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Philadelphia's atmosphere electric in anticipation of Pope Francis' arrival

PHILADELPHIA -- The City of Brotherly Love is in overdrive, bustling with excitement in anticipation of playing host to Pope Francis over the weekend -- the final stop on the pontiff's American tour.

"This city is definitely ready for its close-up," Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive of Visit Philadelphia, said at a news conference Thursday.

Mayor Michael A. Nutter said the city and its people are honored and excited, and added, "We're prepared."

Twenty jumbotrons are up along a mile-long stretch of Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the showcase avenue where Francis is to attend the Festival of Families Saturday and celebrate Mass Sunday before a crowd that could number 1 million people. Another 20 or more of the huge screens are in other areas -- especially in Center City, as the downtown is known.

Some 17,000 delegates from 150 countries have taken Philadelphia by storm for the Vatican-sponsored World Meeting of Families, which officially opened Tuesday and runs through Sunday. It is the first time the global event has been held in the United States.

Among them are a group from the Community of Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, which has convents in East Harlem and the Bronx.

Sister Clare Matthiass, who is with the East Harlem convent, said the Franciscan sisters are making a point of being a presence at all the cities Francis is visiting. The order does community outreach in East Harlem and works closely with Our Lady Queen of Angels School, where Francis Friday met with schoolchildren and immigrants.

"Because he was coming to the school, some of us were there," Matthiass said. "Some of us are here in Philly to greet the pope here." Some also were in Washington, D.C. -- the pontiff's first stop in the United States, she said. "We love the Holy Father and we want to be where he is."

Matthiass said the sisters would have come to the World Meeting of Families even if Francis had not been slated to attend.

"This is about families and supporting the families, and we very much want to do that," she said. "The family is the central structure of our society, of the world and of the church."

Center City has been transformed to accommodate what Levitz called the "mother of all block parties" -- Saturday's Festival of Families, which will feature both the pontiff and performers including singers Aretha Franklin, Andrea Bocelli and Juanes, actor Mark Wahlberg, comedian Jim Gaffigan and The Philadelphia Orchestra.

All through downtown and the parkway grounds, the delegates were easily recognizable with their green lanyards and nametags. Many were wearing "World Meeting of Families 2015" T-shirts.

Scores of people lined up outside the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul Friday and Thursday to participate in a "Mary Untier of Knots" ribbon ceremony. Hundreds and hundreds of white ribbons -- bearing the written petitions of the faithful -- were affixed to a domed structure next to the cathedral.

That sight will greet Francis, who is to celebrate Mass at the cathedral Saturday morning, his first stop after arriving in Philadelphia. He has a special devotion to the concept and image of the Virgin Mary as an undoer of knots, which he discovered in the 1980s during his years of study in Germany.

"So the idea is our lives are messy because of selfishness, sinfulness," said the Rev. Philip Smith, who was visiting from Toledo, Ohio, and watching the procession of believers. "Things get twisted, they get tangled, and only God can untangle things. So Mary said 'yes' to God's plan in her life, which was reversing the mess we're tangled up in."

Hector D. Ponte of Miami, joined by family and friends, was among those outside the cathedral. As a take-away from the World Meeting of Families, his group wants to report back to their youth group at home on ways to keep God at the center of relationships.

As he surveyed the parkway, Ponte said Philadelphia is a fitting site for the families conference.

"Everybody's very friendly, welcoming. It seems like they do want us here. Philly is one of the places where our country was started: liberty, family and freedom," he said.

As many visitors praised the city's welcome, a group of homeless men wondered what would become of their encampment along the parkway during the pope's visit.

They are the sort of people -- the marginalized of society -- that Francis has repeatedly urged the world to help.

Howard Nichols, 60, said he is homeless and a Vietnam War veteran who still grapples with "guilt" from that experience. His message for the pope was simple: "Please don't forget about me."

By yesterday afternoon, with security precautions being taken, high fencing blocked access to some side streets along the parkway and downtown. The homeless men's blankets and other goods had vanished.

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