In 1732, a Jesuit priest, Fr Joseph Greaton, said the first Mass in Philadelphia before a congregation of 11 people. Almost 300 years later, another Jesuit priest, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Pope Francis, said Mass in Philadelphia before a congregation estimated at well over one million souls.
For me, my husband, Jim, and our 17-month-old daughter, Teresa, being among that multitude was the climax of a week of prayer, joy, reflection and fun at the 8th World Meeting of Families. This was the first time the meeting was held in the English-speaking world and it was the largest such gathering to date, with over 20,000 pilgrims from more than 100 countries.
Inaugurated by Pope John Paul II in 1994, the conference seeks to facilitate and encourage families to share their experiences, thoughts and prayers, working together to grow as individuals and families within that broader ‘family of families’, the Church. In addition to hearing six keynote addresses over the three days of the conference, there were 75 breakout sessions in which families participated in discussions on the Christian family’s role in the parish, the Church and wider society.
This year’s conference was particularly significant in the light of both concerted international efforts to radically redefine the family and the upcoming Synod on the Family in Rome.
As a young family, still finding our way as spouses and parents, striving to live up to the inspiring ideal of family as the ‘domestic Church’, the week in ‘Philly’ was a pilgrimage of myriad graces and exhilarating blessings. From the moment we touched down in Philadelphia, we repeatedly encountered the eponymous ‘brotherly love’ upon which this great city was founded. Atheists, agnostics, Greek Orthodox and Jews, Episcopalians and Baptists, Catholics – lapsed and devout – showed us nothing but kindness and warmth, sharing their common excitement and enthusiasm at hosting this major conference and welcoming the Pope to their beloved hometown.
Having survived a seven-and-a-half hour flight with the toddling Teresa, we were tempted to congratulate ourselves on our fortitude. But then we met Missy and Jim who had travelled 18 hours from St Paul, Minneapolis; Lori who had travelled over 10 hours overnight from rural Ohio and Thérèse, who needed three flights to make her way to the conference from Burkina Faso. Truly, in comparison, we had made a mere ‘trip across the pond’!
The theme of the conference was ‘Love is Our Mission: the Family Fully Alive’. After the bruising and, at times dispiriting, events of recent times in Ireland, not least the outcome of the marriage referendum in May, it was refreshing and uplifting to hear and see the Church’s vision of the family articulated with such clarity, conviction and passion. This vision was made all the more compelling by being communicated with a gentle humility and radiant love.
Robert Barron, newly ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles and one of the Church’s most effective contemporary teachers, contrasted the ‘deep humanism’ upon which true Christianity is based with the truncated and impoverished anthropologies which inform popular atheisms of various hues.
Bishop Barron placed the Church’s commitment to the family in the context of a theology of creation: ‘through a sheer act of love, God gives rise to the world’.
He focused specifically on the prophetic nature of the family in discerning, and abiding by, the laws of nature written into our very beings as creatures bearing the imago Dei. By so doing, families demonstrate to a culture blinded by relativism that law is not the enemy of freedom but, rather, its precondition. These laws are, without doubt, demanding but that is the bracing challenge which, with grace, we can rise to: ‘the Church’s extravagant demand is coupled with her extravagant mercy’.
The theme of mercy was movingly and beautifully elaborated in Cardinal Luis Tagle’s description of a Church of the wounded for the wounded. Following Pope Francis, Tagle proposed the model of the Church as a field hospital, going out into the dark, confused messiness of a world ravaged by all sorts of conflict and alienation, and accompanying our fellow-wounded, offering them hope, healing and love. Very often, families, on which society and the Church herself are founded, are the first place where such healing is sought and found.
Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea reiterated the message of mercy and healing: all those “wounded by personal sin and the sin of others…can and must find in the Church a place for regeneration, without any finger being pointed at them”. Nevertheless, he also warned against the “dangerous schizophrenic pathology” evinced in the portrayal of doctrinal orthodoxy and pastoral sensitivity as antithetical when, in fact, they are symbiotic and mutually enriching. Speaking the truth in love with gentleness, patience and heroic courage is what’s demanded of Christian families.
This is only of a flavor of the feast of teaching and catechesis on offer at the conference. Indeed, it will take me months to properly unpack and reflect on the wisdom and riches therein.
The conference proper ran from Tuesday 22nd to Friday 25th September, with a ‘Festival of Families’ on Saturday 26th compered by actor Mark Wahlberg and featuring artists like Andrea Bocelli, Aretha Franklin, The Fray and Sister Sledge. At this Festival, responding to poignant testimonies from six families describing the joy and travails, the graces and challenges, the consolation and the heartbreak of family life, Pope Francis made an impassioned impromptu speech in praise of the family: “The most beautiful thing that God made… was the family. He created man and woman, and He gave them everything. He gave them the world... All of the love that God has in Himself, all of the beauty that God has in Himself, all of the truth that God has in Himself, He gives to the family.”
After a week of exhorting, inspiring, cajoling and beguiling politicians in Washington, world leaders at the UN, and ordinary people across America, the Holy Father brought the World Meeting of Families to a rapturous close with Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Thanks to the kindness of a delightful Irish-American lady, Cecilia O’Reilly, we managed to get seats within sight of the Pope. We thought that this was to be the highlight our week. Little did we know – at the end of Mass, Archbishop Paglia, President of the Pontifical Council of the Family, made the electrifying announcement that the next World Meeting of Families would take place in Dublin in 2018.
What a week, what a finale and what a fantastic honour and privilege for the Irish Church. With God’s grace, it will be a blessed time of renewal and joy and, God willing, an opportunity to welcome Pope Francis and the whole world to our wonderful land.
Lisette Carr is a Catholic wife and mother living with her husband and daughter in Waterford and currently studying for a Masters degree in Catholic Applied Theology at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham.