Hidden from small

Allison Vulgamore Explores the Layers of Meaning Behind the Papal Visit

August 12, 2015

Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia in September, in conjunction with the World Meeting of Families—Philadelphia 2015, will touch millions of people profoundly. And the Philadelphia Orchestra family is no exception. (The Orchestra under Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin will be joined by singing superstars Andrea Bocelli and Juanes for a concert on Saturday, September 26, and provide the music for the Papal Mass on Sunday the 27th, both on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.)

Orchestra President and CEO Allison Vulgamore calls the ensemble’s appearances a tremendous privilege. “We’ve been an ambassador to the world many times in world cities; this is an opportunity for us to join in Philadelphia’s welcoming of the world to our home. It’s a huge honor to be invited to play a critical role, both in the Saturday evening program and the Papal Mass.”

Pope Francis joined Philadelphia Orchestra President & CEO Allison Vulgamore, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Mayor Michael Nutter, and other members of the delegation that traveled to Rome this past June to plan some of the details of the pope’s upcoming visit.

Being in on the planning for the pope’s visit has been a big part of the overall experience for Vulgamore. In June she joined a group of Philadelphia civic leaders, including Mayor Michael Nutter, on a trip to the Vatican to help work out the massive list of details surrounding the papal trip. “We spent almost the entire time within the Vatican walls, planning not just for the arrival of Pope Francis, but also for the world news that will surround the event. We were able to learn from the mayor of Rome some important aspects of holding gatherings that involve the Vatican, and the millions of people who want to attend these personal moments of faith. It was an incredible opportunity for each of us to meet with Vatican leaders, and understand not just the responsibilities, but also the opportunities to engage the public with Pope Francis’s visit.”

The responsibilities were worked out in detailed meetings covering everything from staging a huge mass and concert, to how people (including musicians) would get to the events, to why it’s important to have Andrea Bocelli and Juanes on the program. Says Vulgamore: “It was an opportunity to bond in both spirit and details … and to make good friends.”

She admits all this won’t be a walk in the park (or on the Parkway). “It’s always a special opportunity with an outdoor setting, but you’re also seeing how the Parkway becomes a performance space, and the space for audiences to enjoy, all the way from the Basilica up to the steps of the Art Museum. It takes a lot of thought both by the planners and the performers.”

But the potential rewards for all concerned make the effort well worth it.

“It’s an opportunity to let our music speak for itself, which wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. It’s a tremendous chance to meet young people who are attracted especially to Pope Francis, his teachings and his hopes for the world. It’s also very important for us to be able to reach the many communities who celebrate in the Catholic faith, and who will come specifically to hear Pope Francis.”

The papal visit is also meaningful for Vulgamore on a personal level. “I’m really looking forward to this. My parents took me abroad many times as a young person, and my father, as a theologian, had taken me to the Vatican, to St. Peter’s Basilica, and had given me a great sense of the long history of belief and faith and followers that is represented inside those walls. So to go back in June as the CEO of the Orchestra, to be once again inside St. Peter’s, inside the museums of the Vatican, the gardens of the Vatican, to see where both Popes Francis and Benedict are living, to see where Pope Francis walked right after his election—that really was powerful for me, the idea that a human being becomes a world leader in an instant. And that is from centuries of ritual that make that possible.

“So going back to Rome with the Philadelphia delegation, and with my father in my ear, was incredibly moving. Having that inside you, as you plan to bring these pilgrims into Philadelphia, makes this a very personal journey as well as a professional one. I am not Catholic, but I am a person of faith, and going to the papal audience again at St. Peter’s I was reminded of what it means to be a city that takes the responsibility of having worshippers come, and creating access for them, and letting them bring their own respect and ritual. In St. Peter’s in June, in one area people were all wearing purple hats! They wanted it known that they were from a particular place in the world attending this papal audience. We’ll have that in Philadelphia; we’ll have the responsibility, not just to welcome people to concerts and to masses, but to create world fellowship in a way. And that is a huge accountability I think we’re all feeling.” 

But it’s an accountability the Orchestra has felt throughout its history. “When the community celebrates or grieves, The Philadelphia Orchestra has been very present. I think an orchestra’s role in many ways is to stand beside and with its community in times of importance. This is a great opportunity for us to open our arms musically, and embrace the many people who are coming to Philadelphia.”

The Orchestra’s participation in the Festival of Families concert on September 26 and the Papal Mass on September 27 has been made possible through the generous support of the Maguire Foundation, Harry and Kay Halloran, Chris Donahue/Federated, the Connelly Foundation, Andrew Lesko, Thomas Ajamie, Christian and Adrianna Henkels Fund/Schwab Charitable, Jeremiah and Kathleen O’Grady, Ed Kicak, and Vincent Roberti, in addition to an extraordinary partnership with Senator Robert P. Casey and the advocacy of Senator Pat Toomey and Congressman Brendan Boyle.