Philadelphia Inquirer runs a charming profile on a papal visit organizer

"Stuff." It's so easy to get wrapped up in the "stuff." Issues, arguments, religious "ghosts." Easy to forget that when you talk religion, you're talking about people.

Well, the Philadelphia Inquirer remembered, with a delightful feature on Donna Crilley Farrell, who is pulling together preparations for Pope Francis' visit in September.

The Inquirer presents Farrell as executive director of the World Meeting of Families, responsible for 15,000 who will attend the meeting -- and 10 times that many who will see the pope at an outdoor Mass. It presents her also as a personable 51-year-old who takes time for her twin children and, among other footwear, owns a pair of pink sneakers.

Although this is a profile, the article doesn't forget to show the size of Farrell's job:

Farrell leads a 15-committee organization with staff members and a corps of consultants who are overseeing every logistical component of the World Meeting of Families, set for Sept. 22-25, and Pope Francis' visit. The pontiff is scheduled to attend a family festival Saturday, Sept. 26, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and lead Sunday Mass the next day outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The archdiocesan team is dealing with issues including transportation (5,000 buses may travel to the city), lodging (the team needs host families, one of Farrell's biggest concerns at the moment), communication (conference delegates from 150 nations are expected), the media (5,000 to 7,000 journalists are coming), and security (the Secret Service, in charge of security, meets daily with local, state, and federal government agencies).

Who is this live wire? Impressive professionally, as the story says: former TV reporter, former production assistant at NBC, with experience in corporate p.r. But it also teases out more personal details, like a "quick prayer and exercise in the morning," or continuing to speak smoothly after dropping a water bottle on camera.

Like a good feature, the story asks acquaintances about Farrell as well. The city's liaison for World Meeting of Families praises Farrell's skill for spotting details while keeping the big picture. And the president of the WMF says Farrell is good at bucking people up and keeping everyone in the loop.

Religiously, we learn she is a lapsed Catholic who returned to church after a "devout landlady inspired her to reconnect." (Extra point for using "devout" for someone who isn't criticizing the church!)

The newspaper also retells her biggest religious crisis: fielding overlapping scandals as communications director for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia:

During that time, beginning in 1999, she dealt with a series of critical events, including the closing of schools, the arrest of an archdiocesan finance officer, and the clergy sexual-abuse scandal.
Farrell says there were days when reporters would call, and she would hang up the phone and cry.
"It was hard," she said.

But she stayed with the Catholic Church, the story says, quoting Farrell:  "I would hope the actions of human beings would not shake my faith in God."

And that's about all we get on her spiritual side. This is my only disappointment with this look at a bright, charming lady.

Would I sound a bit flinty to talk about religious "ghosts" here? Maybe. I just can't help wondering if the story could have spared some of its nearly 1,300 words to ask Farrell's religious/spiritual motivations.  

The Inquirer has her saying, "This is once in a lifetime. How many people get any opportunity to work on something like this?" That could mean the job is big, tough and challenging. Or that she gets to help people see Pope Francis. Or that she expects it to heal families and get people closer to God. Or it could mean something else.

Farrell clearly has some spiritual substance, or she would have left forever during the hard times. Maybe the Inquirer considered it enough to see a dedicated human being in action. Some people can talk a hurricane, but their deeds scarcely stir a leaf. Donna Farrell is not one of them.

Photo: Philadelphia Museum of Art, the backdrop for a planned Mass by Pope Francis in September. Copyright Olivier Le Queinec, via

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