Holy Philadelphia

Stained glass at the National Shrine of Saint John Nepomucene Neumann (Photo: Diana von Glahn)
Pope Francis’s planned U.S. visit highlights the City of Brotherly Love's sacred sites.

Pope Francis is everywhere recently, in seemingly every kind of headline, some true, some false, frequently controversial. In the new year, he’s taking his newsmaking ability right here to the United States. Just before Thanksgiving, Pope Francis officially announced that he will travel to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families being held there in September. From the mayor to the schoolchildren, the city is preparing for this international event. For the Church there, it is a real opportunity for renewal.

In receiving the official announcement of the trip, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput wrote:

A hallmark of Pope Francis’ ministry has been a genuine love for all people of good will and he has maintained a keen focus on the many diverse challenges that families face globally. I’ve loved and admired him since we first met at the Synod for the Americas in 1997. I know that the Holy Father’s charisma, presence and voice will electrify our gathering. Regardless of confessional differences, billions around the world have been drawn to this pope. Our gathering in Philadelphia is open to all who have a generous heart. It has the power to transform, in deeply positive ways, not just the spirit of Catholic life in our region, but of our entire community. It will be a moment unlike any other.

Diana von Glahn lives in Philadelphia and can give a rich Catholic tour there. Touring is her business, her vocation. Host of The Faithful Traveler television series, she takes people on foot and on screen through some of the holiest sites of Christianity, and in American history and culture, too. (She’s currently organizing a pilgrimage to the Holy Land for April, as it happens. And her DVDs could serve as gifts for those who can’t afford to go all the way there.)


Kathryn Jean Lopez: Pope Francis has announced officially that he’s coming to your backyard of Philly. What does this mean for the City of Brotherly Love?

Diana von Glahn: Well, to say that everyone is really excited is an understatement. I’m sure there are some who are afraid of the traffic and massive amounts of people who will be descending on this city in less than a year’s time! But most of the people I know see the Holy Father’s visit as a real blessing.

As someone who has lived in the Philadelphia area for more than ten years, but who hails from somewhere else (I’m a native San Diegan), I am surprised that the pope chose Philadelphia. Not because the city doesn’t deserve the attention, but because many outside of it see it as a sort of lesser New York City. Like its heyday was in 1776, and it’s been downhill ever since.

But the pope doesn’t think that, and I think that’s awesome! It’s nice to know that the Holy Father sees our archdiocese and recognizes that we need this visit for so many reasons. Archbishop Chaput has been working hard to remedy many of the issues that have plagued the archdiocese, and despite the fact that he is doing the best that he can with the tools that he has, there are many who need healing or who have lost faith for one reason or another. Schools and churches have closed — for valid reasons, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. There are those whose lives have been scarred and whose faith has been tested, if not completely obliterated, as a result of the sex-abuse scandals. Having the pope come here is, in a way, a huge acknowledgment that we are here and that we matter.

The people of our archdiocese need to be reminded of Christ’s love for us, and what better way to get that reminder than by a visit from our pontiff — our bridge builder! His visit will generate excitement and reinvigorate the faith of those who have become cultural, lukewarm Catholics and will even excite non-Catholics who see Pope Francis as a real bridge builder, who challenges all of us to be more Christ-like every day, even when it is hard. I think that is something that every city in the world needs. We are blessed here in Philadelphia to be the recipient of such a visit.


Lopez: What do we know the pope will see?

Von Glahn: As I understand it, the pope will see the view from the top of the steps of the Art Museum — the same steps that Rocky Balboa ran — because I think he will be celebrating Mass from those steps.


Lopez: If there were one shrine, one statue, one image, you could persuade the pope to visit, what would it be, and why?

Von Glahn: The one shrine would be the National Shrine of Saint John Nepomucene Neumann. As our fourth bishop, Saint John Neumann worked tirelessly for the immigrants among his flock who sought Christ’s love but who had a hard time finding it in early America. I believe that he provides us all with a wonderful example of giving everything to Christ, something our Holy Father has clearly taken to heart. Even his motto, “Passion of Christ, strengthen me,” reminds us to seek from God the strength to do what He asks of us. (You can see my photos of the shrine here or watch our episode on the shrine.)

The one statue would be the statue of the Blessed Mother at the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Germantown. Whenever I pray at the kneelers in front of this statue, I feel an enormous sense of peace, love, and welcome. I’m sure the Holy Father could use some of that. (You can see my photos of the shrine here or watch our episode on the shrine.)

