AN ELDERLY woman knelt in the last pew of St. Monica's Church in South Philly on Sunday, a rosary intertwined in her fingers, while a shaggy-haired teenager in basketball shorts played with his cellphone one pew up —both beneath a pastel-painted ceiling of the afterlife.
Catholics in Philly still struggle with the universal mysteries while grappling with the still-simmering sex-abuse scandal that rocked both the diocese here and the faith around the globe. Adherents expect guidance from Rome in the toughest times — and, so, it's always a monumental moment when Rome comes to you.
It was announced Sunday that Philadelphia will host Pope Benedict XVI for the 2015 World Meeting of Families, the city's first papal visit since 1979 when a million people crammed the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to see Pope John Paul II.
"It's fitting that this gathering, which celebrates the cornerstone of society, will take place in America's cradle of freedom," Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said in a statement. "The Holy Father's choice is a gift to the local Church in Philadelphia and to the whole nation."
Outside St. Monica, parishioners said that the Pontiff's visit to Philly is also fitting because city Catholics need a spiritual boost. On Monday, a city jury is set resume deliberations in the case against Monsignor William J. Lynn, who stands accused of covering up sexual abuse by priests in the diocese and reassigning suspected molesters to other parishes. A 2011 grand-jury report blamed the diocese for failing to protect children.
"Hopefully his presence in this country and here in the city will help us heal, collectively," Ron Forcina, 67, said of the papal visit. "It would be nice if we could put the sex abuse behind us and move forward."
Pope Benedict XVI made the announcement Sunday in Milan during the 2012 World Meeting of Families there. The meeting, according to a statement sent out by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, began in 1992 as an attempt to "strengthen and defend the sacred bonds of marriage and family across the globe."
This is the first time that the conference will be in the U.S., and the first time that it will be held in a non-Catholic majority country. The conference has been held four times outside Europe, and the Pope has never before traveled to the ones held off the continent.
The Pope passed over Philadelphia back in 2008 when he visited Washington D.C., then New York.
"What changed? Two things. The grand-jury report, and the eruption that emerged from it, changed everything," said Vatican expert Rocco Palmo, who writes the Catholic-themed blog Whispers in the Loggia.
"We've been through the toughest period that any American diocese has been through in the last 50 years. It's the darkest hour the Philadelphia Archdiocese has gone through in 200 years."
Chaput was handpicked by Pope Benedict XVI to lead Philadelphia through traumatic times, and Palmo said that the papal visit is a "vote of confidence" in the Archbishop's leadership.
"The Vatican knows about the closing of the schools, the trial and the financial situation of the Archdiocese. … It's been 16 very difficult months," he said. "This is a way of giving happy news and a shot in the arm to the church here."
Pope John Paul II spent two days in Philadelphia in October 1979, celebrating Mass at churches and before a huge gathering on Logan Square. Crowds estimated as in excess of a million clogged the streets to get a glimpse of the Pontiff.