PHILADELPHIA — They came from more than 100 countries around the globe to hear high-profile speakers challenge and encourage them to build up family life. All week long, anticipation was building for the visit of Pope Francis. The pontiff spoke at the Festival of Families Sept. 26 and celebrated an outdoor Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway Sept. 27.
Walking through the crowded corridors of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, pilgrims from as far away as Nigeria and Vietnam could be heard excitedly discussing the unfolding World Meeting of Families, which takes place every three years in a different major city. Previous meetings were held in Milan and Toronto.
Some 18,000 people — including several groups from the Diocese of Phoenix — attended the opening Mass in Philadelphia that was concelebrated by 600 cardinals, bishops and priests. Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput told those gathered it was a time of mutual exchange in which families would learn from one another and from the various speakers.
Los Angeles Auxilary Bishop Robert Barron, whose well-known “Catholicism” series has captivated millions, gave the opening keynote address. He told families they needed to bring the image of God into the world which has become skeptical of religion.
We are “representatives of God, bringing His power, His wisdom, His heart, His mind to the world,” Bishop Barron said. “The image of God is a mission and a responsibility.”
There’s a prophetic role that families must play as well, particularly when it comes to moral issues, he said. “There are objective moral values. We need to keep saying that to a world that’s grown deaf to it,” Bishop Barron said.
Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, gave his keynote on day two of the gathering.
The world seems to have forgotten God, Cardinal Sarah said, and the light of faith is in danger of being extinguished entirely. In the midst of this darkness, Christians are called to bring their witness of love and fidelity, and thereby evangelize the world.
The Holy Spirit, Cardinal Sarah said, empowers families to love to the end, and is thus a witness to the world of the love of God.
Day three of the congress featured Dr. Juan Francisco de la Guardia Brin and Gabriela N. de la Guardia who delivered their remarks about marriage in Spanish with simultaneous translation. “Let’s just say every driver is going to do whatever he wants with whatever stop light he sees,” Dr. de la Guardia told the crowd. “I don’t think that’s what we want.” God’s rules regarding human sexuality are there to protect us, he said.
Breakout sessions followed all the keynote addresses. From talks on encouraging vocations to dealing with addiction to forgiveness in families and dozens of other topics, sessions were led by experts such as Dr. Scott Hahn and Sr. Regina Gorman.
At the closing of the World Meeting of Families, the Rev. Rick Warren, a Protestant pastor and author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” and Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, OFM Cap., of Boston wowed the tremendous crowd that packed into the ballroom.
The difficulties families experience can help lead them closer to God, Warren said.
“God will teach you peace when the beans are burning and the baby’s crying and somebody knocks at the door and the dog bites the cat and the cat bites the head off the doll. You learn peace in the middle of chaos,” Warren said.
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Cardinal O’Malley reminded the crowd that the family is the school of love where we learn to make a gift of ourselves. “The decision to love is borne out of an encounter with the living God and is fundamental to our lives,” Cardinal O’Malley said.
Marriage in God’s plan is the sanctuary of life and the family is a community of love, he said. “We need to help families become what they are,” Cardinal O’Malley declared. “In God’s plan, families are missionaries who pass on the faith.”
Warren listed concrete ways families could live out their call to be schools of love and challenged them to make the new evangelization the mission of the rest of their lives.
“Joy-filled families are based on the love of God. They live it, they experience it, they model it and they offer it to others,” Warren said. “Your first duty as a parent is to let God love you. Your second job is to love Him back. Your third job is to offer that back to your family and everyone around you.”
The World Meeting of Families, which included a youth congress, concluded with the outdoor Festival of Families and the papal Mass, both of which attracted huge crowds.
Mike Phelan, director of the Office of Marriage and Respect Life for the Phoenix Diocese, was there with his wife and six children. The Phelans made it into the festival but were among many who didn’t make it past security until the final strains of the closing hymn on Sunday evening. A woman who lived in the neighborhood near the park took pity on the crowd.
“She brought out her big screen TV and put it on her porch and hooked it all up, so as you were moving up an inch at a time, you could see the Mass,” Phelan said.