Meet, Pray, Love

A behind-the-altar look at the 2015 World Meeting of Families, which brought Pope Francis to the United States for his first official visit.


When Pope Francis visited the United States in late September, his nearly every speech, wave, and blessing was broadcast live. Pope fever was especially high in the Northeast, where he addressed the U.S. Congress and the United Nations General Assembly, blessed prisoners and babies, won hearts by zipping around in a compact Fiat, and shut down large sections of Washington, D.C., New York City, and Philadelphia for papal parades.

But many of the millions of Catholic faithful who turned out to see Pope Francis likely didn’t know that he actually came to the United States for a meeting — making him in some ways just another business traveler attending just another conference.

Except it wasn’t just another conference. The World Meeting of Families (WMOF) is a triennial event sponsored by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family. The 8th WMOF Congress was held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center (PCC) in Philadelphia on Sept. 22–25, with public closing events held outdoors on Sept. 26–27. Although Pope Francis didn’t attend the sessions at the PCC, he oversaw the public events, and the WMOF was the impetus for his U.S. visit.

Beyond the usual components of a large-scale meeting — attendees, exhibitors, breakout sessions, general contractor, suppliers — planning WMOF 2015 also involved complexities such as non-traditional meeting professionals at the Vatican, the spiritual component of the gathering, and the fact that one of the world’s most popular religious leaders was the star attraction. Convene spoke with WMOF Congress organizers for a behind-the-altar look at this unique meeting and extraordinary event.

ferguson“I’ve been involved with five presidential visits on the hotel and convention-center side, I’ve been involved in two [U.S. presidential] inaugurals, [the] PCMA 2006 [annual meeting] — I’ve seen a lot of great things,” said Jack Ferguson, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (PHLCVB). “All of those things combined don’t come close to what went on here in Philly.”


What is the World Meeting of Families? WMOF was conceived by the late Pope John Paul II as an effort to help people across the globe strengthen the family unit. The first WMOF took place in Rome in 1994. Every three years since, families from all over the world are invited to attend. While the event welcomes all faiths, the majority of attendees are Roman Catholic, with the program blending faith-themed lectures and discussions in a traditional conference setting with public celebrations and Mass.

Organized around the theme “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” WMOF 2015 consisted of a four-day Adult Congress, which included daily Mass, keynote addresses, breakout sessions, and an exhibit hall. There was also a separate Youth Congress for children ages 6 to 17. The Festival of Families, a public intercultural musical celebration, took place outside on the night of Sept. 26. WMOF officially concluded with a Papal Mass that drew hundreds of thousands of celebrants to Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway on Sept. 27.


obrienWhy was WMOF held in Philadelphia, and who was in charge? At the close of WMOF 2012 in Milan, then-Pope Benedict XVI announced that Philadelphia had been chosen for WMOF 2015, with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia serving as official host. Soon after, the archdiocese formed World Meeting of Families–Philadelphia, an independent entity governed by a board of directors made up of laypeople, to plan and undertake all WMOF activities. Jack O’Brien was brought on in December 2013 as the first full-time employee and director of event services; Donna Farrell came on as executive director a month later. Eventually the staff grew to 36 full-time employees, who relied heavily on 21 volunteer-led committees — overseeing not just welcome, marketing, housing, volunteer, and transportation activities, but responsibilities such as clergy housing, liturgical development, combating hunger, and homelessness.

In addition to holding meetings of their own, many of the committees had regular contact with the archdiocese, Vatican officials, and city representatives. “The number of stakeholders was certainly unique compared with other large events,” said Gregg Talley, CAE, president and CEO of Talley Management Group Inc. (TMG), which served as lead logistics partner for events at the PCC. “We had multiple layers within the Vatican, the archdiocese, donors, city agencies, and all the security. There were a lot more levels to go through for approval than any of us normally deal with in our association lives.”

