Riding a two-day wave of historic and awe-inspiring moments that culminated with a personal meeting with Pope Francis, members of the Philadelphia delegation who flew to Rome in preparation for the pope's expected visit here next year, are headed home.
"It was an incredible, incredible moment," said Eustace Mita, head of fundraising for the 2015 World Meeting of Families, which will be held September 22 - 27.
Mita called his meeting with Pope Francis yesterday in St. Peter's Square surreal. Amid the backdrop of 100,000 people, delegates and spouses were escorted up to the pope's dais at the end of his General Audience, held each Wednesday. Each was introduced to the pontiff and had a brief time to visit while he held their hands and asked for their prayers.
"My wife and I both just thanked him for being an incredible shepherd and incredible leader and from our vantage point he's a great leader of the Catholic Church, but he's also an incredible spiritual leader, you know, he means so much more interfaith-wise now," Mita said.
Dan Hilferty, another of the city's civic leaders who will help raise money for the event, described meeting the pope as a moment that "ranks up there as maybe the most exciting thing that's happened in my lifetime."
For weeks, Hilferty, like many of the two dozen delegates and their spouses, had imagined what the moment would be like when they actually met the pope, and what they might say to him.
But even in the very last seconds as they got closer and closer to the front of the line, with no words committed, Hilferty and his wife Joan relied on the spontaneity of the moment.
"We didn't prepare. And we were standing in line and I looked at Joan and she's starting to well up a little bit and I said, 'Well, what should we say?' And she said, 'Uh, I don't know, what do you want to say?'" They ended up thanking the pope for his leadership, healing and for reaching across cultural boundaries.
"And Joan asked him to pray for us and to continue to lead the church as he is. He smiled, shook our hands we were gone, It was fun," Hilferty said.
On the big TV screens in St. Peter's Square, you could not hear the words being exchanged between the delegates and the Pope, but there was no translation needed when mayor Nutter pulled out a "Pope Francis" jersey from his alma mater, St. Joe's Prep and Pope Francis took it and held it up high. Or when the Mitas presented The Holy Father with a skullcap known as a zucchetto, which he immediately took and placed upon his head.
Pa. Gov. Tom Corbett said he extended a personal invite to the pope on behalf of himself, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Archbishop Charles Chaput. "His response was a very nice smile," said Corbett.
Back in Philadelphia, members of the delegation now have 18 months to raise all the money needed to host an event that could be 10, even 20 times, as big as the crowd they witnessed on Wednesday with the papal audience, if the pope says mass in Philadelphia, as expected on the last day of the World Meeting of Families.
"Imagine the logistics that go behind managing 1 million plus people," Mita said.
Dan Hilferty admits it does sound daunting, but doable.
"Our job is going to be to garner that enthusiasm. Get civic leaders, get political leaders to say, 'Yes, we want to be on board for maybe the most important gathering in the world in 2015,'" he said.
Donna Crilley Farrell, the Executive Director for the event, says the focus now for organizers will be on security, logistics and programming.
"We really have to hit the ground running when we get home and capitalize on this momentum," Farrell said.
"It's an extraordinary opportunity for us to do a number of things to showcase Philadelphia and Pennsylvania and the surrounding area; to focus attention on the family and how important it is and to say the church in Philadelphia is alive and well. We've had some very difficult years, but it's a new day," she said.