly to seeing all of you the weekend of Sept. 26-27 at the World Meeting of Families.