Next year's World Meeting of Families here, capped by Pope Francis' visit to the city, could mean "a rebirth of the archdiocese," Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said Monday.
Chaput told a news conference that he could not shake off the gloom even when Pope Benedict XVI informed him last year that his battered archdiocese would host the 2015 World Meeting.
Dogged by clergy sex abuse scandals for more than a decade, the 1.4 million-member archdiocese has also been obliged to close dozens of parishes and schools in recent years because of financial stresses.
"We were in difficult situations in terms of morale and finances," he recalled, and as archbishop here for less than two years, the news from Benedict had made him "nervous" and "not very enthusiastic."
But his fears that the archdiocese could not muster the resources to host the World Meeting are gone, Chaput said. In fact, he is "really enthusiastic" about hosting the crowds and the pope himself.
Like many other Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States, Philadelphia's has seen in recent decades a steady decline in Mass attendance, use of the sacraments, parish activity, and religious vocations, especially among young people.
"This is a very important moment in the life of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the church here," he said.
Lasting six days, the Vatican-sponsored gathering will start Sept. 22 with four days of workshops and "breakout sessions" that explore the value of family and its many challenges.
That Saturday, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway will then be the scene of a three-hour "Festival of Families," where Francis will make his first appearance, for about one hour.
Event organizers expect that the festival - a kind of street fair with prayer and music going from about 6 to 9 p.m. - will draw 850,000 to 1,000,000 people.
That Sunday, the pope will say Mass at an altar at the base of the Art Museum, an event that could draw 1.5 million to two million. Chaput said visitors to the family festival will not be allowed to stay on the Parkway overnight.
Chaput was in Rome last week when Francis made the surprise announcement - not expected until next year - that he would attend the last two days of the World Meeting. Chaput, who arrived home Sunday from Italy, said he still has "no idea" why Benedict chose Philadelphia for the World Meeting.
"No one has said why," he said. "But I'm sure glad it's here."
Although the World Meeting "is going to have a Catholic dimension," he said, it will "welcome everybody."
About one-quarter of the speakers are non-Catholic, he said, and there is "even an atheist" on the roster.
The first four days of the World Meeting, called a "congress," will be at the Convention Center and are expected to draw 10,000 to 15,000 people to its more than 100 events, some of which are geared toward children.
Chaput said World Meeting of Families Philadelphia 2015, a nonprofit organization legally separate from the archdiocese, and the Vatican's Pontifical Council on the Family are sponsoring dozens of "scholarships" that would pay for travel and accommodations so that all the Catholic dioceses in Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean will be represented at the meeting.
There will also be scholarships so that representatives of all the countries in the Catholic world will also be able to attend.
"We know we already have people from 153 countries," said Chaput, who predicted the World Meeting would "reinvigorate the archdiocese, strengthen and highlight families, and showcase Philadelphia and our region."