It’s been three weeks since we returned from our pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. We’ve re-acclimated to our normal schedule. We’ve made a photo book and shared stories of our adventures with friends and family. However, I’ve been struggling with writing my “take-aways” from the experience. This is the kind of experience that must be savored, pondered, and processed. It takes time for the memories of all the sights and sounds to settle in the mind and heart and become part of who we are and how we go forward.
For the past few weeks I’ve been jotting down notes and wading through memories and thoughts. I’ve decided to reflect about the experience in a series of seven posts in seven days. This first post will be the longest, with a summary of our trip and some reflections about it. Pictures and notes about significant moments and details will follow over the next six days. It is my hope that this series of posts will allow others to “go along for the ride” and understand the content, spirit, message, and significance of the World Meeting of Families for all of us. For whether you were able to attend the World Meeting, you tuned in through Catholic television and radio, or you’re just now learning about it, God is calling you (all of us) to celebrate, strengthen, and share what it means to be a holy family in today’s world.
We decided to attend the World Meeting of Families because we wanted to celebrate our vocation as a holy family. We wanted our sons to experience the church in a bigger sense, to begin to understand the great gift it is to be part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. We knew it would be a great occasion to learn more about our Faith and be inspired to grow in holiness. We welcomed the opportunity to gather with other families from around the world who share our values. We approached the trip as a holy pilgrimage, a family adventure of prayer and learning.
Our experience exceeded those lofty aspirations and it will forever be a highpoint in our family history. We enjoyed the “adventure” aspect of the trip: travelling 470 miles from Columbus to Philadelphia, using public transportation to navigate through the crowded city, packing backpacks and setting out for new experiences each day. We shared the journey with friends from our parish and we enjoyed meeting up with other familiar faces along the way. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing people from around the world, including a great variety of joy-filled sisters, seminarians, priests, and bishops. Without exception, the people of Philadelphia were kind and welcoming. We were impressed by the security and organization. Amazingly, all of our plans went smoothly and the weather was absolutely beautiful! We were so proud of our boys for their stamina and composure throughout the trip.
We arrived in Philadelphia a few days before the start of the World Meeting of Families so we could visit the historical sites in the city. We had fun and learned some Philadelphia history on a duck tour. We visited the Liberty Bell and toured Independence Hall. We were also able to visit the U.S. Mint and the Franklin Institute. Our son Adam was especially enamored with Chinatown (the third largest Chinatown in the nation). Reading Market, the Ben Franklin Bridge, cheesesteak vendors, the subway trains, and the famous “Love” sculpture were also favorites. Philadelphia is truly an American treasure filled with so much history! The city was bedecked with beautiful flags welcoming Pope Francis and the World Meeting of Families. There was a palpable air of excitement throughout the city.
From the moment we arrived at the convention center for the World Meeting of Families, we knew we were participating in a very special event. As part of our registration we received World Meeting backpacks containing t-shirts, hats, water bottles, pens, the Gospel of Luke in many languages, a wonderful assortment of magazines and brochures, and even Pope Francis prayer fans! Friendly volunteers helped us find our way around and get the boys registered and oriented in their conference area. Although the convention center was always crowded, the atmosphere was so friendly and loving that it didn’t matter. It truly was an experience of being among thousands of Catholic brothers and sisters united in a common mission. It was surprising how many friends and acquaintances we encountered. We also enjoyed spotting some Catholic “celebrities” like Gianna Emanuela Molla (daughter of Saint Gianna Molla), Steve Bollman (from “That Man is You”), Johnnette Benkovic (EWTN), Lacy Rabideau (Catholic Icing), and Danielle Bean (Catholic Digest). EWTN was broadcasting right outside the main conference hall and we saw many of our favorite speakers there.
The theme of the World Meeting of Families was “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.” The keynote addresses and breakout sessions developed this theme in a variety of ways and sparked much conversation and reflection about what it means to be a holy family, how to strengthen our own family lives, and how to promote family life in today’s society. The talks were given in several languages by a great variety of speakers including archbishops, scholars, authors, doctors, religious superiors, and married couples. I plan to post later this week about the talks I attended and some of the highlights I gleaned, but I will tell you that it was difficult to choose which direction to go each day. There were talks focused on such wonderful and worthwhile topics, including fostering vocations, parenting, catechesis, forgiveness, infertility, caring for the elderly, the importance of engaging in acts of service as a family, living the liturgical year, divorce, Theology of the Body, sexuality, responding to today’s culture, addiction, the New Evangelization, and so much more. I am hoping and praying that the talks will be published as a book and/or posted for viewing online. I know that some of the keynote sessions are already available online. I know that I learned a lot from all of the talks I attended. I was challenged and inspired to grow in my vocation as Catholic wife and mother. “Love is our mission” is a mantra that will guide our family life always.
