Celebrating familial love at the World Meeting of Families

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From Sept. 21-26, 15,000 Catholics from around the globe flooded the Pennsylvania Convention Center in downtown Philadelphia to talk and hear about love - specifically, familial love. Aptly named the World Meeting of Families, the congress focused on society's essential unit and its power to change and uplift society, while also providing opportunities for families to pray, volunteer and otherwise bond with each other.

"I matter, you matter," said Helen Alvaré, one of WMOF's keynote speakers, quoting a popular line in G.K. Chesterton's "Father Brown" mystery novels. The George Mason University law professor added, "It's the hardest thing in theology to believe," and explained that family love contributes to a greater love, patience and understanding for mankind.

She stood before a massive exhibit hall packed with priests, nuns and laypeople, with or without children sitting in their laps or in strollers beside them. They came in the many colors, shapes, sizes and ages represented by the universal Catholic Church. Alvaré said that the love learned and practiced in everyday situations with strangers only can happen if love is learned and practiced at home, whether with younger siblings or aging relatives. It was a sentiment repeatedly expressed over the course of the week.

This year's WMOF theme was "Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive." Originating in 1994 under Pope John Paul II, the conference was book-ended by Pope Francis' arrival in Washington and his trip to Philadelphia. All 15,000 WMOF registrants received tickets to see the Holy Father on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway Sept. 26-27.

In his welcome letter to WMOF participants, Pope Francis wrote, "The mission of the Christian family, today as yesterday, is that of proclaiming to the world, by the power of the Sacrament of Marriage, the love of God. From this very proclamation a living family is born and built, one which sets the hearth of love at the center of its human and spiritual dynamism."

This year's WMOF keynote speakers also included Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, Cardinal Robert Sarah prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Filipino Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, and Boston Cardinal Seán Patrick O'Malley. Their presentations were simultaneously interpreted via audience headsets in English, Spanish, American Sign Language, French, Italian and Vietnamese for the diverse audience.

Breakout sessions, many delivered in various languages, focused on a range of practical issues for parents, grandparents and adult children. Topics ranged from fostering vocations in the home to accommodating relatives and parishioners with disabilities to Mormon family principles. Workshops also touched upon sexuality, divorce and church teachings.

While adults partook in workshops, the Youth Congress kept children ages 6 to 17 occupied with activities related to the WMOF preparatory catechesis. The congress closed for lunch everyday, allowing parents to be reunited with their children before returning for the afternoon session.

WMOF participants had the chance to opt out of presentations and workshops to pack food for families overseas; visit an exhibit of historical documents, Bibles and prayer books curated by the Museum of the Bible; contribute to a Pope Francis inspired paint-by-numbers mural that has tentatively broken a Guinness record; and browse international Catholic vendors. Mass and adoration also took place throughout the congress.

"I invite you to fulfill your commitment to proclaim the Gospel of marriage and of family and to experience the pastoral proposals in the social and cultural context in which you live," continued Pope Francis in his WMOF letter. "The challenges of this context should stimulate you to enlarge the space afforded to faithful love open to life, to communion, to mercy, to sharing and to solidarity."

Stoddard can be reached at cstoddard@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015