Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Here comes Pope Francis

PHILADELPHIA - From the Pope Francis life-sized cardboard cutout in the gift shop at City Hall to the Shepard Fairey-style POPE cover on Philadelphia magazine, the upcoming visit of the pope dominates the rhythm of the City of Brotherly Love these days.

Not that there are not other things going on here. Lot of eyes were on TV screens Saturday as the Eagles sunk their talons into the Green Bay Packers in a pre-season game.  (The Eagles won 39-26.) And local officials are probably grateful that the 3,000 participants in the Naked Bike Ride got that adventure out of the way before the pope arrived.

For a couple of hundred journalists who cover religion, a three-day conference of the Religion Newswriters Association in downtown Philly was dominated by info about the papal visit. So here are some snippets ranging from logistics to meaning to humor (yes, you can send the pope a joke).

The pope will be arrive in Washington D.C. on Sept. 22, then head up to New York City on Sept. 24 after addressing Congress, and come here to Philadelphia on Sept. 26 and 27. He will have 23 scheduled events over five days – and there is anticipation that he will sneak in a few other events along the way. A number of speakers mentioned the “surprise factor” with Francis – you never know when he might break out of the plan and do something unexpected.

The Logistics

Helen Osman, secretary of communications for the U.S. Conference of Bishops, said her office now has about 8,000 names in the media database for the visit to the three cities. There are the Vatican press, the TV pools, journalists from all over the world seeking spots at the various venues.

Individual journalists will get access to one event per day, in large part because of the security logistics around each event. The Secret Service will require members of the media to be in place four to five hours before an event begins – and the traffic is going to be horrendous, so moving between events will be almost impossible for journalists outside the papal pool.

Just in Philadelphia, said Ken Gavin, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, there are applications from 6,000 journalists for 800 positions available at the events here.

But it’s not just the pope’s visit that complicates life in Philadelphia. The main reason that Pope Francis is coming to the U.S. and to Philly is the World Meeting of Families, which will be happening from Tuesday to Friday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

They are expecting about 17,000 participants from over 100 countries, said Donna Farrell, executive director of the event. They have 10,000 volunteers so far.  And then everything shifts to the “Francis Festival” for the weekend.

There will be 40 jumbotrons around the city so people who cannot to papal events can still see them without having to go through security. And traffic will come to a standstill.

On Sunday, when the pope celebrates Mass on the Philadelphia Parkway (CK), there may be 1.5 million people participating (eat your heart out, Donald Trump). But that will cause problems for other churches – especially those in or near downtown, where their regular worshippers will not be able to get there for their services.

“We’re excited for our brothers and sisters who are Catholic and will have Mass,” said Rev. Leslie Callahan, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church, a historic African-American congregation downtown. “But it’s not the same for us.”

But Callahan, an activist on social justice and racial issues in Philadelphia, said she hopes that Pope Francis’ visit bring some “moral muscle” to the issues she cares about.

The Meaning

And that gets to the expectations, the meanings around the pope’s visit.

Fr. John Wauck, a professor at the Pontifical University Santa Croce in Rome (CK) and one of the organizers of many of the presentations about the pope at the RNA conference, talked about how mercy has become a watchword for Francis’ papacy and said that “Pope Francis will demonstrate with this trip mercy in all its richness.”

A variety of speakers each had their own lenses through which to see the pope’s visit.

Maryann Cusimano Love is an associate professor at the Catholic University of America. As she began, she noted that she grew up in Philadelphia in a poor family and had worked as a young woman cleaning hotel ballrooms and scrubbing toilets. Now, she noted, she was the woman standing in the front of the ballroom.

When Pope Francis speaks to the General Assembly at the United Nations on Sept. 25, she expects to hear him call for a strengthening of the U.N. on the global stage and about things starting with the letter “P” :
People before profits

Alejandro Bermudez is executive director of the Catholic News Agency and an Argentinian who knew Francis before he became pope in 2013. He reminded people that the context for Pope Francis is Latin America and specifically Argentina – a place on the periphery. Francis sees change coming from places on the periphery.

