Pilgrimage planner bringing 1,000 to Philadelphia for the pope’s visit

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All the anxieties people have about Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia — things like which streets will be blocked off and how much walking will be required — Belinda Held has those worries times a thousand. 

Held is the director of group travel for apilgrimsjourney.com, and she’s bringing 1,000 people to the city for the World Meeting of Families. 

For years, Held has organized tours for small groups of Americans to Catholic religious sites in Europe, including the Vatican. She estimates she’s seen Pope Francis seven times.

“I should just stay back, or he’ll say, ‘You, again really? Make room for somebody else!,’ ” Held said.

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But this year’s World Meeting of Families has been less predictable — and harder to plan — than those trips to the Vatican, where the pope has an audience with the public once a week.

Information about the event has trickled out at a snail’s pace and often changes.

So this winter, when Held was pounding the streets of the city trying to book accommodations, hotels and other venues weren’t ready to commit. She said about 20 places turned her down before one said yes. 

Food vendors weren’t sure if they’d stay open either, so they wouldn’t agree to cater meals for the pilgrims, Held said.

Those details are settled now, but there are still unknowns about the trip and unanticipated costs that bite into the budget.

At a welcome reception Tuesday, Helene Paharik, an administrator for the Diocese of Pittsburgh and one of Held’s pilgrims, said there’s something else unpredictable about this event: Pope Francis. The pope is so spontaneous and full of love, Paharik said, that he might do something like stop the popemobile to kiss a baby and … throw the timing of everything off.

 “That’s part of the adventure, part of the excitement, but also for someone like Belinda, part of the real challenge,” she said.

Held says she needs this trip to go well because her professional reputation is on the line. But she also feels personally responsible for giving her customers a story they can tell for the rest of their lives.

“When they’re in that wheelchair in the nursing home or wherever they are, they can say I was in Philadelphia; here’s the flag to prove it!” she said.

Held says she wants the pilgrims to remember a trip that’s magical and stress-free. To make that happen, she’ll do the worrying.

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