The children had their own conference hall in which they gathered each day. They rotated through many activity stations throughout the week and got to do some amazing things. They packed meals for the homeless, made time capsules, played basketball, bagged rice for the missions, prayed with paint, made rosaries, decorated shields, participated in science experiments with Brother Leo from EWTN, and played with giant building blocks. They were accompanied by fabulous volunteers, including many fun young sisters. At the end of each session the children gathered around a stage and enjoyed fun music and enthusiastic preaching and teaching. I was amazed at our boys’ level of excitement and enjoyment about all they got to do in the children’s conference. They have continued to sing the songs and repeat the mantra, “There are no perfect families, but we’re called to be holy families.”
In addition to the talks, the World Meeting featured an exhibit hall filled with Catholic vendors and representatives from a wide variety of organizations, religious orders, schools, and mission groups. It was really fun to walk through and see the newest Catholic books and publications, pick up information about innovative parish programs, talk with members of a great variety of religious organizations, and purchase souvenirs and devotional items. Throughout the week there were so many other great opportunities and activities offered, including daily Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, Reconciliation, and a film festival. Participants helped paint a beautiful mural that will hang at a local school. (We even set a world’s record for “piece of artwork worked on by the most people.”) Offsite, families could tour special religious exhibits in a variety of local museums, visit four different Catholic shrines, see a model of the Vatican made out of Lego bricks by a priest, and add their prayers to a special grotto dedicated to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. The Cathedral and Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul showcased the official icon of the meeting (a beautiful image of the Holy Family) as well as relics of the patron saints of the World Meeting (Saint Gianna Molla, Saint John Paul the Great, and new Saints Louis and Zelie Martin). Our visit to the Cathedral and the Our Lady of Knots grotto was quite moving and memorable for all of us.
As the week progressed, the levels of excitement and security mounted in preparation for the culminating visit of Pope Francis. The streets were blocked off in the center city and transportation became quite challenging. Our hotel for the week was actually across the river in New Jersey. We had done well with driving to a train station, taking the train into the city, and walking or taking a bus to the convention center. But all that changed as many thousands more pilgrims converged on the city for the Festival of Families and the Papal Mass. The routes into the city were quite limited, there were long lines to pass through security and enter the ticketed area, and a lot of walking and waiting was required. It was at this point of the trip that we really entered more deeply into the concept of pilgrimage. We tried to be cheerful, patient, and prayerful, especially in the difficult and trying moments. Again, we were amazed at the composure, endurance, and enthusiasm of our nine and ten year old sons. I know that they encouraged and inspired me at moments when I felt weak and weary.
As this final, exciting part of the week approached, we were the blessed benefactors of a very kind favor. My distant cousin, Emily, contacted me and invited us to stay in her apartment right in the center of the city! I had completely forgotten that she lived in Philadelphia. She welcomed us to her charming home, arranged to borrow air mattresses for the boys, and was such a fun and wonderful hostess. Instead of fighting the crowds and going in and out of the city, we came in on Saturday morning and stayed through late Sunday evening. We had so much fun visiting Emily and it made these days so much easier. This truly is a cherished memory from our trip.
I cannot say enough about how impressed I was with the preparations and security in the city. There were security personnel EVERYWHERE. We definitely felt safe. There were rows and rows of porta-potties all around the city. There were huge stacks of free water bottles being distributed by WaWa. Jumbotrons were installed all along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway so that thousands upon thousands could participate in the festivities. I was surprised by the very small number of protestors we encountered. I have been told there were more in the non-ticketed area, but still not many. There were food and merchandise vendors available as well.