And the one image would be the Peace Mural at the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia in South Philadelphia, painted by Anthony Visco (all of his statues there are amazing, too!). The Holy Father’s prayers for peace, especially in the Holy Land, are never-ending, as should ours be. This beautiful image shows Saint Rita, patron saint of impossible causes, trading weapons for olive branches from people of all ages and cultures. (You can see my photos of the shrine here or watch our episode on the shrine.)


Lopez: What do you hope the world sees as we focus our eyes on Philly?

Von Glahn: I grew up one of four girls, and whenever we were having special company, my mom would tell us not to fight and to be on our best behavior. It reflected well on her, and it made for a wonderful visit. That is what I hope for Philadelphia: that we all behave and are on our best behavior, and that we show the pope, and the world, that we can be the change the world needs — that we can behave like the Christians we say that we are, and love everyone, no matter what.


Lopez: What’s the most telling setting or image of Catholicism in Philadelphia — that tells the most about the soul and the color of Philadelphia Catholicism?

Von Glahn: The Catholicism of this city is so tremendously rich, I don’t know that there is one place or image that could reflect it.

The mosaic of Saint John Neumann at the shrine is one good possibility. Aside from the fact that just the medium itself speaks to this city’s buildup — a bunch of little pieces put together to make one whole — the images it presents show much of Catholic Philadelphia’s early history.

The community of people at the Monday novenas at the Miraculous Medal Shrine show that diversity in action, with people of a tremendously varied group of races represented, all seeking graces and giving thanks for prayers answered under Mary’s mantle.

This is also represented by an image of Saint Katharine Drexel at her shrine, which shows the local saint standing amidst a large group of people of a variety of races, all giving thanks to God. (You can see my photos of the shrine here or watch our episode on the shrine.)


Lopez: What does a Philadelphia Catholic look like?

Von Glahn: In my experience, the native-born Catholics that I have met in Philadelphia are fiercely loyal people who love their traditions, history, and churches. Sure, we have lapsed and lukewarm Catholics here, too, as does every city, unfortunately. But many of the Catholics here are proud of their faith and their Catholic heritage. It’s almost as if the descendants of those who suffered through and survived the Nativist Riots of 1844 were born ready to defend their faith from anyone who tried to take it from them.

I think two great examples of this are Rocco Palmo, of Whispers in the Loggia, and Patrick Hildebrandt, of the Philadelphia Church Project. These men do great work teaching others about our faith and helping to chronicle its history. I’ve learned so much from them. And then there are the amazing artists, like Anthony Visco and Neilson Carlin, who create such beautiful works of art that raise our hearts and minds to heaven. There are so many people like this in Philadelphia. Some of them are known outside of their small circles, but most are not.

A local filmmaker, Sam Katz, is producing a documentary about the history of Catholicism in Philadelphia called Urban Trinity: The Story of Catholic Philadelphia. I’m sure that this documentary will provide a fascinating look at Catholics in this city through the years, and I look forward to seeing it.

As a result of my and Mr. Katz’s love for this city’s history, we decided to work together to create a series of webisodes featuring Catholic historic sites around Philadelphia. We hope to begin filming soon, and the list of sites is truly exciting! These webisodes will be available on my website, on his website, and on a few others as well, and will be released in anticipation of the World Meeting of Families. They’re sure to present a well-rounded view of a Philly Catholic!


Lopez: Is there healing to be had in this visit?

Von Glahn: Of course. No matter what city the pope would have chosen, there would have been an opportunity for healing. Here in Philadelphia, there are many whose hearts and faith were broken after the sexual-abuse scandals in the priesthood. How do you overcome something so horrendous? I can’t even begin to imagine.

On a lesser scale, but certainly not to minimize the pain, are those communities where churches are being shut down because there aren’t enough funds to keep them going. Although the reason for closing these churches is valid, that doesn’t mean it’s not painful for those losing their churches. As the Philadelphia Church Project website shows, many of these churches were absolute works of art, and for some, losing them is simply unbearable.

How can Pope Francis heal these hurts? I don’t know. But nothing is impossible with God. Like I said before, sometimes, just knowing that the Vicar of Christ hears you is enough. Our Holy Father has shown a wonderful ability to touch people’s hearts. I pray that he will bring peace to our city and to those whose hearts are troubled. If anyone can do it, the Successor of Saint Peter can.


Lopez: What does this visit mean for Philly families? For families, period?

