At the corner of G and Allegheny, a dilapidated intersection in one of Philadelphia’s worst neighborhoods, signs of renovation appear inside one of the properties. There, two priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are preparing the space for a unique kind of evangelization effort. Dubbed the Mother of Mercy House, this site will serve as the headquarters of a mission to the needy and addicted in Philadelphia’s Kensington section.
This is the kind of endeavor particularly close to the heart of Pope Francis. It is emblematic of the restoration that Francis will encounter on his visit to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
When Archbishop Charles J. Chaput arrived in Philadelphia in September 2011, he faced a laundry list of problems. Vocations to the priesthood were down. Two dozen priests had been suspended due to allegations of sexual misconduct. A former secretary for clergy was under indictment. The CFO had embezzled $900,000. There were severe financial shortfalls. Schools and parishes were in the process of being closed.
Four years later, on the doorstep of the first papal visit to Philadelphia in 36 years, this historic local Church is showing signs of new life.
One of Archbishop Chaput’s goals has been encouraging laymen and women to take on greater leadership in carrying out the Church’s mission. One of these emerging leaders is Daniel Cheely, the executive director of the Collegium Institute, a hub for Catholic thought and culture based at the University of Pennsylvania. After only two years, Collegium already plays host to many programs and special events for undergraduates, graduate students and faculty.
“We begin with the expectation that Catholicism is not only intellectually permissible at a secular university, but that it has something to contribute to important academic questions of the day,” Cheely said.
This, he says, has profound implications for the future of the university as well as for the New Evangelization: “A secular college can be a very good place to encounter the Gospel in its freshness.”
“Upon entering the university, students from religious backgrounds often feel that they must decide between their faith and their reason,” he said. “But it’s a false choice: the Catholic intellectual tradition demonstrates how faith and reason are mutually enriching. We strive to make this tradition visible in a secular space.”
Cheely has collaborated with many organizations within the University of Pennsylvania community and is currently working on a joint project with the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to celebrate Pope Francis’ visit. He plans to use the excitement around campus as a jumping-off point for reintroducing Catholicism to students.
“Pope Francis is an incredibly popular world religious figure,” Cheely said. “And people want to know why.”
The Catholic schools in Philadelphia have experienced a precipitous decline in enrollment from their peak in the 1960s. At that time, Catholic elementary and high schools were educating 275,000 students per year. Entire areas of Philadelphia once defined by local Catholic schools have watched those buildings empty and close. As a result, many parishes lost much of their unifying energy and entire neighborhoods suffered.
In this environment of decline, Father Shaun L. Mahoney had an idea that could help.
He thought that an intentional community of young adults right in the middle of Philadelphia could bridge the gap left by the decline of Catholic schools. As director of the Temple University Newman Center, Father Mahoney saw the positive impact which an enthusiastic community could have on young Catholic adults, even those whose interest in the Church had waned or who had not attended Catholic schools.
Now, a community of young adults under Father Mahoney’s leadership is thriving in the shadow of Philadelphia’s historic Society Hill.
Cari Anne Gerbino is a recent college graduate working in Philadelphia who became involved with the young adult community early on. “Young adults are craving community,” she said. “This is something the Catholic center provides.” The community consists of men and women’s residences, but many nonresidents also participate. Weekly initiatives include Mass, brunch, Taize prayer and discussions.
These initiatives aimed at young adults, poor urban areas and the intellectual community represent new attempts to catechize and evangelize. The ultimate goal is the revitalization of life at every level of the archdiocese — especially at local parishes. However, seeds planted now will probably only bear full fruit in years to come.
In the meantime, in just weeks, those who remember Philadelphia’s Church in its glory days, and those laboring for its rebirth, will stand together on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to welcome the pope, and the world, to their home.
Eric Banecker is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.