Pope Francis’ message on faith, family hits home

In their words: The home is seen as a place to heal spiritual, physical, emotional wounds

By Suzanne Erpenbach

News that Pope Francis would be coming to the United States, partly to be present for the World Meeting of Families, excited people across the world.

The Diocese of Knoxville responded to the tremendous enthusiasm, with its bishop, cardinal, priests, deacons, and laity joining Pope Francis on each leg of his historic U.S. visit culminating with Masses in Philadelphia to celebrate the world’s families. Seventy-two parishioners registered to join the five-day pilgrimage to Philadelphia.

Preparations began months before departure as pilgrims focused toward the religious experience with prayer, reading, reflection, presentations, e-mails, planning for long days with much walking, and gathering prayer petitions to be carried to each Mass.

Week by week anticipation and excitement increased. Early on the morning of Sept. 23 pilgrims met for Mass before boarding a bus to begin the journey to Philadelphia, picking up other pilgrims in the Tri- Cities in route.

Notre Dame High School students and their spiritual chaperones are shown on the pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families.

The pilgrimage group was quite eclectic, with ages ranging from 3 to 86. Two priests, three deacons and wives, five Hispanic religious sisters, several diocesan staff, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, single travelers, and a young family all were pilgrims in our group. Both English and Spanish were spoken. For many, the pilgrimage was viewed as a single lifetime opportunity to see a pope.

The first morning began our two days at the World Meeting of Families conference. Entering the convention center we observed people in a variety of languages and dress, with signs, displays, banners of nations, and exhibits. There also were T-shirts with a plethora of messages. People had traveled from more than 100 countries, with more than 20,000 people registered to attend the conference. Religious sisters were wearing habits of different orders. All came to celebrate faith and families.

Many families brought infants and children to the conference. Strollers, wheelchairs, motorized chairs, walkers, canes and arm-in-arm assistance enabled many to attend and participate. All created a memorable impression of how families exist and offer support to one another.

The pilgrims from around the world attended daily Mass, keynote addresses, numerous breakout sessions and exhibits. Presentations were in various languages or were transcribed.

Each day began with 90 or more cardinals and bishops processing together for Mass, creating a magnificent representation of leadership in the universal Church. Many priests also vested to assist in distributing Communion.

Mass homilies and other presentations focused on varied issues related to family, the Church and global life.

Participants in the conference were able to share in creating an artistic mural, serve as volunteers and package food to feed more than 100,000 people in Philadelphia to see Pope Francis and attend his Masses. Another segment of the conference was for youth. Children, too, had special activities to enjoy each day.

Dominican Sisters with Notre Dame High
School check their WMOF itineraries with backpacks in tow.

Messages shared during the two-day conference recognized the family as the infrastructure of the Church, with Vatican II viewing the family as the “small church.”

Many issues of today were noted to reflect problems within the family. The base of the family was recognized as marriage, with married couples bonded in life together and called to holiness.

Marriage was reflected not as being a contract, but as a covenant of new creation, with moral and sacramental bonding. Several times in presentations the role of the father of a family was featured as being highly significant toward family member attendance and participation in church.

Pilgrims were urged repeatedly to tell stories that pass on experiences and heritage of both faith and family. The home was recognized as the place for healing the varied kinds of wounds (physical, spiritual, emotional) of the heart, noting that all people have wounds that affect the family. The Church was observed to be a “field hospital” to help heal, share sacraments, give response, and offer hope.

Other comments noted how joy-filled families serve together, making contributions and living the mission of love. The beauty of family life and joy were recognized as the best tools to evangelization, with the family being “the school of love.”

Families were encouraged to be missionaries passing on faith to generations, using the way of life as a means of changing the course of history. Families also were encouraged to gather around home and Eucharistic tables together.

With so many notes from presentations and experiences from the conference, our pilgrim group spent the Friday afternoon of Sept. 25 touring the Shrines of St. John Neumann and St. Rita.

Saturday, Sept. 26, and Sunday, Sept. 27, served as the highlight of the pilgrimage, with the long-awaited anticipation of seeing Pope Francis, hearing his messages, and being present for his papal Mass on Sunday. That Friday night the city changed as greater numbers of people arrived, more streets closed, and designated security stations were established. Welcoming greeters, volunteers and great numbers of security personnel were everywhere.

Wearing orange caps, our pilgrims left the hotel early each morning to claim spots to see Pope Francis and enjoy festivities of the day.

People were observed picnicking, playing cards, reading, sleeping, sharing conversations

and making new acquaintances while waiting for the pope’s arrival.

Festival activities included singers, musicians, a comedian, choirs, bell players, dancers, videos, testimonials and more throughout the day and night. Forty Jumbo-tron screens enabled people to hear and observe the daily activities in and surrounding the festival area.

Pope Francis delighted the crowd with each day’s arrival as he waved, kissed babies, and smiled to all.

Thunderous clapping, photo-taking, and welcoming expressions demonstrated the crowd’s excitement.

Both days the pope’s message to families reflected love, understanding, compassion, faith, encouragement and humor to encourage and commission families. Many in our group best expressed feelings of seeing the pope, with their excitement seen in sharing photos. Others sat in quiet reflection.

Father Arthur Torres Barona and Father Colin Blatchford shared in concelebrating the papal Mass and were joined for Communion distribution by Deacons Bob Lange, Gordy Lowery and Otto Preske. Observations of tears, reverence, faith renewal, joy and outreach were witnessed during the papal Mass. The experience will forever be a special memory to those present.

Pilgrimages continue with the return home as thoughts, observations and feelings are recalled and reflected on frequently. In three years the next World Meeting of Families will be in Dublin, Ireland. Pope Francis will hopefully be present there, too. Excitement is already growing toward another amazing pilgrimage opportunity and experience.

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