Op-Ed: With Pope Visit, Philly Has Chance to Take Rightful Place on World Stage

"We can run and hide, or we can find a way to engage."


(This is a guest column from Jon Grabelle Herrmann.)

On September 26, Pope Francis kicks off his public itinerary in Philadelphia with an address on religious liberty and immigration at Independence Hall. Across the street sits the Liberty Bell, inscribed with the famed passage from Leviticus, “Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof.”

In Philadelphia, liberty is big business.

Independence Mall sits at the center of a regional industry that employs 92,000 people by attracting nearly 40 million visitors each year. Local tourism not only generates short-term business, but it also sparks long-term connections between Philadelphia and the global economy.

Hosting major events of social importance is core to Philadelphia’s identity (hello, Continental Congress?). But in reality, our brand is not fully developed and sometimes we miss opportunities.

Ten years ago, the U.S. Olympics Committee rejected Philadelphia’s bid for the 2016 Summer Games because “the members of the international Olympic movement had no sense of Philadelphia at all,” the Inquirer reported at the time. “Whether they were right about the city’s capabilities didn’t matter; the question was about reputation and known qualities.”

Not everyone thinks hosting the Olympics is right for their city. In fact, the recent public debate about Boston’s nomination for the 2024 Games ultimately killed Beantown’s bid effort. But at least Boston made it to the player’s table!

Now Philadelphia has the opportunity to play again on the world stage — and not for the first time.

Mayor Nutter recently described the logistics for the Papal visit as more complex than any event held here since the 1876 Centennial International Exposition, when 10 million people came to visit West Fairmount Park, nearly one quarter of the U.S. population at the time. Millions more came to Philadelphia for the 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition that was responsible for the creation of today’s FDR Park, the Sports Complex, and the 1,600 cherry blossom trees planted throughout the city.

While many Philadelphians think of the 1976 Bicentennial as a missed opportunity, its legacy was in fact far-reaching.

  • We hosted all three major All-Star Games and the NCAA Final Four.
  • We opened the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the National Museum of American Jewish History, the Mummers Museum, and made plans for the Independence Seaport Museum.
  • We created the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance to organize the cultural community in time for 1976.
  • We welcomed the Queen of England and showcased the USS Intrepid.
  • And we saw the completion of two decades of renovations of Independence Mall, ushering in a new tourism era building off the historic district.

These Bicentennial efforts ultimately strengthened the region’s cultural and heritage institutions for an entire generation. And now, Philadelphians are making ambitious plans for America’s 250th anniversary in 2026.

The visit by Pope Francis should be seen as exciting on its own terms. Philadelphians have the privilege to host hundreds of thousands of global citizens coming to to our city, envisioning a better future for their own lives and for society at large. We can run and hide, or we can find a way to engage: we can be goodwill ambassadors, volunteer with the World Meeting of Families, greet visitors on the streets, meet our friends at a bar to watch the main events, or simply show some love on Facebook. (Or, join the PopeRide on those newly smoothed streets.)

Just as important, the Papal visit is a chance for Philadelphians to train our muscles for the future. We are hosting the Democratic National Convention in 2016. And Philly expects to soon be the first American city recognized as a World Heritage City, thanks to Global Philadelphia, the nonprofit formed as part of the response to the 2016 Olympics bid experience.

The sky should be the limit when it comes to the Philadelphia’s plans for the 250th. But we need to earn the right to host the nation and the world during America’s anniversary.

So as we prepare for Pope Francis, we have every right to hold public officials accountable to ensure smart and transparent plans. We should not gloss over the inconveniences that will arise for many. But let’s also embrace the greater good and make the World Meeting of Families the international success story it can be.

After all, Philadelphians should be known for reviving the spirit of St. Francis, not throwing snowballs at St. Nick.

We can do this.

Join USA250 and take the Pope Pledge to stay in Philly September 26-27: www.usa250.org/popepledge. Jon Grabelle Herrmann is executive director of USA250, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit making big plans for America’s 250th anniversary in 2026.