O’Brien, a 35-year hospital- and events-industry veteran, agreed. “The city, the Commonwealth [of Pennsylvania], the archdiocese, the federal agencies, [the U.S. Department of] Homeland Security, the Vatican presence,” he said, “all these different stakeholders who were actively involved is what made it so truly different from a typical event.”


talleyWho attended WMOF? Philadelphia was the biggest WMOF Congress to date, with 21,444 paid attendees from more than 150 countries, including 1,500 youth. Attendees were a mix of religious leaders and ordinary laypeople — which affected everything from programming to overall atmosphere. “At a typical convention, attendees come to do business and network,” Ferguson said. “These people came to experience families, learn about families, and see the Holy Father. You can’t refer to them as attendees; they were pilgrims in every sense of the word. They were on their own dime and spending their own money. Some of those people had never been out of their town. And they were happy; they were truly happy and engaged with one another. It wasn’t like any other event.”


How was the WMOF Congress similar to — and different from — other meetings? In addition to being the most-attended Congress to date, WMOF 2015 was the most robust, Talley said, with a minimum of 15 concurrent sessions, daily Mass, keynote presentations, and many other activities. Keynotes were simultaneously translated into French, English, Spanish, Italian, Vietnamese, and American Sign Language, and included “Living in the Image of God: Created for Joy and Love,” by Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and “The Light of the Family in a Dark World,” by Cardinal Robert Sarah, who heads the Vatican congregation that oversees and determines liturgical practices for the global Catholic church. Breakout sessions included “Saintly Couples: Models on the Road to Sanctity” and “The Special Place of Women in the Family, the Church, and the World.”

There was even a WMOF 2015 app to help attendees create a personalized schedule for the Congress and get information on sessions and speakers. The app also helped attendees navigate WMOF’s show floor, where 312 exhibitors filled 505 10-foot-by-10-foot booths, with rates ranging from $1,500 for nonprofits to $3,500 for a corner booth.

Exhibitors included religious publishers, health-care organizations, gift and clothing vendors, social-justice organizations, and family-focused merchandise and information. Exhibitor interest was so high, according to Talley, WMOF ended up utilizing two halls in the PCC instead of one as originally planned.

“What was business as usual was, we had a keynote, breakouts, and an exhibit hall, but the challenge was these were not your typical business travelers moving quickly through the building and knowing exactly when and where they needed to go,” Talley said. “We had 22,000 people, with lots of families and baby strollers and scooters for people who were physically challenged, migrating through the building.”

To aid attendees and enhance the overall experience, TMG coordinated hundreds of volunteers — local residents recruited via parish communications and public appeals — to provide information and assistance. “The idea was there was always a volunteer within the line of sight of anyone, anywhere in the building,” Talley said. “The goal was to get them pointed in the right direction and provide a smile at a moment’s notice. We had an army of helpers for this event.”

The addition of the parallel Youth Congress created another level of complexity. WMOF built several check-in/security stations to ensure every young participant was accounted for at all times. Once inside, kids heard from performers and speakers, and could participate in a variety of activities, including a “Sacramental Scavenger Hunt,” service projects, and a “Swing With the Sisters Dance Party.”


What did the WMOF Congress look like? Because of WMOF’s spiritual mission, the physical environment required special consideration. “We had to consider the theme of the event, ‘Love Is Our Mission,’” Talley said, “and how you wanted people to feel, whether they were sitting at lunch, at a session, or walking through the building.

“We couldn’t make it look and feel like a business meeting,” he continued. “We wanted it to look and feel meaningful and different. I know we all try to do that in our meetings, but because of who this was, and who was walking the hallways — cardinals and bishops, monsignors and priests of every level — it made it feel very different from other meetings I’ve run.”