Austen Ivereigh, veteran British journalist and author of an acclaimed biography of Francis, echoed that theme of the periphery. “The dynamic for change begins on the periphery,” he said. “Reform occurs when the center opens up to the periphery.” Francis is all about connecting the center to the periphery.

Other points from Ivereigh: Mercy is a key concept to Francis.  So is detaching from things to focus on mission. He challenges the spiritual idolatry of money and power as well as the legalism and rigorism that stifles God’s spirit. And he sees himself defending culture against the effects of globalization and commercialism.

Finally, said Ivereigh, noting the polarization of politics in the U.S., Francis has “a profound vision for a revival in politics by holding ideals in tension,” seeing how disagreements can be dynamic.

The key figure in the Vatican press office dealing with English-speaking journalists is Fr. Thomas Rosica. He offered his own set of lenses for viewing the trip:
Communication – speaking the truth with charity
Christian unity
Ecology – not just the ecology of the natural world but the ecology of human life
Mercy (there’s that word again)
The field hospital – that image from St. Ignatius of the of naming the battles facing the people of the world and being with them in the midst of those battles – not set apart from those in the midst of suffering

From across the country, Archbishop Jose Gomez talked about the changing face of the church in the U.S. with the upsurge in Hispanic Catholics. So for him, that forms a lens for the pope’s trip.

“I hope and pray that the Holy Father will speak about immigration,” Gomez said. “It's an issue he cares deeply about.” He said that immigrants are all children of God and “need to be treated with all the dignity we deserve.”

From the top of the American hierarchy, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville – president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop, offered his own quarter of themes for the pope’s visit. (It is worth noting that he has met twice in the past two years with Pope Francis to discuss the state of the American church.)
Pastor and prophet – bringing the love of Jesus to all people as he walks with theml calling people to conversion, to return to the ideal while rejecting the American tendencies toward being self-referential and living in a throw-away culture.
Freedom to serve – faith enriches public life, so freedom is not for self but for others. “He will encourage us not to leave the public square but to put faith into action.”
Put the person first – watch him interact with those he encounters – he is at his best when he is in dialogue
Family – he is coming for the World Meeting of Families, so he will be talking about “God’s plan for families and God’s love, desire and mercy for every person.”

Archbishop Bernardito Auza is the Vatican’s representative at the United Nations, so he focused on the pope’s speech to the General Assembly. Themes?
“The preoccupations of the United Nations are similar to the preoccupations of the Holy See – avoid war, make a better life for everyone.”

So listen there for talk about peace and security, economic development and the environment.

At the center of the Philadelphia visit with be the archbishop there, Charles Chaput, one of the more conservative members of the American hierarchy. He let out one interesting tidbit – it’s quite possible that the pope will quietly visit with victims of clerical sex abuse while in Philadelphia. That has been a big issue in that diocese, with Chaput brought in to clean up things.

Chaput also emphasized the social service work the archdiocese of Philadephia does, saying, “I hope when Pope Francis flies home, he’ll understand that American bishops share every ounce of his passion for the poor.”

So it gets back to the street level with Shane Clairborn, Christian activist around homeless issues in Philadelphia, author. He talked about the demonstrations being organized outside the prison that Francis will visit there, highlight issues of mass incarceration and the death penalty. (And he has invited Francis to come and jump in the fire hydrants in North Philly.)

Light notes

That would fit with some of lighthearted events at the World Meeting of Families like “Swinging with the Sisters” (that would be dancing) and “Wii-bowling with the Bishops.” And there is no shortage of humorous souvenirs available.  

But there is one official project in the works that is interesting – Joke with the Pope. This is a project of the Pontifical Mission Societies. People can post a short video of them telling a joke or send in a written joke. One joke will be chosen as a winner and $10,000 will go to the cause picked by the joke's creator - either helping children in Argentina, the homeless in Ethiopia or the hungry in Kenya.

The causes

This is one of a multitude of projects created around the pope's visit. In DC, there is "Walk With Francis." And when the Pope is speaking to Congress, thousands of people concerned about creation care will be gathered on the lawn outside the Capitol during a week of Moral Action for Climate Justice. In Philadelphia, there is the Francis Fund, hoping to raise $1.5 million to fight homelessness in that city. And those are just a few.