Catholics in the region began preparing Monday for what they’re calling a church “Super Bowl.”
Pope Francis confirmed that he will visit Philadelphia in September for the World Meeting of Families, a conference held every three years to celebrate the importance of family. It will be his first visit to the United States.
“It’s like the Super Bowl and Paul McCartney,” said Helene Paharik, associate general secretary for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. “It’s already a big event, the World Meeting of Families, but then you have the papal visit on top of that. It’s just an incredible opportunity.”
Paharik and Jerry Zufelt, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, said the dioceses are planning trips for the pope’s visit and the World Meeting of Families.
They’re planning local events for those who can’t go to Philadelphia. Details have not been finalized.
Paharik said the Pittsburgh diocese has travel and hotel arrangements for about 180 people to attend the meeting and a similar number for the pope’s visit. Details on how to sign up will be released in December, she said.
She encouraged people to go and said hotels are available on the website www.worldmeeting2015.org .
Zufelt said Greensburg is making similar arrangements.
“It’s very exciting for all the Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania,” Zufelt said. “It’s an opportunity that does not happen very often for people here to take part in events with the pope.”
Priests in the region said they expect to organize parish trips to Philadelphia. They said churches would likely host fundraisers to help families defray costs.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to be near the person who stands in the place of Christ here on Earth,” said the Rev. Joseph Swierczynski, pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Polish Hill. “We have a lot of time to organize something for this, and I’m sure it will work out. People will want to go. He’s well loved by the people.”
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, speaking at a news conference, called it a “joyous day” and said the visit would be the largest event in the city’s modern history.
It will be the second papal visit to Philadelphia — John Paul II celebrated Mass in the city in 1979 — and the first papal visit to the United States in eight years.
Swierczynski said he served Communion during the 1979 Philadelphia mass.
Nutter, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, the conference’s organizer, met with Francis at the Vatican and personally invited him to the city in March.
Last week, more than 10,000 Philadelphia Catholic school children sent handwritten notes encouraging the 77-year-old Francis to visit.
The pope is expected to visit New York and Washington, but Vatican officials Monday would not confirm those legs of the trip.
The Rev. Thomas Burke, pastor of St. James Parish in Sewickley, said he just returned from a trip to the Vatican with 27 people from the region.
“For Catholics, he is our Holy Father,” he said. “This is huge for people who have never had the opportunity to go to Italy.”
The visit will occur at a time when the church is trying to keep Catholics in the fold, including Latino immigrants who have been joining Protestant churches or leaving organized religion in significant numbers.
Expectations will be high for the pope to address the clergy sex abuse scandals. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, met privately with victims on his April 2008 visit to Washington and New York City.
Francis is expected to celebrate a Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The boulevard, linking Philadelphia’s city hall to the art museum steps made famous by the movie “Rocky,” is home to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and has been the backdrop for summer concerts and parades attracting hundreds of thousands of people.
Officials have said the World Meeting of Families on Sept. 25-27 could attract more than 1 million people. Hotels within a 10-mile radius of center city Philadelphia have sold out.
Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. The Associated Press contributed to this report.