Working with TMG and audiovisual contractor CMI AV, general contractor Hargrove Inc. was responsible for transforming the PCC’s seven exhibit halls and 82 meeting rooms into a functional conference space, but one that captured the mood and sentiment of the event. To create a sacred-feeling setting for daily Mass, Hargrove converted two PCC halls, spanning 213,000 square feet, into a temporary church. They used large-scale screens and backdrops to create a unique environment for each day.

alveyThe end result was powerful, according to Will Alvey, Hargrove’s senior director for trade shows. “We had 12,000 people in there every day from 8:30 to 10 [a.m.] for Mass, and every day the backdrop, lighting, and setup changed,” Alvey said. “One day you really felt you were in a basilica, the next day a chapel, and another day a shrine.”

Hargrove also created a 105-foot-tall, stained-glass effect in the PCC’s atrium. It was the first thing attendees saw when they left Mass. “It was the ‘wow factor’ of the whole show,” Alvey said.


How did media attention affect WMOF? In addition to hosting the WMOF Congress, the PCC served as the official media center for Pope Francis’ Philadelphia visit. More than 7,000 journalists from international, national, regional, and local media outlets were credentialed to cover the program, meaning PCC officials and event organizers would need to accommodate not just the high volume of media but an around-the-clock filing schedule. The PCC’s 135,000-square-foot Ballroom A was transformed, with 800 work stations, separate offices for some of the larger media outlets, and setups for live interviews and newsfeeds.

To ensure it could handle the media’s data demands — for WMOF 2105 as well as for the upcoming 2016 Democratic National Convention, which Philadelphia is also hosting — the PCC invested in several updates to its communications capacity. “We contracted to have another [data] pipe, or feed, coming into the building, so that we now have two redundant feeds,” said Lorenz Hassenstein, the PCC’s general manager. “For this event, both were opened up. We also laid several hundred feet of additional cable to support the satellite trucks and news feeds.”

In addition, because the media center needed to be up and running 24 hours a day, the PCC had to provide around-the-clock food-and-beverage and security. During the Congress and the papal weekend, WMOF held 33 press briefings, and pushed information out via a robust social-media campaign across a variety of channels in 21 different languages. The weekend of the pope’s Philadelphia visit alone made the front pages of 84 U.S. newspapers and secured more than a billion media impressions across global, national, and regional media.


What about the pope? Although there is no guarantee that the pope will attend WMOF in person, only two past events — the Philippines in 2003 and Mexico in 2009 — had to make do with satellite appearances. Consequently, hopes were always high that Pope Francis would attend Philadelphia in person, and that added a level of intensity to the planning. “World Meeting was always going to happen,” Talley said, “but when they invited the pope and he accepted, it just exploded. The exhibit hall got much bigger, the number of volunteers got much bigger, the number of expected pilgrims got much bigger. The whole event took on a different perspective, and it upped the pressure on everybody.”

While there was some criticism from local business owners about excessive security measures and street closures, and WMOF attendees didn’t spend as many dollars as typical convention attendees, Ferguson said the positive impact WMOF had on the city is substantial and lasting. “At end of the day, this put Philadelphia on the global map,” he said. “All eyes were on Philly. You can’t capture that, you can’t put money on that. Let me assure you, the World Meeting of Families will change the paradigm for Philadelphia as a global destination.”

Although the pope didn’t attend the Congress itself, WMOF was responsible for coordinating the public events that he did attend in Philadelphia — the Festival of Families musical event and the Papal Mass. In planning these events, organizers had to consider a huge number of hypothetical and worst-case scenarios. At one point, it was projected that as many as 1.5 million people might descend on Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the Papal Mass. “We had an ops/logistics meeting on a weekly basis for the last four months of planning, and we would brainstorm how to tackle all the what-ifs,” O’Brien said. “What if 1.5 million people decide to drive into Philly? We were looking at simulations and developing transportation plans and brainstorming everything. It was a lot of hours and more whiteboards than I used in my entire career.”

hassensteinOne thing organizers didn’t have much control over was the tight security measures surrounding Pope Francis, whose visit was designated a National Special Security Event (NSSE) by Homeland Security — meaning it was considered a potential target for terrorist or criminal activity, and the U.S. Secret Service was placed in charge of event security. Although the Congress itself wasn’t an NSSE event, Saturday’s and Sunday’s closing programs were, and security started tightening in Philadelphia even before the pope’s weekend arrival. As a result, WMOF organizers had a number of security-related issues to manage, including the unexpected closing of the PCC’s main parking garage a day early.

