8/18/2015 9:53:00 AM
For many Americans, and certainly for many American Catholics, the beginning of fall in Philadelphia is a much bigger deal this year than most.
In late September, the City of Brotherly Love plays host to not just an international gathering of families but also to the first visit in the United States by Pope Francis. The second event has tended to overshadow the first, given the pope's relative newness in his office and his personal magnetism, which has drawn Catholics and others to a greater awareness of all things dealing with the Catholic Church.
But the principal reason for Pope Francis' visit is, in fact, the eighth World Meeting of Families, held every three years since 1994 under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
Close to 15,000 are expected to attend the Sept. 22-25 conference, with hundreds of thousands anticipated for the Sept. 26-27 Festival of Families, and perhaps 1.5 million to the Sept. 27 Mass celebrated by Pope Francis.
That is not insignificant, especially at a time when the importance, the value and the very definition of family has been discussed and debated. And the fact that for the first time the meeting is taking place in the United States has clearly aroused interest in this gathering with which many American Catholics are at best vaguely familiar.
So a bit of background is in order.
The World Meeting of Families event was conceived by St. John Paul II in 1992 to help strengthen the sacred bonds of the family unit and to promote the Christian family's role in the church and society.
It is an opportunity for participating families from around the world to share their thoughts, dialogue and prayers; listen to distinguished speakers address a variety of family-oriented issues; and work together to grow as individuals and family units.
The first meeting took place in Rome in 1994, during the international year of the family. Subsequent gatherings have taken place in Rio de Janeiro in 1997; Rome in 2000; Manila, Philippines, in 2003; Valencia, Spain, in 2006; Mexico City in 2009; and Milan in 2012.
The Philadelphia gathering -- destined to be far larger than hosts first anticipated -- will be the first attended by Pope Francis. Its theme is "Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive," inspired by the words of the early church father, St. Irenaeus, who said that "the glory of God is man fully alive."
"In like manner," said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, "the glory of men and women is their capacity to love as God loves. And rarely can that love be lived out more intimately and fruitfully than in the family."
Noted speakers, including cardinals, archbishops, men and women religious and numerous leaders in their respective fields tied to family ministry, will address those gathered for the meeting on topics that include: unity, divorce, extended separation, finances, dating, interfaith and ecumenical marriage, infertility, religious vocations, urban issues, women's roles, disabilities, environmental stewardship, parish support, technology, Catholic social teaching, forgiveness, the elderly and domestic violence.
Mindful that the church does not operate in a societal vacuum, the event will have ecumenical and interfaith representation (and speakers), and discussion.
"Our gathering in Philadelphia is open to all who have a generous heart," said Archbishop Chaput last November in welcoming Pope Francis' decision to attend the conference. "It has the power to transform, in deeply positive ways, not just the spirit of Catholic life in our region, but of our entire community. It will be a moment unlike any other."
Archbishop Chaput said the "most important thing that can happen" at the gathering "is conversion." "Families," he said, "can become a force of change for good."
Noteworthy is the conference's timing, less than two weeks ahead of the world Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican.
The Oct. 4-25 synod this year is expected to devote each of its three weeks to a particular focus: listening to the challenges families face, discerning the vocation of the family and the mission of the family today.
Thus, the Philadelphia meeting offers another opportunity for church leadership to hear from the entire church community. In the words of Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, the meeting will help enable "the debate at the ordinary synod."
"Catholic families have a key role in God's healing of a broken world," added Archbishop Chaput. "So let's pray ... that the World Meeting of Families 2015 will become for each of us and all of Philadelphia a new Pentecost; a new birth of the church in each of our hearts ... for our own salvation, the salvation of our families and the redemption of the world."
Nelson is former editor of The Tidings, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.