PHILADELPHIA — As pilgrims from the Diocese of Phoenix stood outside the historic church of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Philadelphia, there was an unmistakable sense of excitement in the air.
From hundreds of police officers to National Guard troops and even the Border Patrol, security was tight as the entire city of Philadelphia was just hours from Pope Francis’ arrival. A Coast Guard ship, gun mounted at the helm, patrolled the Schuylkill River that snakes through the center of downtown.
“Electrifying,” was the way Chris Kandas described it. The St. Timothy parishioner and his wife are newlyweds and had traveled to Philadelphia to attend the World Meeting of Families and to catch a glimpse of the pontiff.
Deacon Doug Bogart and his wife Lani stood outside the church with their daughter and seven grandchildren. He noted the sense of goodwill toward the Holy Father, even by non-Catholics.
“My Uber driver this morning said, ‘I’m not Catholic, but I love your pope,’” Dcn. Bogart said. So why is it that the world seems to have fallen in love with this Holy Father?
“I think it’s his openness, his winsomeness — but more than that it’s his simplicity and openness to everyone,” he said.
Lisa and Joe McDaniel attended the World Meeting of Families and said anticipation had been building all week in advance of the pope’s visit.
“There is a real excitement in the air today with the roads and the city center getting shut down,” Lisa said. “We know we’re in for a long weekend. This is where the pilgrimage starts. To be in the Holy Father’s presence is pretty exciting.”
In this city steeped in history, where America’s Declaration of Independence was signed, St. John the Evangelist Church is itself a monument of Catholic faith in the U.S.
Consecrated in 1832, the church has withstood two fires, anti-Catholic riots and even had a 2:45 a.m. Mass at one point to accommodate those who worked for the city’s newspapers. St. John Neumann, the fourth bishop of Philadelphia, once resided here and in the throes of the Great Depression, the parish fed 700 hungry people daily.
Many of those who participated in the nearby World Meeting of Families were visiting the church because the major relics of St. Maria Goretti were on display for veneration. At age 11, the saint was attacked by a man who tried to rape her. In defending herself, she was mortally wounded but heroically forgave her attacker, who eventually repented. This is the first time her relics have been brought to the United States.
Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix stood before the packed church, with the large glass reliquary at the foot of the altar, and spoke of St. Maria Goretti’s heroic faith that empowered her to be both virgin and martyr.
“It was in the family where she found her faith and where she found the courage to be an example for all of us, to live a life of chastity and to choose chastity at a time of great danger,” Bishop Olmsted said.
In commenting on the reading taken from the book of Haggai, Bishop Olmsted spoke of the house of God having suffered greatly, its former glory a distant memory and its beauty destroyed. It seems as if there is nothing left but then the Lord says three times, “Take courage.”
“God is speaking of His house among the people He has chosen, about the temple, but in doing that He is also speaking about the domestic home, the domestic Church, both the way the church is built and the family is built,” Bishop Olmsted said. God says to have courage and to work and “then He goes on to say ‘for I am with you.’ This is the only way we could possibly have courage — if He’s with us.”
God also said not to fear and that the future glory of His house will be greater than the former, Bishop Olmsted said. “Family life is going to blossom. The decision of the Supreme Court justices in June [regarding the definition of marriage] which was a horrible tragedy will be overcome by a much greater glory.”
And while acknowledging that the family is under attack and is suffering greatly, Bishop Olmsted pointed to hope and the need to surrender to God so He can work through His people, broken as they are by sin. Out of the catastrophe of the cross, God brought new life and salvation for His people.
“From the crisis today, a new domestic Church will rise,” Bishop Olmsted said. “It’s already rising.” By embracing the vocation of marriage, husbands and wives will “not just avoid divorce or settle for a mediocre marriage but will see what Haggai promised: a new house of God that’s more beautiful than before, because this new house will be the beauty and goodness and love of God.”
Peter and Cynthia Lemieux, who have been involved in marriage preparation for 30 years, said they were touched by the bishop’s homily. They too see hope, especially in the young couples they observed at the World Meeting of Families.
“To see these young couples that are here and are affirming families and children — I love to see that. There is this huge belief in marriage and family we just don’t see it in the secular press,” Cynthia said.
But do they really think there’s hope for families?
“Absolutely,” Cynthia said. “It’s never been gone. It’s never been missing. Families are still strong.”
“We can never not have hope,” Peter added. “I think in the history of the Church, the Holy Spirit always rallies. In the worst of times, He brings out the greatest saints and the greatest leaders. We’re seeing that now all around people are recommitting their lives and their marriages to Christ. It’s starting to grow all over.”
Follow Joyce Coronel on Twitter at @JoyceCoronel.