“The security situation was very fluid, and things started closing earlier than we expected,” Hassenstein said. “At one point, a police cruiser parked in front of our main parking garage and we were told nobody could come in or go out of the garage. We still had all of our exhibitors and a building full of people, and we had to figure out how to get them out.”

“We had to scramble and close the exhibit hall on Thursday afternoon, when we were originally going to keep it open until 1 p.m. on Friday,” Talley said. “It became clear that if we didn’t close early and give people an opportunity to get out, they wouldn’t be able to get out of the city until after the weekend. We didn’t get word of the closing until Thursday afternoon, so we had a mad scramble to get word to security, [and] make sure we had labor in the building on Thursday night to help people take down [their exhibits] and get out.”


What did everyone learn? In the end, the move-out proceeded and people who needed to get out before the security lockdown did. And although it was an unexpected wrinkle, Alvey noted, it was the kind of thing you have to be prepared for when working on an event of this size and scope. “You have a very detailed plan of how you’re going to take care of things, and then stuff happens,” he said. “You might have the best-laid-out plans, but you have to be flexible and enjoy it. To me, seeing the pope was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I’ll never forget it.”

Talley agreed that while the Congress presented unique challenges and headaches, the experience was worth it. “How often in our careers do you get to do something that involves a world figure, and particularly one who has come onto the world stage and made an impact like Francis?” Talley said. “Then being able to create a sacred space for people, there’s something very unique about that. We tend to get caught up in ‘it’s the same old thing.’ But that’s certainly not the case for this. We’ll be talking about it for years to come.”


Pope Francis also spent two days each in Washington, D.C., and New York City, both of which are accustomed to high-profile visits and dignitaries. “New York City is used to doing big events on a world stage,” said Chris Heywood, senior vice president of communications for NYC & Company. “Overlapping with the pope’s visit was the United Nations General Assembly. While this was very high-profile, it wasn’t the first time at the rodeo for New York City.”

That goes for D.C. as well. “Overall, we are accustomed to dignitaries, heads of states, as well as our president on a daily basis,” said Elliott Ferguson, president and CEO of Destination DC, “so the city is well equipped to handle these types of visits.”

Even so, Heywood and Ferguson both say the papal visit created distinct challenges — and opportunities. Both CVBs created communications campaigns to keep their members up-to-date on the papal itinerary, security information, and potential impact on businesses. In New York, social media and several email alerts kept members informed; for Destination DC, the member extranet played an important role. “We worked with our partners and members to get the word out about road closures and other ways they might be impacted,” Ferguson said, “as well as letting visitors know about this new opportunity to see the pope and other ways in which they could experience D.C.’s neighborhoods, dining, shopping, and nightlife while they were in town. It was important for us to keep our website updated with the latest info.”

And in the end, even these jaded cities caught a bit of pope fever. “It was a special moment for the city,” Heywood said. “Even for New Yorkers, who see a lot, it was a very moving, special moment. There was such a positive feeling and spirit of excitement when he was there.”


$45 million
Cost of WMOF, all of it raised in donations

Banners hung across Philadelphia welcoming the pope and WMOF attendees

WMOF vendors and licensees

Confessionals built by Hargrove in the Pennsylvania Convention Center


“Pilgrim kits” — containing a WMOF Congress t-shirt, a rain poncho, a Congress program, and passes to local museums and cultural attractions — distributed to registered attendees

WMOF volunteers for Congress and weekend activities

Approximate cost of PCC communication upgrades

Molly Brennan

Convene Contributing Editor Molly Brennan is a freelance writer and editor based in Highland Park, Illinois.