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Painting by numbers for Pope Francis

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A rainbow of creamy paints sat in paper cups that dotted tables in the Grand Hall of the Pennsylvania Convention Center. It was the afternoon of Sept. 22 and the World Meeting of Families Congress 2015 was just unfolding. 15,000 people from around the globe had registered for the five-day conference, which will end with Pope Francis' arrival to downtown Philadelphia this weekend. They came for prayer, keynote speakers, break-out sessions, film screenings, vendors and even art-making.

Over the next few days, attendees can pick up paintbrushes and contribute to a paint-by-numbers papal mural commissioned by Philadelphia Mural Arts, a 30-year-old community arts nonprofit.

Designed by Mexican-born, Philly-based muralist Cesar Viveros, the mural, entitled "The Sacred Now: Faith and Family in the 21st Century," speaks to WMOF 2015's theme, "Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive."

With 18 years-worth of experience at Mural Arts and a range of powerful murals in his portfolio, Viveros was an apt choice. Like many great artists before him, he has used his gift to inspire the viewer's adoration of the divine. "The Sacred Now" depicts Pope Francis in a literal garden of love. As the pope puts his arm around a child, a boy prays, a couple delights in their newborn, a father holds his daughter, a grandson embraces his grandmother and two little girls hug. A dove perches on a grape vine, and blooming flowers round out the piece. If the small-scale artist rendering is touching, imagine the finished piece done up in epic proportions.

In order to make the mural a community effort, the design has been broken down into panels, with outlines drawn by Viveros for participants to paint. Judging by the enthusiastic crowd that mobbed the registration table Tuesday, WMOF attendees are up for the task. Mural Arts asked that everyone interested in painting sign up so that the nonprofit can keep an official count of its participants. The hope is to break the current Guinness World Record for the most people contributing to a single mural.

Once completed, the mural will go up at the new St. Malachy School campus in North Philadelphia. The school has served predominantly underprivileged children for more than 150 years.

"Many people think that we make murals, but that's only part of the story. We make change." Those are the opening lines in Mural Arts' 2014 annual report, which was available at the mural sign-up table. The nonprofit reports working with more than 1,500 Philadelphians on community engagement projects every year. That's not to mention its bigger draw: an outdoor gallery that features 2,000 works of street art, attracting 12,000 annual visitors. As with all things Pope Francis, I suspect a mural commemorating this year's historic U.S. papal tour will bump up that number.

Find out more

To learn more about Mural Arts, go to muralarts.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015