Pope Benedict XVI announced Sunday that Philadelphia will hold World Family Day in 2015, an event likely to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors that some observers are calling a sign of papal support for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia as it struggles with a bruising clergy sex-abuse scandal.
Benedict's presence - which would be the first papal visit to Philadelphia since John Paul II's phenomenally popular outdoor Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in October 1979 attracted one million people - could also serve as a much-needed energizer for Catholics, some said.
"It just can't be overstated how significant this will be for the church in Philadelphia," said Donna Farrell, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese. "It's been tough for Catholics in Philadelphia. It's just a really exciting announcement."
Over the last 11 weeks, the city has been the setting for a landmark clergy sex-abuse trial in a case- that prosecutors have maintained demonstrates a wider conspiracy among archdiocesan leaders to ignore or conceal abuse claims against priests. Jury deliberations will continue Monday.
Benedict announced during a Sunday Mass in Milan, Italy, his selection of Philadelphia as the venue for World Family Day, formally called the World Meeting of Families, held every three years. It will be the first World Family Day held in the United States, but no date had yet been set. John Paul II established it in 1992 to strengthen the bonds of marriage and family.
"It's fitting that this gathering, which celebrates the cornerstone of society, will take place in America's cradle of freedom," Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who attended the Mass where the pope made the announcement, said in a news release.
Chaput, who on Sunday received the icon of the Holy Family, the symbol of World Family Day, called the choice of Philadelphia for an unprecedented U.S. gathering "a gift to the local church in Philadelphia and to the whole nation."
Not all reacted with such enthusiasm.
On her website, Catholics4Change.com, Susan Matthews, a former editor at the archdiocesan weekly newspaper, the Catholic Standard and Times, took issue with Chaput's characterization of Benedict's selection of Philadelphia for the meeting as a "gift."
"Where's the receipt? I'd like to exchange it for one that includes enforced policies on clergy child-sex abuse," she wrote Sunday.
Susan Gibbs, who was spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington when Benedict visited there in April 2008, said he "really energized people - Catholics and non-Catholics alike."
"People here still talk about it," she said in an interview Sunday.
Preparation included "endless planning meetings" to handle issues such as security for a pope, who is a head of state and requires local and U.S. Secret Service protection, she said.
"We only had five months' notice," she said. "You have three years."
Farrell said details had yet to be worked out, but archdiocesan officials intend to "hit the ground running" on Monday.
Among those willing to help is Mayor Nutter.
"Philadelphia is a city of churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and many communities of faith," he said. "I look forward to helping coordinate this very special and important visit."
Since becoming pope, Benedict has attended a World Family Day in Valencia, Spain, but skipped one in Mexico.
The announcement that he might come to Philadelphia comes as jury deliberations continue in the criminal trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn, former clergy secretary for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004, who was in charge of investigating sex allegations against priests, and the Rev. James J. Brennan.
Lynn, 61, is charged with conspiracy and two counts of child endangerment. Brennan, 48, is charged with the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996 and child endangerment.
Lynn is the first U.S. church official charged for his handling of child sex-abuse complaints. Prosecutors accused him of endangering children by recommending that two priests be allowed to live and work in parishes despite signs that they might abuse children.
Lynn testified that only his archbishop, the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, had the power to remove or transfer priests. Bevilacqua died in his sleep in January.
As for a visit from Benedict, Roman Catholic High sophomore Matthew Lawson, 16, said it would show "that we are a strong parish."
"With a lot of the controversy that's going on, [Benedict] realizes . . . something needs to be done," he said Sunday after serving as an altar boy at Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. "The pope needs to address this issue and assure the diocese as a whole that the people that made the bad decisions will receive consequences."
Matthews, of Catholics4Change.com, asked: "Will the pope meet with the families of the victims left in the wake of Cardinal Bevilacqua's cover-up? Will he help their families recover?"
Kyle Robinson, an HVAC salesman from Roxborough, said Benedict "has a lot of explaining to do."
"Why can't they [church leaders] come clean and confess their sins?" asked Robinson, who said that he had gone to Catholic grade school, but that the church sex scandals had left him disillusioned. "It befuddles me why they are still hiding things."
Joe Varzaly, 80, of North Wales, saw Pope Pius XII from afar while visiting Rome in 1953, when he was stationed in Germany with the Air Force. Varzaly, one of 1.5 million Catholics in the Philadelphia area, said he was excited about the chance to see Benedict up close.
"It would be terrific for him to come here and get an idea of what is going on in the community," the former staff sergeant said Sunday while attending the Brandywine Strawberry Festival near Coatesville.
Joe Martelon of Roxborough said Philadelphia "could really use [Benedict's] influence. It would be good for the city to have that kind of positive influence."