While we had been participating in the World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis had visited Cuba, Washington DC, and New York. Most of America had been following his trip closely and listening to his various speeches. We were only able to catch snippets here and there. (I have yet to go back and listen to all of the speeches I missed.) We were so excited to finally get to see him and hear his message for us. It was interesting to watch the media coverage and the crowds of people and ponder why there was such hype. Why was everyone so excited? Who is this man? No rock star or celebrity brings this much exhilaration. Pope Francis is not a handsome heartthrob or movie star. No Sunday Masses draw crowds that fill an entire city. Yet here we were sacrificing much to get a glimpse of this man and participate in the same ritual that is enacted every day in every city with much less fanfare. We were there to see and honor the leader of our Church, the Vicar of Christ in our midst. We were there to actively participate in the source and summit of our life as Catholics, the Holy Eucharist. And we were joined by thousands and thousands of brothers and sisters. It was an experience of a lifetime for us. And it was so awesome to know that many, many non-Catholics joined in our celebration and were drawn toward the Lord by this great event. I repeatedly wondered what it would be like if Jesus was in our midst. I was repeatedly reminded that he was and is indeed in our midst.
Saturday evening’s Festival of Families included the arrival of Pope Francis. We watched on the jumbotrons as he gave his speech at Independence Hall and then we awaited his arrival on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. It was so thrilling to see him drive by in the Popemobile! I will never forget our son Adam’s pure joy and enthusiasm after seeing Pope Francis in person. He was completely awe-stricken. We sat with friends about two blocks from the main stage and we enjoyed a stellar line-up of entertainment including comedian Jim Gaffigan, singer Matt Maher, Aretha Franklin, Andrea Bocelli, the Philadelphia Symphony, international singers and dancers, and several families witnessing the stories of their faith journeys. It was a beautiful night capped off with Pope Francis’ joyful and candid remarks about what it means to be a family. He proved that he understands the reality of family life when he mentioned plates flying and the challenges of dealing with mothers-in-law. It was clear that he was just as honored and thrilled to be there as we were.
The crowds swelled even more for Sunday’s Papal Mass. We found a spot literally in the middle of the parkway (on the double yellow lines) about three blocks from the stage. We relaxed and played cards and shared a meal as we waited for the motorcade. This time Pope Francis made his way through the crowd more slowly, stopping numerous times to bless babies. We were again thrilled to be so close to him even for a few seconds. The Mass was absolutely beautiful. We had a lovely printed program that helped us participate in the singing and interpret the readings and prayers which were proclaimed in many languages. We were able to read English translations of the Pope’s homily on the jumbotron. Again, it was clear that Pope Francis is not oblivious to the pain and hardships people experience. He is very sensitive to the sufferings and needs of people and he calls us to that same sensitivity. There were two parts of the Mass that were particularly moving for me. First, the absolute stillness of the enormous crowd when called to a moment of sacred silence. It was breathtaking. Also, at the time for Communion, the priests and deacons came streaming down into the crowd in lines on both sides of the parkway. They were each escorted by a volunteer carrying a yellow and white umbrella. I have never in my life been so emotionally moved by the procession to receive the Body of my Lord in the Eucharist. Our God comes to us in the Flesh! What a privilege and honor it is to be part of His People and to receive Him into our hearts!
The celebration of the Mass was the culmination of our weeklong pilgrimage. We made our way through the crowds and spent some more time with Emily before heading to the train and back to New Jersey. We were tired but so happy as we packed up and headed home on Monday. It was fun to see all of the buses and vans full of pilgrims on the road and even run into some friends at a rest area on the Pennsylvania turnpike. We even arrived home to a yummy pot of chili prepared by my awesome mom!
So, that’s the story of our pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families. It was an amazing experience that we were truly blessed to be able to share. Our plans went better than we had hoped and we know God’s grace made it so. Lest I paint too rosy a picture, I will have you know that there were definitely hard moments. We took the wrong bus one day and spent a few hours in some colorful parts of the city. We waited three hours in a very tight crowd to get through security for the Papal Mass. We walked a lot. But it was all worth it. And it becomes even more valuable as it shapes how we continue to grow as a family and how we reach out to other families.
I want to close this long commentary with two themes that won’t stop ringing in my ears and in my prayers in these days and weeks following the World Meeting:
1. Underneath all the activity of the week, I was praying fervently about marriage. I was praying for three specific couples I know who are struggling significantly. My heart continues to ache for them and I feel desperate to help in some way, but clueless about how to go about it and whether or not it’s even appropriate for me to do more than pray. I continue to feel such a sadness about the state of marriage today. What can I do to be a missionary for marriage? What can I do to continue to strengthen and grow my own marriage? Where is God’s call for me in all this?
Stay tuned this week for pictures from our trip, quotes from the talks we heard, surprises we encountered, and some “take-aways” as we move forward.