Throngs of pilgrims line the Benjamin Franklin Parkway during the World Meeting of Families Sept. 27. (Joyce Coronel/CATHOLIC SUN)
PHILADELPHIA — Closing remarks by the Holy Father during the Festival of Families prompted a Valley seminarian to pause in deep gratitude.
An emotional Frank Cicero, who is in his sixth year at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary, wept as he spoke about his love for his mother.
“My mom kept us together and she never lost her faith no matter how hard the struggle was to eat, or how hard the struggle was to pay bills,” Cicero said. “Ultimately, my mom’s faith and hope in Christ is my hope.”
His reflection came on the heels of the “Francis Festival” that marked the end to the World Meeting of Families, which hosted the largest gathering of Catholic families since its start in 1994.
The conference included speakers, panel discussions and workshops at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Sept. 22-25.
During the festival, Cicero said he especially enjoyed hearing from the six families from around the world who offered their personal witness to the joys and struggles of living out Christian marriage and family life.
And he was moved when he heard Pope Francis being spontaneous as he addressed the massive crowd in his native Spanish.
“I am proud to be Catholic, and I am proud to be a seminarian,” he said. “Being here has increased my desire to lay down my life for the Church.”
The theme of the 2015 World Meeting of Families, “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” emphasized that, because each person is created in God’s image — out of love and to be loving — people come to fulfillment through loving in their families and communities.
This was formerly a challenge for Cicero because he harbored a deep resentment and disdain for his father.
“My dad was addicted to meth and he kicked us out. We were out on the streets and on food stamps,” he said. “My mom always kept us going. When I felt no hope, she was my everything.”
When it was discovered his father was dying of cancer, Cicero said he got angry when his mother took him back into the home.
“She told me, ‘It’s not your father whom I love, it’s Jesus in your father whom I love,’” Cicero said.
Those words continue to echo in his mind since their family reconciliation eight years ago and, more recently, his father’s death three years ago.
“He had a massive conversion,” Cicero said, “and he told me all he ever desired was for me to become a priest.”
Cicero traveled with 20 other seminarians from St. John Vianney to celebrate the World Meeting of Families.
Herman Ray was also among the hundreds of thousands of people gathered to see and hear the pope.
Ray, a parishioner at St. Theresa Church in Phoenix, came with 40 members from the Tekakwitha Conference, an organization based out of Alexandria, Louisiana and named for St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint. As a Native American, Ray said the pope’s concern for the environment resonates with his culture.
“When he talks about taking care of the earth and God’s creation, it’s something the Native Americans can really relate to,” he said. “We have so much in common in that respect.”
The group was also there to support Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe. He is the second Native American to be ordained a bishop in the United States, and the first Native American archbishop.
“For a lot of us Natives there, it made it a bit more special knowing one of us was up there with the Holy Father,” Ray said.
The best thing about a festival for families, were the families. Ray said he was overwhelmed to see the multitudes of families from different countries and all the children.
He was reminded of his own childhood growing up on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation. It’s a scarred memory — he lost both his father and sister to drugs and alcohol, and he was now confronting his fate at 41 — Ray had abused for 10 years before he “finally fell to my knees and cried to God and told Him I didn’t want to die and go to hell, and He gave me my life.”
Ray celebrated his 51st birthday in Philadelphia on Sept. 27, the same day he saw Pope Francis and the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul, an organization he volunteers with.
Sober since 2006, Ray credits the holy intercession of St. Kateri for showing him how he can live “100 percent Native and 100 percent Catholic,” and for the guiding hand of his mother.
“My mother took me to my first Tekakwitha Conference,” Ray said. “I quit drugs without any counseling or rehab so I believe God heard my cry, as I know He hears all cries, and He intervened and that’s when I believe He sent St. Kateri to me.