Von Glahn: The World Meeting of Families was never on my radar before it was announced that the next one would be in Philadelphia. It just isn’t as big of an event as, say, World Youth Day. But I think this will be a defining one for the United States and the world, especially since there is so much confusion and debate about what defines a “family.”


Lopez: How does a pilgrimage change you, as you recently asserted it does?

Von Glahn: Oh, let me count the ways! I did recently write a blog about this, although anyone who reads my blog will notice that I write a lot about pilgrimage and how it changes you. What can I say? I am like a woman in love who can’t stop talking about the one who has stolen her heart. It just so happens that my love is my God. I’ve found that seeking Him and His many gifts as I travel is one of the most fun, interesting ways for me to find Him and to know Him better.

In my experience, pilgrimage changes the way that you think about God and your faith. It changes the way that you pray. It changes the way that you read the Bible. It changes the way that you see your neighbor and the little trivialities of everyday life.

Some of this depends on where you go, of course. Going to the Holy Land took me outside of my comfortable little American world and forced me to see and try to understand what is going on in the Holy Land, for instance. Going to Avila made Saint Teresa real for me, while producing our first series here in the U.S. truly taught me about how Catholics in our new country struggled to survive and how God brought forth many saints to help Catholicism establish itself in this burgeoning country.

Pilgrimage with others changes you, too, and I highly recommend it, even for those who, like me, prefer to travel alone or only with their close family. Traveling is hard. Something always goes wrong, and sometimes it brings out the worst in you. It is a wonderful opportunity for grace, of course. We grow when we are challenged, and what better way to practice patience than when your flight is canceled or when the person next to you on the plane is taking up a bit too much room?

Going on pilgrimage with others gives you a wonderful connection to someone who had previously been a complete stranger. And, when you think about it, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We shouldn’t be strangers. So this connection, while unusual, is a beautiful one forged only in the flames of pilgrimage. I highly recommend it.


Lopez: If you were to take the pope on a pilgrimage of Philly, what might it look like?

Von Glahn: It depends on how many days he has, but if I had the Holy Father to myself for a few days, I think my tour would look a lot like the tours we’re offering during the World Meeting of Families. Except I’d drive him around in my little Ford Focus, of course!

First, I’d take him to a great place for breakfast, because every pilgrimage must begin with sustenance. Sabrina’s Café is a great place to grab breakfast. Then, I’d take him to our shrines. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is truly blessed with five amazing shrines, all of which I love.

I’d start on a Monday at the Miraculous Medal Shrine in Germantown, dedicated to spreading the story of the Miraculous Medal; it is run by the Vincentians. Every Monday, they pray the Novena to Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, and it is an awesome thing. Then, I’d take him to the National Shrine of Saint John Nepomucene Neumann in Northern Liberties, dedicated to our city’s fourth bishop and the United States’ first male saint. We’d have lunch at my favorite Mexican restaurant in the city, which is right across the street from the shrine, Las Cazuelas. Then, we’d head out to the National Shrine of Saint Rita of Cascia in South Philadelphia, dedicated to the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, which is run by the Augustinians. After that, I’d take him to the nearby Italian Market and my favorite store there, DiBruno Brothers, to sample some meats and cheeses, because you always have room for cheese. Then, we’d head out to the National Shrine of Saint Katharine Drexel in Bensalem, dedicated to our city’s own saint. I’m sure he’d love to meet some of the wonderful Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament there and roam the shrine’s beautiful grounds. For dinner, I’d take him to the City Tavern, to experience some historic 18th-century cuisine created by my friend, Chef Walter Staib.

The next day, I’d take him to the Green Eggs Café for breakfast, then we’d drive out to the amazing National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, which has a replica of the shrine in that famous Polish city and which is run by the Pauline Fathers. This shrine is very big, so we’d stay there until lunchtime. Then, we’d get back in my Ford Focus, and I’d take him to my favorite Mexican restaurant in my neighborhood, Taqueria La Michoacana. After lunch, we’d head back into Center City, and I’d take him to some of Philadelphia’s historic churches: the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, Old Saint Joseph’s, Old Saint Mary’s, Saint Augustine, and Saint John the Evangelist. Then, I’d take him to pray in adoration with the Holy Spirit Adoration Sisters, also known as the Pink Sisters, and then to Philadelphia’s Carmel, because while much of pilgrimage is seeing, a pilgrimage isn’t a pilgrimage without prayer.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of Philadelphia’s many historic and beautiful sacred sites.


Lopez: What is the most significant Catholic church in the United States, based on your travels?

