Visitors from across the globe are flocking to Philadelphia’s Center City district as workers race to prepare for the arrival of Pope Francis later this week. The preparations, which include erecting miles of barriers to cordon off the downtown cathedral and other areas where Francis is scheduled to appear, have disrupted some services and triggered anxiety as well as excitement.
Many of those who descended on the downtown convention center Tuesday for the opening ceremony of the World Meeting of Families that precedes the pope’s arrival brought banners, fleece vests and hats identifying their hometowns, from Buenos Aires to Nairobi to Chicago.
Frank Hannigan, 62, stopped on the convention center steps to pose for a photo with group of about 30, the ones in the Chicago fleece vests who arrived by bus Monday night.
“You see people from all over the continent here. It’s a powerful reminder of how large and diverse the church is,” said Hannigan, director of the Chicago Archdiocese’s marriage and family ministries office.
ValLimar Jansen of Fontana, Calif., was also just arriving with friends from the Inland Empire and the San Francisco Bay Area. They said the city seemed well-prepared, the traffic light, streets dotted with inspirational signs and billboards heralding the pope’s arrival.
Jansen was decked out in an African head scarf and bright yellow dress for a morning concert at the children’s congress.
“We’re not just celebrating the family — it’s the human family. One of the things we teach our kids is we have an obligation to serve,” she said.
Her friend Densy Chandra of Highland, Calif., was organizing housing for scores of fellow Indonesian Catholics arriving from across the country.
“People have been very welcoming,” she said, including families hosting visitors. “The immigrants now are continuing the work of the Italians and the Polish [immigrants], filling the churches.”
The Rev. Daniel Romo flew in from Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday morning with a contingent from Africa and drove straight to the green-domed Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, where the archbishop made a special appearance to celebrate Mass and greet his group.
“I’m very excited and very happy that I’m here, looking forward to a fruitful sharing on issues related to families, to see the joys and challenges and how best to address those,” Romo said while standing outside after Mass near stalls selling $25 Pope Francis bobblehead dolls and workers installing Jumbotron screens.
But across Logan Circle, past the construction crews, vendors and banners, another contingent worried that papal security would drive the group’s members from their temporary homes.
“They want the homeless people to leave,” said Karlo Dudley, who had camped on the grassy edge of the circle in recent months with a few dozen others on cardboard boxes, one of which he turned into a sign, “Vatican security, roll call: we stay, we go.”
The mayor and other officials announced long ago that stepped-up security would restrict access to much of downtown, with metal detectors, Secret Service sweeps and tickets required at sites the pope is visiting, including the cathedral and nearby Ben Franklin Parkway. They now face a tough task: displacing, even temporarily, some of society’s neediest, a focus of the pope’s ministry.
Dudley and others believe the pope would want them to stay.
“He wants the poor people here, the people he cares for. Let them listen to his speech if they want to. If they get disorderly, then remove them,” he said.
A spokesman for the Philadelphia Archdiocese said they were working with a World Meeting of Families Homelessness and Hunger Committee and the city to “address the important needs of those who live on the parkway.”
“With Pope Francis’ pastoral priorities in mind, we aim to maintain the dignity of every person,” said spokesman Ken Gavin.
Gavin said officials have had discussions with Sister Mary Scullion, influential founder of the longtime local homeless outreach group Project HOME, who “requested special accommodations for the homeless during the papal Mass, which we are happy to oblige.”
A spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter said the homeless will not be forced from the area once security sweeps start Thursday night.
“Once an area is swept and people are allowed to come back, they certainly can come back,” spokesman Mark McDonald said, but added, “They might need to park their stuff somewhere else.”
Those who choose to return will have to cope with crowds just like other downtown residents.
“Folks in all walks of life, including homeless people, are going to have to make adjustments,” McDonald said.
Marie Nahikian, the city’s commissioner of supportive housing, said city outreach workers will distribute food vouchers to the homeless this week and transport them out of the area if they want to skip the crowds. A local group is also setting up a cafe to serve hundreds of free meals to the homeless, and city officials are trying to ensure other groups that distribute free food can access the area to help the homeless.
“They will have a lot of choice,” she said.
Romo, the visiting Kenyan priest, said organizers have to secure the area, especially with so many visitors pouring in.
But fellow visitor Andres Hernandez, 56, of Tlaxcala, Mexico, said the homeless deserve equal access to the area.
“The Holy Father is coming for all of us,” he said, noting that when Jesus broke bread or washed feet, “he didn’t distinguish.”
Neither does Pope Francis, he said. Hernandez noted that the pope has washed the feet of inmates and eaten with Vatican visitors cafeteria-style.
Some of the homeless camped at Logan Circle this week joked that if they’re forced to leave, Francis is going to ask where they went and go looking for them.
Volunteers distributed water and chicken salad sandwiches Sunday before assembling around a folding table in the grass to bless the parkway before the pope’s arrival.
“The pope is supposed to be the servant of the poor,” said Steve Loibimbi, 44, a South African immigrant who was inspired by a local ministry to stop abusing alcohol, get housing and a job at a bank.
As the service started, ministers blessed water and sprinkled it onto the grass as tourists watched from atop passing buses and Segways.
“We want the world to know that as they gather here with Pope Francis that this is sacred ground, not just today, and that sacred ground is available to all God’s children,” said the Rev. Robin Hynicka of the downtown Arch Street United Methodist Church.
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