Philly Gets Ready for the Pope

Posted: Sep 12, 2015 12:01 AM
Philly Gets Ready for the Pope

"He's accessible."

Lizanne Pando and I are talking about the World Meeting of Families soon to be held in Philadelphia -- Pope Francis' reason for coming in the United States later this month -- and she can't help but talk about her boss, the archbishop of Philadelphia, Charles J. Chaput.

"He answers emails. He'll give you advice. He'll tell you what he's thinking."

She adds: "He's done a lot of structural changes that were not easy tasks. He's very consistent ... thoughtful ... and his focus is very much on the poor. He just does it. The Church here does it."

Pando is director of communications for the World Meeting of Families, but her enthusiasm comes from a deeper place than a mere sense of professional duty.

Philadelphia is in the final days of preparing for the meeting, an international, ecumenical congress focused on families and the love that binds them together. Like Pando, the City of Brotherly Love is ecstatic to welcome Pope Francis -- as you can see from the new pop-up store in Center City lined with papal bobble-head dolls.

"Pope Francis has been talking about little else but the family since becoming pope," Pando observes. Indeed, the pope has stressed the importance of the family unit in fostering a more stable, loving society.

Pando sees the upcoming meeting as a chance to emphasize and broaden this message: "I think this will give the opportunity for every family to tell their story."

"People who come to the World Meeting of Families office and work there -- they've never been to an office before where people so freely pray," Pando says. "They are so freed by that -- that they are allowed to. I think families will feel that freedom." 17,000 people are registered for the World Meeting of Families. They will pray together, listen together and serve the poor together.

The bobble-heads don't begin to tell the story of the excitement -- and anxiety about crowds -- in the air regarding the papal visit. And for Philadelphia Catholics, there is primarily a sense of gratitude.

"They have been through a lot of tough stuff and they are delighted to be able to host the Holy Father. They are generous and they are joyful," Pando says.

Some of the "tough stuff" includes scandals and abuse, and Pando expresses her sorrow for the victims of unspeakable crimes that have mercifully come to light. The Church is in a much healthier, safer place now.

For the faithful who felt betrayed, this is a time of healing.

Pando tells me about a woman who goes to the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Philadelphia's nearby Germantown section every week. She cries at the foot of a replica of the Pieta there and leaves her burdens there, with Jesus and Mary.Pando observes: "There is a lot of sorrow. There's illness. Personal attacks. Loss of loved ones. Loss of jobs. Loss of homes. Addictions." Families face so many struggles beyond the religious freedom clashes that make most of our headlines about marriage and family these days.

"And in Pope Francis, they see a religious leader they can relate to," Pando says.

"Blessed are the peacemakers," she adds, describing the pope's attempts to bring people together.

In a highly polarized political atmosphere about marriage and family, can the pope's message of unity succeed? Can he help bring calm to our conversations and debates and peace to our hearts? It won't take a miracle -- but it will require us to listen to someone who may just say what we need to hear, as challenging as it may prove to be. There's hope there.

It's going to be amazing, Pando insists. See the faith of the people of Philadelphia -- it might just help us all.

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