Next month, on September 8, marks four years since I arrived as archbishop. It’s exactly halfway through my ministry here. I’ll be 75 four years from now, in September 2019. That’s the mandatory retirement age for bishops. So today is a good day to stop and reflect. We’re here to talk about the World Meeting of Families. But I don’t think we can understand its importance without remembering some history.
Four years ago was an ugly time. Catholics in Philadelphia were reeling from a bitter grand jury investigation; more than 20 priests were on administrative leave for misconduct allegations; there were multiple criminal indictments; parishes and schools were being closed; our annual operating budget was $17 million in the red; accumulated archdiocesan debts amounted to roughly $300 million; there was overstaffing at the top; and the archdiocesan CFO had just embezzled nearly $1 million. Four years later, we still have a lot of issues to resolve. But the situation is vastly better. And the reason for the change is very simple: the dedication and generosity of our people and priests.
Of course fixing the material problems of a community doesn’t automatically heal its spirit. The city of Philadelphia and the Church in Philadelphia are major players in the story of our country. They deserve better than the problems of the last decade. They deserve some joy. They deserve a win – a turnaround moment that renews the spirit. And that’s the reason we said yes when the Holy See asked us to consider hosting the Eighth World Meeting of Families.
We were a little naïve; or maybe a lot. Initially, we thought we’d need to raise somewhere between $15 million and $20 million. The real fundraising goal turned out to be $45 million. Building the friendships and infrastructure required by an event like World Meeting of Families has been rewarding, but also demanding and very complicated.
It’s been worth all the time and all the effort. We’ve had wonderful cooperation from the city and state. We’ve had extraordinary support from the business community, including Comcast, Aramark, Independence Blue Cross and many others. Major donors — both non-Catholic and Catholic — have been extremely generous, because they see clearly that this is a celebration for the whole Greater Philadelphia region.
Standing here today, we’re still short of our financial goal, and we still need to keep building our resources. But we’re closer every day to what we need, and I’m confident we’ll meet and exceed it. We hoped for 250 congress exhibitors; we now have 428. As of today, our registrations for the family congress are nearly 15,000 and may end up as high as 17,000. That means we’re already the largest World Meeting of Families in history by congress registrations, and double the size of the last family congress in Milan in 2012. For the visit of Pope Francis that concludes the congress, we expect somewhere around 700,000 for the Saturday Festival of Families and roughly 1 million for the Sunday papal Mass.
Yet I do have one main concern, and I need your help in overcoming it. The only thing standing between an enormously successful World Meeting of Families and one that’s “merely” successful is us, ourselves – and I mean the whole Philadelphia community. We can defeat ourselves by giving in to the anxieties and worries that go along with any major effort like this. The media have been wonderful and very positive in covering this event, and we’re very grateful. But as we get closer to September 22, there’s always a temptation to focus on possible problems in security, logistics and transportation, and when that happens, people can begin to wonder if the effort of coming into Center City is worth the time and energy.
Philadelphia is the birthplace of our nation and one of its greatest cities. Pope Francis is one of the most popular and magnetic world leaders in the past century. His visit here is an irreplaceable moment in history. It’s a moment that can spark a whole new spirit of life in our city, our region and in our Church.
But we need to own that spirit by welcoming him with our presence and our personal involvement, not just with our words. And we can do that best by joining him here in the city — on Independence Mall, at the Festival of Families, and on the parkway for his Sunday Mass. It’s worth it. It will be spectacular. So please join us – and tell everyone you meet to do the same.