Sunday, June 03, 2012

For River City, A Family Affair -- Pope Taps Philly to Host Next World Family Meeting

In a move as surprising as it is significant, Pope Benedict announced at today’s closing of the Seventh World Meeting of Families in Milan that Philadelphia will host the next edition of the gathering in 2015.

"God willing," the pontiff added his intent to travel for the event, saying that he "look[s] forward to meeting... the Catholics of that great city" then, "along with numerous families from all around the world."

Today's announcement marks the first time the Meeting will be held in the US church. Since its debut in 1994, only once has a papal visit previously been part of a prior Family Meeting held outside of Europe -- at the 1997 event, held in Rio de Janiero.

The gathering's host city is personally selected by the Pope from a shortlist presented by the event's coordinating dicastery, the Pontifical Council for the Family.

Coming amid a scene of epic turbulence for the Northeastern fold, the choice solidifies a Vatican trend under Benedict of employing major church events as a boost for once-proud Catholic bastions which have fallen on challenging times. An earlier example of the approach takes center stage a week from today as the 50th International Eucharistic Congress opens in Dublin, the de facto center of an Irish church rocked by two decades of revelations of clergy sex-abuse and cover-up. In 2008, the Dublin event's predecessor was entrusted to heavily-secularized Quebec, with the aim of a similar jump-start for the church there.

Most significantly, however, Benedict’s site-selection likewise comes as an unmistakable sign of his confidence in and encouragement for his hand-picked appointee to lead the 1.2 million-member Philly church, Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap., whose first nine months in office have been dominated by the fallout of a flood of legal, administrative and financial crises which erupted in the wake of a February 2011 grand jury report, the second in five years to probe the archdiocese’s handling of sex-abuse cases across several decades.

Named to the post last July, Chaput traveled to Milan to receive the pontiff's commission for the event, greeting Benedict animatedly following the announcement (above). To make the trip, the Capuchin prelate was forced to miss yesterday's ordination of 13 permanent deacons for the archdiocese.

The Meeting would be the largest church event to be held in Philadelphia since the October 1979 visit of now-Blessed John Paul II, when a million people thronged the Ben Franklin Parkway for a Papal Mass on Logan Square -- a crowd that, at the time, was said to be the largest in the city's history. Three years earlier, the city hosted the 41st International Eucharistic Congress, given to the US to commemorate the bicentennial of the nation's independence, which climaxed in the Statio Orbis Mass for over 100,000 in the since-demolished JFK Stadium, with President Gerald Ford in attendance.

With Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti on hand, today's closing rites for the Milan Meeting drew a crowd estimated at some 850,000 on an airfield. Last night's vigil took place with around 350,000 on hand. That said, Philadelphia is likely to host a considerably smaller gathering due to budget and logistical challenges.

The gatherings have occurred on a triennial basis since their establishment by John Paul, traveling between some of the Catholic world’s most prominent outposts -- Rio, Manila, Mexico City, twice in Rome and over this week, the Milanese church, Europe’s largest diocese.

Before today’s announcement, a World Meeting of Families had never been awarded to a country where Catholics don’t comprise a majority of the population.

In that aspect -- and its relative lack of profile to date -- the Meeting bears a conspicuous similarity of status to World Youth Day prior to its American debut in Denver in August 1993, the unexpected success of which was widely credited with transforming the global gathering of young people into the church's "Olympic event."

Along those lines, just as WYD Denver laid the groundwork for Chaput's 14-year ministry as archbishop in the Rockies, transforming the Mile High church into the de facto Stateside hub of the New Evangelization, smart money says that the coming Meeting will serve as a centerpiece of what's quickly become the most sweeping overhaul of Philadelphia Catholicism in nearly two centuries.

Back in the host city, meanwhile, the 2015 announcement notably comes as a Philadelphia jury deliberates its verdict in the landmark trial of Msgr William Lynn, the former archdiocesan clergy chief whose indictment by last year's grand jury made him the first church official in the English-speaking world to be criminally charged with facilitating a cover-up of cases. After ten weeks of arguments -- including three days Lynn spent on the stand in his own defense -- the panel received the case Friday and is expected to take at least several days to reach its judgment.

Meanwhile, in releasing his first financial report to the archdiocese late last week, the new archbishop laid out a "sobering" picture of his new charge's solvency, including a $12.3 million operating loss for the fiscal year which ended two weeks before his appointment.

With over $60 million owed to the archdiocese by its 267 parishes, Chaput likewise disclosed that "the ongoing viability of many of our parishes is unclear." Costs related to the Chancery's response to the grand jury have totaled a combined $11.6 million since February 2011.

Over the days to come, 34 parochial schools in the archdiocese will close or merge in the largest single consolidation of an education system in the history of the American church.

The Pope's selection of a US city to host the next Meeting comes just weeks after Benedict made the state of marriage and family life the focus of one of his five major speeches to the nation's bishops on their now-concluded ad limina visit to Rome.


SVILUPPO: In a statement released mid-morning Eastern time, an "excited" Chaput welcomed the pontiff's selection of Philadelphia to host the next Meeting as "a gift" to the host-city and country.

PHOTOS: GPTMC(1); Pool(2,3)