Last fall I decided I wanted to attend the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. I felt that with Seattle seemingly always on the cutting edge of moral change, I wanted to see if the rest of the world was as far down the primrose path as we on the west coast of the US seemed to be.
More than 20,000 pilgrims from more than 100 countries attended the six-day event, held in Philadelphia’s enormous and handsome Convention Center. Delegates came in every shape, size, and race and spoke a wide range of languages. Every state of life was represented: priests, seminarians, deacons, religious sisters and brothers, married, divorced, widowed, single. And while the majority of participants were Catholic, there were a noticeable minority of non-Catholic attendees and presenters. All ages were present with those who were wheelchair-bound almost as prevalent as those in strollers. Teens and young adults were very visible, especially among the ranks of seminarians, novices, nuns, and priests, as well as young parents and newlyweds.
Even including Vatican City, I personally have never seen so many religious in habit or clergy in clericals. Zucchetti were occupying many heads; purple, red, brown, black, and blue robes abounded.
It was an amazing feeling being surrounded by believers. Seattle, where we come from, is pretty hostile to religion and religious people, with less than 30 percent of the populace churched.
In the Adoration Chapel, piety was palpable. It was always full of pilgrims. Some would sit on a chair, others on the floor. Some knelt, some stood, some were prostrate, or kneeling with forehead touching the floor. Some had rosary beads, some had breviaries, some just sat with eyes closed in the utterly silent room. There was a definite impression that for all the silence, there was a lot of active listening going on.
I spent many hours among the hundreds of exhibitors, which included publishers, religious orders, religious goods manufacturers, Catholic societies, and retreat houses. Since I work for Alleluia Catholic stores in the Seattle-Tacoma corridor, I was on the prowl for new products to offer our patrons. I was also talking to every religious order there about considering a move to Seattle, which is practically no-nun land. I told them Seattle is mission territory with its mostly unchurched citizenry, high suicide rate, legal physician-assisted suicide, and legally redefined marriage allowing same-sex unions. We need religious wearing their distinctive garb, living celibately in community, teaching our children, and caring for the elderly, the sick, the vulnerable. Families need religious, and religious need families.
You can go to the WMF website to see who the various speakers were, and there are many commentators savvier than I am who have analyzed the content of the talks. For my husband, Bishop Barron’s keynote was a high-point; he was his usual clear, enthused self. I was particularly taken by the keynote by Cardinal Sarah, experiencing insight after insight exploding in my mind. There wasn’t a poor speaker in the entire six-day conference.
Break-out sessions followed each morning and afternoon keynote, greatly enlarging the topics available. We attended several very thought-provoking talks on marriage, including a presentation by Dr. Robert George and Sherif Girgis, co-authors of the book What is Marriage?, which explored what is essential to marriage and what makes it unique in comparison with other deep friendships.
Dr. Janet Smith gave one of the few genuinely funny presentations, on her adventures in providing care for her beloved aging mother. It illustrated beautifully the family at the end of life doing its best to provide a safe and loving place for elders as their physical and mental powers decline.
My husband Rod found the workshop on Mormon practices which strengthen families to be a real eye-opener. We have close friends who are LDS, and the routines of family prayer and catechesis demonstrated by the two Mormon families in the break-out did indeed sound similar to what our friends have been successfully doing in their own family. These techniques do result in children who develop a deep understanding of their family’s beliefs, and a surprisingly mature ability to articulate those beliefs.
Rod and I felt the entire experience renewed our hope for the church’s future. The atmosphere was one of joy. 20,000 intentional Catholics in one location was a profound lesson in what the communion of saints is all about. Yes, different languages, different dress, different states of life, different ages, different levels of affluence—the differences melted away in the union of hearts. The atmosphere in the Adoration Chapel illustrated this best. The sensation of deep peace, respect, and affection was thick in that room. Christ was truly present and his people radiated his joy. We basked in his regard, and left the premises strengthened and able to sense his presence in each other.