Report of Fr Duncan McVicar & Fr Andrew Pastore SI
Introduction: “You guys are going to kill this city!”
Representing the Diocese of Salford at the World Meeting of Families 2015 in Philadelphia USA was a honour and unique experience for both of us. We arrived on Sunday morning, unpacked and found our accommodation. As we went for a walk down one of the busiest streets, a young man came in the opposite direction and as he walked past Fr Andrew, he coyly said: “You guys are going to kill this city!” He meant that as Philadelphia was expecting 15000 participants from over 100 countries (eventually that number rose to 20,000) arriving in the city – Christian families, priests and religious from practically every community – for the World Meeting of Families and then an estimated 1 million for the Papal Mass with Pope Francis, the “mood” and atmosphere of Philadelphia would change somewhat: A little more light in the dark, a little more hope in despair, a way forward instead of a dead end, a message of renewal instead of “throwaway culture”. The poor passerby seemed threatened by the thought of too many Christians descending on the city even if only for a week. The effect seemed to almost be “unbearable” for him.
The World Meeting of Families offered an impressive “menu” of talks, break-out sessions, exhibitions and very creative projects and initiatives for marriage and family pastoral care. Bishop Robert Barron began with an impressive reminder of the meaning and consequences of being created “in the image and likeness of God” – an urgent call to mission and responsibility. He reinforced the concern that too many Catholics around the world have lost their sense of mission. The family – as the basic cell of society – is the privileged place where the “image of God” is brought to life. There, in our homes – the Church in miniature – we are taught to put the challenge of Baptism into life: We are “priests, prophets and kings”. As priests we should worship the right things and put God ﬁrst in our lives, as false worship always leads to deep pain; as prophets we are called to live for the truth and not to impose our subjective whims on reality; and as kings we are called to “go on campaign” and sanctify the world around us.
The world-renowned Scott Hahn electriﬁed the massive audience with the signiﬁcance of the marriage covenant: The Bible starts and ﬁnishes with the witness of a marriage. Genesis tells the story of the ﬁrst marriage in human history with Adam and Eve and the Book of Revelation ﬁnishes with the promise of the wedding feast of the Lamb and his Bride. Marriage is the earthly image of heavenly love and all of creation takes part in this marriage covenant of love. For example, the Song of Songs promises a love that is stronger than death, St Paul in Ephesians deﬁnes marriage as the icon of Christ’s love for his Bride, the Church. The reality of the covenant in marriage makes marriage possible in the ﬁrst place – it offers sacramental grace that can turn sinners into saints and offers the experience of mercy, which always leads to conversion. Catholic families are called to live out that grace which is “locked up” in this unique sacrament.
Rev Rick Warren, an Evangelical Minister, appeared on stage with Cardinal O’Mally of Boston. The Pope had invited Pastor Warren to speak at the extraordinary synod of bishops on the family in Rome last year. There joint presentation was a witness to the fact that we must work with others to safeguard the family and that good practice can be found in very different areas. Warren spoke about the joy of the Gospel life. He inspired the audience to work towards joy-ﬁlled families as one of the greatest “tools” of the new evangelisation. Joy-ﬁlled families base their lives on the love of God, they share a clear purpose and believe that they are made for God, they want to be like Christ and look towards character more than comfort, they serve together and they feel sent out on a mission and want to share God with others (See Acts 20:24).
The Break-out Session with Christopher West couldn’t be missed. To a packed audience, he delivered an action-packed presentation on “3D Evangelisation”: The signiﬁcance of our human desires, the roadmap of God’s design in how he created us and the inspiration of our destiny in heaven. The whole Bible is, from beginning to end, a love story, If we don’t understand this, we can’t understand faith. Salvation history is a story about marriage – a spousal story – and all of creation sings this love song. This reality is made visible in our own bodies.
An original and enthusiastic speaker was, for example, Chris Stefanick, who as a husband and father of six children, spoke about every parent’s priority – to convey the Good News of the Gospel in their own home, to their own children. Parents are called to be “heralds” of a message that we hunger for: The message that God is real and this gives us meaning and purpose, that God loves us unconditionally and our “hearts are restless until they ﬁnd rest” in him, and that because humanity rejected God’s love, we have become broken and are in need of a new beginning. The mission and unique importance of marriage and the family was evident and very present throughout all of the keynote speeches and break-out sessions. It was also celebrated and brought into music and prayer in the beautiful celebrations of the Mass and liturgy throughout the week.
From beginning to end, the Church in Philadelphia, under the leadership of Archbishop Charles Chaput, made every possible effort to make all their guests from over 100 countries welcome and completely at home. The atmosphere was joyful and family-spirited. You felt “taken care of” throughout the Conference and event: Volunteers in bright orange t-shirts were on hand for every question and request, the organisation and planning was exceptionally well-done – everything was of a high quality with a great deal of thought and preparation. The exhibition halls were full of booths, demonstrating the Church’s “good practice” in the ﬁelds of marriage and family life. Information, books, projects, initiatives, music, ﬁlms, crafts, jewelry overﬂowed aisle after aisle, so that it was quite impossible to see it all and take it all in.
Without doubt, the arrival of Pope Francis at the end of the Conference was an amazing and, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. He had a grueling and hugely demanding programme of talking to priests and religious, bishops and seminarians, prisoners, Philadelphia on ﬁre. Pope Francis was “everywhere” – posters, banners, T shirts, souvenirs and a continuous, unprecedented reporting on television brought the consistent message that his visit will have a deep and lasting signiﬁcance. The Papal Mass on Sunday to end his visit to the USA became for so many a life-changing event.
Injection of enthusiasm
The focus of the Church on the priority of marriage and family was not only a breath of fresh air, but it gave the Church a so-needed “injection of enthusiasm”.Certainly everyone who left Philadelphia at the end of the week was inspired by the Gospel that was proclaimed there. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia did exceptionally well and should be congratulated for what they achieved, after years of planning. We look forward to the next World Meeting of Families in 2018 in Dublin – but, without any doubt, Philadelphia will be a hard act to follow. We met a group representing the Church in Scotland, led by the Bishop of Paisley, John Keenan. We did not meet any other delegations from England and Wales. There is so much to be learned at these gatherings. There is a lot of good practice that could be picked up from the Americans. It would be good that the Church in England and Wales is well represented in the upcoming 2018 conference in Dublin – to also share the riches we have and experience.
Father Duncan McVicar SI and Father Andrew Pastore SI