As Pope Francis flew from Cuba to the United States Tuesday afternoon, the World Meeting of Families got under way in Philadelphia with a ceremony at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
“What we’ve been working on and thinking about and praying for is here,” said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. “It’s game time in Philadelphia. We’re ready to go.”
Nutter joined Archbishops Charles Chaput and Vincenzo Paglia in welcoming the pilgrims who packed the Convention Center’s Great Hall for the ceremony, which opened with children from St. Cornelius Catholic School in Chadds Ford, Pa. singing a hymn written especially for this year’s World Meeting of Families: “Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom.”
Papal pilgrims sang along and danced in the crowd, many of them wearing brightly colored T-shirts and waving flags from their home countries.
Among them were Emelda Madondo and her friend Sylvia Duri who flew 13 hours from Harare, Zimbabwe, to be part of the World Meeting of Families and to get a glimpse of Pope Francis when he visits Philadelphia this weekend.
“People are very loving in Philadelphia,” said Madondo, wearing an orange World Meeting of Families hat and green T-shirt. She was grateful for the couple who drove her and Duri to their hotel after they missed their bus from the Malvern train station Monday night.
With about 20,000 people from more than 100 countries registered to attend, officials said it is the largest World Meeting of Families in the history of the event. The number of registrants is more than double those who attended the last such gathering in Milan in 2012.
It is also the first time the triennial, Vatican-sponsored conference has been held in a country where a majority of the population is not Catholic.
“The role that this country plays on the international stages makes our discussions important for people all over the world,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia told reporters.
Paglia is president of the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome, the Vatican’s lead organizer of the conference. The theme of this year’s gathering is “Love is our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.”
The Vatican chose Philadelphia to host the event back in June 2012 when the local archdiocese was still reeling from a clergy sex abuse scandal, a $17 million budget shortfall and a slew of church and school closures.
Tuesday’s opening ceremony was a joyous culmination of more than three years of planning.
Nutter presented two gifts for Pope Francis: a custom-built Breezer bicycle with a chain guard in the shape of an angel’s wing and a gold-rimmed Lenox bowl with images of Independence Hall and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
“Together, these gifts represent some of the best Philadelphia has to offer, gifts of practicality and elegance,” Nutter said.
The conference lasts through Friday with speakers on topics from parenting and the role of women to divorce and homosexuality. Pope Francis arrives on Saturday to cap off the event with the Festival of Families and a huge, outdoor Mass on Sunday.