By Matthew Gambino, Catholic News Service
PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — When Pope Francis visits America, he’ll meet a president, governors, Catholic prelates and ordinary folks. He’ll also meet a queen.
Aretha Franklin, the “queen of soul,” will belt out quintessentially American music at the Festival of Families the night of Sept. 26 on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. She will lead a slate of entertainers offering the pope a glimpse of American pop culture, in all its artistic diversity.
The World Meeting of Families, taking place at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Sept. 22-25, announced Sept. 15 that Franklin and a host of other singers, dancers — even a comedian — will perform on two stages all day and into the evening Sept. 26, plus more entertainers preceding the Sept. 27 papal Mass on the parkway.
Hosting the Festival of Families as master of ceremonies will be Academy Award-nominated actor and film producer Mark Wahlberg, a Catholic and a native of Boston. Also headlining the slate of acts is the Denver-based, Grammy Award-winning rock band the Fray.
“When we first envisioned the Festival of Families, we could have never anticipated such an extraordinary lineup of talent would be part of this once-in-a-lifetime event,” said Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of Families. “We are deeply honored to have Mark Wahlberg serve as our host and we are thrilled to have the legendary Aretha Franklin and the immensely popular band, the Fray, join us in Philadelphia for Pope Francis’ visit.”
Franklin, one of the most popular singers since she helped define the Motown sound of soul and rhythm-and-blues music more than a half century ago, has won 18 Grammy Awards over her stellar career.
She will perform with previously announced stars including Italian tenor Andrea Bocceli, Latin singer Juanes and the Philadelphia Orchestra, led by music director Yannick Nezet Seguin.
In addition, the Philadelphia-based production company ESM Productions released an artistic rendering and video animation depicting its designs of the small stage Pope Francis will use for his Sept. 26 address at Independence Hall and the stage for the Festival of Families, which will be converted for the following day’s papal Mass.
The stage at Eakins Oval on the parkway will be 100 feet across and 60 feet high, open at the rear to show the Philadelphia Museum of Art behind it.
Before the big stars come out to the Festival of Families, the event on the stage will begin with American DanceWheels, a group showcasing Latin and ballroom dance for people in wheelchairs; Jackie Evancho, the young classical music singing sensation; Matt Maher, a popular Christian-music artist; Sister Sledge, the Philadelphia-based R & B group that had a megahit in 1979 with the song, appropriate for the family-themed celebration, “We Are Family”; and Catholic comedian and author Jim Gaffigan.
Of course, the biggest guest of honor is Pope Francis. As the Festival of Families begins around 5:30 p.m. (EDT), the pope will lead a motorcade dubbed the “papal parade” through the Francis Festival Grounds. The route will take the pope past most of the expected 750,000 people attending the festival, down one side of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to City Hall then back up the other side of the parkway to Eakins Oval.
The pope is expected to take the stage at 7:30 p.m. (EDT), where he will give an address and listen to the stories of six families from around the world.
His stop in Philadelphia, which will cap his first visit to the United States after New York and Washington, begins earlier that morning. The day’s events will include celebrating a Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul for the people of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Afterward, he will depart for his temporary residence at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, and the festivities will begin on the parkway at 12:45 p.m. (EDT) on a secondary stage across the street from the cathedral.
Performers will include the Salvation Army Songsters, Dancing with Students, Christopher Duffley, St. Raymond of Penafort Parish Gospel Choir, Modero Dance Company, Nigeria/Igbo Community at St. Cyprian Parish, Mutya Philippine Dance Company, St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Community, Oscuro Quintet, Everything Fitz, Joe Castillo and Osage Ballet Company.
The following day on the parkway, Pope Francis will return to celebrate Mass for an estimated 1 million people. Prior to its 4 p.m. (EDT) start, the pope will again tour the area by popemobile but on a shorter route that has not yet been announced.
Before that second papal parade, another slate of entertainers will perform starting at noon (EDT) on the Eakins Oval stage as hundreds of thousands stream into the parkway area.
All the events during the weekend will be broadcast on all 40 Jumbtron large-screen televisions located throughout the Ben Franklin Parkway and Independence Mall areas of Philadelphia’s center-city.
In New York, where the pope will arrive in the early evening Sept. 24, after two full days in Washington, well-known entertainers have been lined up as well.
Before Pope Francis’ Mass at Madison Square Garden, Cuban-American pop singer Gloria Estefan and actor Martin Sheen will be among the headliners, along with Academy Award-winning actress and vocalist Jennifer Hudson and pop music stylist Harry Connick Jr.
Also on the bill are Tony Award-winning Broadway musical actress Kelli O’Hara; Tony-nominated actor-singer Norm Lewis; Emmy-winning performer-arranger Rob Mathes; musical theater actor James McElroy with the Broadway Inspirational Voices, a choir made up from the six choirs at New York City’s St. Charles Borromeo Parish and Chapel of the Resurrection; New York television news anchor Rosanna Scotto; and James “D-Train” Williams, whose song “You’re the One for Me” was topped the Billboard dance music charts in 1982.
Gambino is director and general manager of CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Contributing to this story was Mark Pattison in Washington.