Today marked the beginning of the 8th World Meeting of Families, held in Philadelphia. The theme of the conference is Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive. Over the next few days, I will share my impressions and experiences of this exciting event which will end with the Festival of Families and Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
Standing in line for coffee, my eyes fell upon a couple nearby. They were wearing complementing outfits. She wore a beautifully made dress in a light-coloured fabric with a small pattern, and he wore a matching shirt. As I looked more closely I noticed that the clothes were made especially for the occasion in a fabric which was also printed especially for the occasion. Joking about my love of organization, my husband nudged me and said “now they’re well prepared!”. I got chatting to them. They had travelled all the way from Zimbabwe to attend the congress. Like many of the 20,000 pilgrims in Philadelphia this week, they had travelled many thousands of miles to attend the event. Others had travelled from as far afield as the Philippines, Argentina, Nigeria, Poland and Italy. There are people from over 100 countries present, making it the biggest World Meeting of Families ever!
I have made the pilgrimage with my husband and daughter from Ireland. Arriving at the downtown Philadelphia this afternoon for the beginning of the congress, the brotherly love and sisterly affection of the city was palpably present as delegates from around the world assembled for the opening ceremony. Archbishop Paglia of the Pontifical Council of the Family was one of the speakers at the conference opening. He encouraged the delegates gathered,
“If the family is strong, society is strong”.
Newly appointed bishop, Rev. Robert Barron, gave the first key note address of the congress. In a packed out hall of priests, religious, but mainly families, he observed how religion has become privatised. This is the complete opposite of the Gospel message to go out into the world and spread the Good News and “Edenise” the whole world. He spoke about the relativism that has become second nature to many people in society, especially among young people. The idea that existence precedes essence, that the person defines reality and imposes their own meaning on the world has become one of the unchallenged dogmas of modernity. Can you pick up a golf club and just start playing golf? Can you play football without the rules? Bishop Barron remarked that in the world of sports, the idea of playing without rules is absurd, yet the idea of living life without rules is increasingly acceptable as people reject rules of morality. These rules, however, are not rules to bind us. Rather, they are rules for our freedom. As in language learning, you have to learn the rules of grammar to become fluent.In every area that matters to us, we welcome and revere law, because it is laws and rules that help us to excel. Orthodoxy means right worship. Throughout the bible, orthodoxy brings about peace, so when we worship God correctly, peace and harmony breaks out among men. By the same token, when man worships the wrong things, creating false gods and idols, division, conflict and war are rife.
Walking through the city on the way home, we saw the preparations Philadelphia is making to welcome Pope Francis: The papal coloured rosettes on the City Hall, the banners lining the streets, the posters, the t-shirts… security arrangements are very tight for the Papal visit- cars in a certain area that have not been removed from the street are being towed, while vast areas of the city are on ‘lock down’. Many train stations will be closed at the weekend so as to provide a better service for the papal pilgrims.
Back at base, I reflect on a day which, in between talks, was filled with joyous chance encounters with Catholic individuals and families from far and wide. There was inspiration and encouragement all around; in a smile, an “hola!”, a brief exchange or a conversation about everyday things, and deeper conversations about what brought people to the World Meeting of Families.
As I study the Family Guidebook for the days ahead, I am excited by the speakers who will be presenting key note and break-out sessions, such as Cardinal Robert Sarah, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, Dr Janet E. Smith, Prof. Helen Alvaré, Dr Scott Hahn, Msgr Livio Melina, Christopher West and presenters from Ave Maria Radio and EWTN, including Dr Greg and Lisa Popcak. The conference is only a few hours open but already I am so grateful for the opportunity to be here, and excited about the days ahead and the inspiration and graces which I know await!