Pope Francis pictured during private audience at VaticanIt is generally agreed the September World Meeting of Families and visit by Pope Francis to Philadelphia were spiritually a resounding success, thanks to a charismatic pope who emphasizes Beatitudes and the forgiving Gospel of Jesus over the “Thou Shalt Nots” of the Old Testament, without sacrificing Catholic doctrine.

From an organizational standpoint, how did it stack up against major gatherings, spiritual and secular, in Philadelphia’s past? Spontaneous events such as Armistice Day, V.E. Day, V.J. Day and the sadly rare professional sports title wins by Philadelphia teams don’t count.

The biggest: Centennial Exposition

For sheer physical size and attendance, you can’t beat the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in West Fairmount Park that celebrated 100 years of American Independence. The first recognized World’s Fair in America, it was designed to one-up the Crystal Palace Fair of London in 1851.

With 200 buildings in all, the main exhibition building covered 21.5 acres and was the largest building in the world at the time.


The exposition ran from May until November and attracted about 10 million paying visitors. Afterwards the mostly prefabricated buildings were disassembled with a few finding new homes.

The only major structure remaining today is as intended: the solidly built Arts Building, which after several uses over the years is now the Please Touch Museum. The glass and steel Horticultural Hall was demolished in 1955 after severe damage from Hurricane Hazel the previous year.

One other survivor of the 1876 exposition is the very large Catholic Total Abstinence Fountain erected at a time when almost every Catholic parish in Philadelphia had a Total Abstinence Society and the term referred to alcohol, not sex. The fountain, which was recently refurbished, features a larger-than-life statue of Moses striking a rock for water and is bordered by four other figures: Irish or Irish-American Catholic patriots John Barry, Charles Carroll and Archbishop John Carroll and Irish anti-alcohol crusader Father Theobald Matthew.

Cardinal Dougherty follows up, 50 years later

Fifty years later, for the 150th Anniversary of Independence, Philadelphia tried a repeat with a Sesquicentennial held in South Philadelphia on former marshland reclaimed partly through excavated dirt from the Broad Street Subway construction. The project had major cost overruns that were attributed to political graft, and it was not as numerically successful as the 1876 event.

The most prominent legacy of the Sesquicentennial was the huge stadium that became known as Municipal Stadium and eventually JFK Stadium until it was demolished in 1992.

It was at this new stadium that Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, for whom triumphalism was not a pejorative term, chose to hold a Field Mass as Philadelphia’s Catholic participation in the Sesquicentennial. The Oct. 3, 1926 ceremony featured an altar modeled after that of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and according to a 1976 diocesan history it took three hours for the procession of Holy Name members from throughout the archdiocese to fill the 102,000 seats.

In all, an estimated 300,000 Catholics turned out, with the rest of the groundlings hearing Mass from two additional altars set up outside the stadium.

In 1976 the Philadelphia celebration of the Fourth of July centered by that time on gentrified Old City and the newly developed Penn’s Landing. Many of the office buildings and factories were gone and Independence Mall had expanded.

There was a big parade and fireworks of course. President Gerald Ford helicoptered in and a few days later Queen Elizabeth II of England arrived in her royal yacht, Britannica, to visit the place where her ancestors’ former colonial subjects raised such a rumpus.

A Eucharistic Congress for the Bicentennial

The Catholic celebration took place Aug. 1-8 in the form of the 41st International Eucharistic Congress, only the second time the International Congress was held in the United States. There were early indications Pope Paul VI would attend, but his health at that point was failing and Cardinal James Knox of Sydney, Australia, came as his representative.


Nevertheless, there were 31 cardinals and more than 160 bishops on hand, probably the largest gathering of members of the hierarchy Philadelphia had welcomed up to that time. Most of the sessions, which featured leading theologians from around the world, were celebrated at the old Civic Center Convention Hall located near what is now Children’s Hospital.

The theme of the congress was “The Eucharist and the Hungers of the Human Spirit.”  With its heavy emphasis on social justice by the various speakers, Pope Francis would have loved it. Highlights included a solemn eucharistic procession with about 350,000 people from the Independence Hall area to the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.

Taking a page from Cardinal Dougherty’s book, the closing of the congress featured the concelebrated Statio Orbis Mass, slated for what was by then JFK Stadium, with Cardinal Knox as the principal celebrant. As in the case of 1926, many more tickets were printed than the stadium could hold, but this time those outside the stadium were expected to view the Mass on what were the 1976 version of Jumbotron screens mounted on the stadium’s outer walls.

Mother Nature did not initially cooperate. There was a huge rainstorm that day, and consequently many stayed away. For those who came, all fitted comfortably into the stadium. The sun came out it was a beautiful concelebrated Mass; a message was televised from Pope Paul and President Ford spoke a few words. It was grand.

Reminders today of the Eucharistic Congress are the bronze statue of Jesus holding a loaf of bread beside the cathedral and the special hymn created for the congress, “Gift of Finest Wheat,” which remains a staple during Communion to this day.

The coming of Pope John Paul II

One of the speakers at the 41st International Eucharistic Congress was Krakow’s Cardinal Karol Wojtyla. This was his second visit to America; in 1969 he also stopped in Philadelphia during a tour of Polish communities in the United States.

