- Associated Press - Friday, March 7, 2014

PHILADELPHIA (AP) - Top officials from Philadelphia will travel to Rome this month to ask Pope Francis to attend a huge Roman Catholic gathering in the city next year, they announced Friday.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, Mayor Michael Nutter and others will visit Rome to work with Vatican officials on the eighth World Meeting of Families.

The September 2015 event could attract more than 1 million people from around the world and be the largest gathering in Philadelphia history, Nutter said.

The Vatican has not confirmed a papal visit to the U.S., but other popes have attended past world family meetings, and family issues are a top priority for Pope Francis.

“I have great confidence that he’ll come,” Chaput said at a news conference. “We will meet privately with the Holy Father, and share with him the great excitement and momentum surrounding the meeting in Philadelphia.”

Chaput will lead a delegation traveling to the Vatican from March 23 to 27. The group, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, hopes to persuade the popular pontiff to visit the U.S.

Corbett believes the Philadelphia event could pump $100 million into the local economy.

Chaput expects a large turnout from South America if Pope Francis - the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina - attends.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese, with about 1.5 million Catholics, must raise the considerable cost of hosting the event. Chaput said $5 million has been raised so far, but much more is needed. The task initially concerned the archbishop, who like many church leaders has faced financial problems that led him to close Catholic schools and parishes.

However, the Vatican had asked the archdiocese to host the event.

“The Vatican doesn’t have the means to underwrite the event here, so we’ll be raising money,” Chaput said.

The pope has tasked church leaders with a two-year study - punctuated with major meetings at the Vatican in October 2014 and October 2015 - on marriage, contraception and the church’s ban on allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

The Philadelphia festivities will come just before the 2015 final synod, giving further impetus for Francis to participate and highlight his vision for families today.

A visit to the U.S. at that time of year would also enable Francis to address the U.N. General Assembly, which his predecessors have also done during their U.S. tours.

The Philadelphia agenda will include keynote speakers and dozens of breakout sessions to help families “grow in grace and holiness,” Chaput said. The last World Meeting of Families was held in Milan in 2012.

Chaput has put together a roster of influential city business leaders to lead a lay planning committee, including Comcast Chairman Brian Roberts, Aramark Chairman Joseph Neubauer and Daniel J. Hilferty, president of Independence Blue Cross.

Nutter, who attended a Jesuit prep school, said it would be “an incomparable moment” for the region to host people from around the world, and perhaps the first Jesuit pope.


Associated Press writer Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Rome.

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