PHILADELPHIA — A quick look at the to-do list of a city preparing for a papal visit:
— Design and print Mass booklets, about two million of them in multiple languages
— Solicit volunteers, at least 7,000 but as many as 10,000. Do background checks on each one.
— Stock up on Communion wafers. Again, millions.
Pope Francis' scheduled trip to Philadelphia is still nine months away, but planning for his first U.S. visit began months ago. Preparing for the event, predicted to draw more than 1 million people to the city, is an exhausting, multiagency effort.
"Over the last two months, I've probably averaged four hours of sleep a night," said Helen Osman, communications secretary for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It's a lot of coordinating and making sure everyone has everything they need, down to the minutia. The one thing you think doesn't matter can create a domino effect and just cascade."
The papal visit comes as part of the World Meeting of Families, a triennial event organized by the Pontifical Council for Families and to be held this year at the Pennsylvania Convention Center downtown from Sept. 22 to 27. Organizers said they plan to rely on donations for their $45 million budget, with about half of that amount raised by mid-December.
The pontiff is expected to arrive as the congress ends to take part in the main closing event, the Festival of Families. The next day, he will lead a public Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a main city thoroughfare that has hosted numerous outdoor concerts and events.
Organizers got a head start on planning before the pope officially announced his visit in November. The pope himself provided inside information when Gov. Tom Corbett attended a Vatican meeting in March, when he whispered in the governor's ear: "I will come," according to Susan Corbett, Pennsylvania's first lady.
The Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates the conference and papal visit will generate $417 million in economic impact for the city and region. That's why tourism booster organizations like Visit Philadelphia are beefing up their websites, adding themed itineraries for visitors and coverage tips for the media.
Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of Families, said the conference itself will draw about 15,000 people from 153 countries. Preparing for that meeting alone is a major undertaking, but adding a papal visit raises it to a new level, she said.
Preparing for the public Mass will require "literally overnight turning a stage into an altar," Farrell said. There will be liturgical guidelines detailing how the pope wants the altar to be built and where he'd like his chair to be placed during services, Farrell said. The Holy See will likely suggest specific hymns for the public Mass and specific church leaders to read the intercessions.
Officials from Milan, Italy — where the 2012 World Meeting of Families took place — have assured Farrell the quick turnaround is possible, but "they had theirs at an airfield outside Milan," she said. The parkway is public, often crowded, and yet it will need to be cleared for the changeover. Oh, and don't forget the massive video screens, speakers and miles of cables that need to be put in place.
Transportation and housing are also major issues. Bus and train schedules will be modified. Streets will be closed. The city's 11,500-plus hotel rooms are filling quickly.
"How do you get a million people where they want to be?" Farrell asked. "To gain more hotel rooms, you can go farther afield, but then you have to figure out how to get those people in, too."
World Meeting organizers have been meeting regularly with city leaders and will have to coordinate with at least six agencies on safety issues: city police, state police, the FBI, the Secret Service, Italian police and the Swiss Guard, the papal security force.
It's still unclear when Francis and his entourage of about 75 staff and journalists will arrive on his plane, Shepherd One.
The pope doesn't yet have a place to stay, but Farrell isn't worried. She's received numerous emails in the past month with the same offer: "If you need somewhere for the Holy Father to stay, we'd be happy to host him at our home."