On Oct. 16, 1978 Cardinal Wojtyla was elected pope, choosing the name John Paul, the name of his immediate predecessor. It is no secret that in the “secret” conclave Philadelphia’s Cardinal John Krol was one of his chief supporters, soliciting votes from among the other American cardinals. The next day Pope John Paul II told Cardinal Krol, “I have to find an excuse to go to Philadelphia.”

The truth is, Cardinal Krol and Cardinal Wojtyla had a friendship going back to June 1967 when they were both elevated to the College of Cardinals at the same consistory.

At a time when the Catholic Church in Poland was still under restrictions from the hostile communist government, Cardinal John Krol was a good friend, assisting in a number of quiet ways.

In October 1979 Pope John Paul II, true to his word, made Philadelphia one of his stops. He arrived Oct. 3 in the city he called “a symbol of freedom.” That afternoon he celebrated Mass from a temporary altar built over the Swann Fountain in Logan Square, the eastern terminus of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway opposite the cathedral. The American Civil Liberties Union threw a hissy fit, but no matter, it was spectacular.

In the histories the throng is estimated at 1 million, but never trust round numbers. The experts now tell us, based on aerial photographs and computer calculations, the parkway and surrounding streets can’t hold anywhere near that number. Let’s just settle for “huge.”

Pope John Paul II at that time was relatively young and vigorous, and a voice of freedom from what was then a totalitarian section of the globe. He was enormously popular and not just with Catholics, perhaps in a different way than Pope Francis is today, but a people magnet. Other stops on that Philadelphia visit included St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the Shrine of St. John Neumann, the Byzantine Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and the Mass for religious at the Civic Center.

The most tangible remaining artifact from that visit is the large white cross from the Logan Square Mass which is now on the lawn of St. Charles Seminary.

World Meeting of Families, and another papal visit

Since then there have been nine more papal visits to the United States. The visit of Pope Francis on Sept. 26-27 to close the Eighth World Meeting of Families has been the first papal visit since 1979 to include Philadelphia.

It traces back to the closing of the last World Meeting of Families held in Milan in 2012 when it was announced that Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput had agreed to host the next World Meeting in Philadelphia in 2015.


The families’ congresses are not of themselves huge events. The Philadelphia congress, the largest to date, attracted about 20,000 delegates from around the world. What makes the congresses huge is if the pope himself agrees to attend, which has been the case for most congresses of the triennial event since it was established in 1994.

It is really the presence of the pope that draws the crowd, not the congress itself. Pope Benedict XVI was the pontiff in 2012 when the World Meeting was first planned for Philadelphia and Pope Francis inherited it. It was not until November 2014 that it was officially announced he would attend.

The theme of the congress, “Love is our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” fit in perfectly with the thinking of Pope Francis. A catechesis was prepared and truly distinguished and inspiring speakers were lined up for the congress.

It was the visit by Pope Francis that got the media’s attention. How many people would come?

Wild speculative figures were put out by people who really should have known better. “A million and a half to 2 million” one official was quoted as saying in May 2015. That would be quite a stretch for an archdiocese of less than 1.5 million Catholics, of whom 240,000 attend Mass on a typical weekend by actual count.

Obviously most people would be coming from outside the archdiocese, but it didn’t help when for reasons of security unprecedented precautions were put in place. Major highways and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge were closed, and public transit cut out many stops, which actually kept away many people who would otherwise have attended.

It didn’t help either when the hotels, smelling money, literally doubled their room rates for the period Pope Francis would be in town. In the end they did not have a full sellout, but paradoxically, according to reports, made twice as much money as in the same weekend in 2014 when they had higher occupancy. In a reverse side of Oscar Wilde’s dictum, one might say, “No bad deed goes unrewarded.”

During his two days in Philadelphia, Pope Francis visited and spoke at the cathedral, St. Charles Seminary, a prison and of course celebrated Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, preaching a gospel of love, especially familial love.

In the end a lot of people did come to the parkway, and many more watched on television in their homes or parish halls. Actual numbers will never be known, but unquestionably the people loved Pope Francis as a true shepherd. This may go a long way to healing a diocese that has suffered so much from the horrific scandal involving sexual abuse mostly of young boys by a small minority of clergy and what was seen by many as an inadequate initial response by church leaders.

It’s hard to beat 1776, or 1976

Looking back over history, which historic civil and religious events had the most significance?

Easily, for civic events the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 was the most spectacular. But that was really a celebration. The more significant event took place in 1776 at the Pennsylvania State House, now Independence Hall, when just 49 men signed the Declaration of Independence. It was reinforced in 1787 in the same relatively small chamber when a similar group of men hammered out what would become the Constitution of the United States, a document that would be the gold standard for constitutions worldwide.

As Catholic gatherings go, one could easily argue in favor of the Papal Masses of either Pope John Paul II or Francis.

But perhaps the palm should go to the 41st International Eucharistic Congress in 1976. Here in Philadelphia at that time was gathered the most distinguished group of Catholic speakers ever to assemble in America, so distinguished it may never be duplicated in the future.

Hyperbole? No. Consider this: Mother Teresa of Calcutta; Archbishop Fulton Sheen; Cardinal Karol Wojtyla from Poland; Father Pedro Arrupe, Father General of the Society of Jesus; social activist Dorothy Day, Dom Heldar Camara of Brazil.

What do they all have in common? Cardinal Wojtyla is now St. John Paul; Mother Teresa, Father Arrupe, Archbishop Sheen, Dorothy Day and Dom Heldar Camara all have causes for canonization under consideration.

It doesn’t get any better than that.