Pope Francis pictured during private audience at VaticanAs travelers prepare to descend upon Philadelphia from around the globe for the World Meeting of Families and the papal visit, Neumann University is doing its part.

The university, which emphasizes Franciscan hospitality, expects to welcome over 170 pilgrims traveling on foot and by bus to its Aston, Delaware County, campus for the festivities. It’s a characteristic gesture from an institution that shares the name of its patron saint with the pontiff himself: St. Francis of Assisi.

“We’re delighted that we can accommodate (the pilgrims) here with our facilities and any resources that we have here to help them on this pilgrimage,” said Franciscan Sister Marguerite O’Beirne, vice president for mission and ministry at Neumann University. Likening the itinerant preaching style of St. Francis traveling in medieval Europe to the visit of Pope Francis this month to America, “pilgrimage is a wonderful way of celebrating the papal visit here,” said Sister Marguerite.

The idea of welcoming wayfarers to campus for this month’s festivities first arose the last winter when university President Dr. Rosalie Mirenda emailed an invitation to all the Franciscan universities across the country, welcoming them to stay at Neumann for the papal visit. But it wasn’t until the spring when details about the papal events began to unfold that groups started contacting the university.

Among the four groups expected to roll onto Neumann’s campus later this month, two are from fellow Franciscan universities, each intending to arrive 50 pilgrims strong.

The contingent from the University of St. Francis in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, will arrive Saturday, Sept. 26 for an overnight stay in Neumann’s Community Hall. Meanwhile, representatives from Alvernia University in Reading will arrive for a rest stop Sunday morning, Sept. 27 before the two college groups and Neumann’s own company catch the SEPTA Regional Rail train to the Mass together.

Two diocesan groups also have made plans to stay overnight at Neumann. Fifty individuals and families representing a cross-section of the church from Davenport, Iowa, expect to arrive Sept. 26. A group of 20 pilgrims walking the roughly 100 miles from Baltimore to Philadelphia will stay at the university Sept. 24 and 25.

“It’s an incredibly exciting time,” said Neumann’s director of campus ministry, Patrick J. McKenzie. “And certainly we are excited for the groups to come, and excited for the diversity that’s coming. I think that’s the big thing. Our students are going to be able to not only experience and build community with other students of Franciscan institutions, but at the same time also build community with different dioceses across the country.”

The Baltimore group, led by Father Jack Lombardi, pastor of St. Peter Parish in Hancock, Maryland, and Paul McMullen, managing editor of the Catholic Review, call themselves the “Pilgrimage of Love and Mercy” in anticipation of the Year of Mercy decreed by Pope Francis to begin Dec. 8 of this year.

They will begin their journey Saturday, Sept. 20 from the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, with van support and the hospitality of many along the way.

The group brings a message of love and mercy, speaking at schools and churches along their route as they raise awareness for the poor by collecting new and gently used shoes for their “Feet for Francis” campaign.

The Love and Mercy Pilgrims will rest at Neumann Thursday night before departing for the next 15-mile leg of their physical and spiritual journey. On Friday night, Sept. 25, a van will give them a lift back to campus for another night’s rest before dropping them back where they left off to walk the next 15 miles to St. Philomena Church in Lansdowne, their final rest stop on the way to the papal Mass on Sunday.

After all the sufferings inherent to a walking pilgrimage, there is a definitive highlight to their stay at Neumann University: showers.

As the complex logistics unfold, Neumann’s team is working hard to ensure that their guests will be safe and comfortable during their stay by arranging sleeping accommodations, planning festivities with sensitivity to the needs of the road-weary, making arrangements for toiletries, and yes, setting up schedules for the showers.

“I believe that (hospitality) is certainly a Franciscan attribute,” said Sister Marguerite. “We hear of ‘Franciscan hospitality,’ but I think it’s also part of the Catholic tradition.”
“Hospitality is one of the gifts I believe that we as Christian people, Catholic people, extend to one another, especially those who are strangers among us. And I believe that (Pope) Francis in his life… had a deep respect for the human person, and out of that respect and reference for the dignity of the human person, then comes naturally a welcoming spirit. And we have picked that up obviously and integrated it here as part of our values here in the university community.”

Plans continue to evolve at Neumann as the big weekend approaches. On Saturday evening the university plans to stream live video of the Festival of Families, offering a celebratory venue for Neumann students and any guests who wish to participate. Plans will likely remain low-key considering the many miles the pilgrims have journeyed and the big day to follow.

For those remaining on campus during the papal Mass, that too will be streamed for the community.

“Everyone is just so pumped,” said McKenzie. “I think our students here on campus generally — and probably it’s true on Catholic campuses all over the world, definitely in this country — that everyone wants to talk about Pope Francis. And so the fact that we have him coming here in Philadelphia is truly a blessing.”

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Karen Rueda is a freelance writer and a member of St. Bridget Parish, Philadelphia. She can be reached at karen@karenrueda.com.