The City of Brotherly Love prepares for Pope Francis

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The streets of Philadelphia flittered with the intensity of a hummingbird Sept. 21. Pope Francis smiled down on pedestrians from lamppost banners. Cars crowded the roads around the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the World Meeting of Families Congress opens Sept. 22. Inside the Convention Center, vendors were staging their stalls by setting up shelves, tables, and large-scale displays with images of Pope Francis, Jesus, Mary and other Catholic iconography. Early bird WMOF attendees and journalists alike were lining up at the registration booths. The floors were covered in sheets of plastic as crew members pushed carts piled high with decorations and other set-up materials.

I was there, amid all the burgeoning chaos, to pick up my WMOF press pass. It seemed that no matter where I turned in City Center, there was another beaming nun or family wearing matching Knights of Columbus backpacks, all radiating with excitement. In less than a week, the Holy Father will come to Philadelphia for the first time, culminating his U.S. tour (including Washington from Sept. 22-24 and New York from Sept. 24-26) - and you can tell.

According to Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of WMOF, the Congress may see upwards of 15,000 attendees, while the papal Mass Sept. 27 may attract as many as 1.5 million people. I don't think I've ever been to an event a quarter of that size.

Over on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway outside of the Philadelphia Art Museum, where Pope Francis will visit Saturday, was a mess of traffic cones, with a stage and tents already in place. After making a wrong turn trying to get to a camera store, I sat on the same side street for 15 minutes. Coincidentally, it was school dismissal time at a nearby Catholic elementary school, which helped tame my irritation. It's hard not to lighten up when a bunch of happy children burst out onto the sidewalk. (The children, after all, are a big reason why Pope Francis is coming to Philly; WMOF is all about rearing families the Catholic way and the pope naturally has a few things to add to that conversation.)

It's not just the official papal sites that are buzzing, either. Philly is welcoming the pope everywhere, from bars to radio stations. My sister said that at the deli where she works in Reading Terminal Market, a popular indoor farmers market, everyone has been brainstorming different ideas for pope-themed platters. There's even a hashtag, #OpeninPHL, to promote businesses that will remain open during the pope's visit.

Some businesses are more directly contributing to the Catholic effort. Take, for instance, the city's three Potbelly locations. They'll be selling the "official" papal milkshake - vanilla ice cream with shortbread butter cookie - chosen by Italian archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, Crilley Farrell and students at Philly's St. Peter the Apostle School. Fifty cents from every milkshake bought through Sept. 30 will be donated to WMOF.

But rather than fight the line at Potbelly's, today I begin navigating the crowds at WMOF, with many stories to come, I'm sure.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015

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