Von Glahn: I don’t think that there is one; so many are important for so many reasons. That said, some contenders that could share the title would include Baltimore’s Basilica, our country’s first cathedral, for the role it played in supporting the Catholic Church during the country’s early years; the Mission Basilica of San Diego de Alcalá, for the role it and the Franciscan friars played during the growth of Catholicism on the West Coast; and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, which recently celebrated its 100th anniversary. Many people don’t know that St. Louis was once called the Rome of the West because of its strong Catholic heritage and the fact that it was once the mother church of many Midwestern dioceses.

Of course, I think every church is important, because every church is the house of God. That said, my faith is not in buildings, but in God. While I appreciate and love to see sacred sites, and I do find it sad when they are sold or torn down, I accept that life is fleeting and God is so much more than just a building.


Lopez: Should the pope stop in New York, where would you recommend he go?

Von Glahn: New York City is just as rich as Philadelphia, and having lived there for five years, I had a wonderful opportunity to see many of the city’s beautiful sacred sites.

As a Jesuit, I am sure that the Holy Father will love to hear the history of Saint Isaac Jogues in Manhattan. There is a beautiful image of Saint Isaac on the doors of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, which of course he’d have to visit. Especially now that they’re cleaning it up! (Watch our episodes on Saint Patrick’s Cathedral here to learn about Saint Isaac Jogues in this city.)

I’m sure he’d love hearing about how the city’s early Catholics defended the Basilica of Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral against anti-Catholic mobs. (Watch our episode on Old Saint Patrick’s to learn about that awesome showdown.)

I also would recommend the Shrine to Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton in Battery Park (watch our episode on this sacred site). Other beautiful churches in New York City are the Church of Saint Vincent Ferrer on the East Side, the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi and the Padre Pio Shrine at Saint John the Baptist in Midtown, and the Saint Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine in Fort Washington.


Lopez: You have a joy about you — you so obviously enjoy being Catholic, are grateful to be. Why?

Von Glahn: My faith defines and sustains me like nothing else can. I have been a Catholic my whole life, and I feel truly blessed for it, because I know that it is a gift that I have done nothing to deserve. I know that, had I not been born a Catholic, I would have been too stubborn to come to the Church on my own. It would have taken a miracle to bring me to that kind of conversion. So I am grateful that my parents were Catholic and that they raised me as one.

I find everything I need in God, through my faith, including daily reminders that a faith-filled person who truly trusts God as she says she does should always be at peace and should be filled with joy, even in the midst of pain and strife. Jesus showed us all that it was possible. His Blessed Mother gave us another beautiful example of peace and love despite suffering. The saints give us many more.

Despite the myriad of frustrating things that drive me crazy every single day, my faith forces me to strive toward holiness and to struggle to conquer my own sinful nature — to stop being so impatient and cranky and to try to be full of love. Look at Padre Pio, who suffered with the stigmata for so many years and who yet was known to have a great sense of humor. He is a great example of that old adage: You gotta laugh to keep from crying.

My Catholic faith has provided me with a Mary Poppins bag full of riches that I will spend the rest of my life discovering, all of which will lead me to heaven.


Lopez: What’s your opening pitch to those who have been hurt by the Church and don’t see its credibility or relevance, to give it a second look today? Where would you recommend they start?

Von Glahn: I am the world’s worst apologist — I simply get too emotional when I try to explain my faith, and I have a hard time understanding how others don’t get it. It’s just ingrained in me. Furthermore, I have no misconceptions that anything that I do or say will ever convince someone to turn to God, especially not someone who has been hurt by members of His Church.

That doesn’t stop me from trying with The Faithful Traveler, of course, but with that, I trust that if I bring people to Him, by attracting them to the sacred art or the history or the tradition, He will take it from there. I trust in Him completely, and I believe that if it is His will to touch someone’s heart, to heal them, He will do so.

If someone who had been hurt by a member of the Catholic Church came to me and asked me what they should do, I would tell them this:

God loves you, despite what His people have done to you. Look to Jesus in the midst of His Passion and see your pain in His. He, too was betrayed by those He loved. He was brutally killed by those He was born to save, and in the middle of it all, He forgave them. Ask Him to help you heal. Ask Him to help you forgive. And never stop asking. Bang on that door of prayer like there is no tomorrow, and never fear, it will be opened. As you pray, He will be working, and when He opens that door, you will know, and you will be at peace. I will be praying for you.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Onlineand founding director of Catholic Voices USA.


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