World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia: a primer

Pope Francis talks with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia during his general audience Wednesday in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)
This article appears in the World Meeting of Families feature series. View the full series.

It's official. The pope is coming to the World Meeting of Families, which will be held Sept. 22-27, 2015, in Philadelphia. This will be Pope Francis' first visit to the United States. New York City and Washington, D.C., also hope to host the pope, as does the United Nations, but no decisions beyond Philadelphia have yet been made.

The visit has been widely anticipated. Popes have frequently gone to the World Meeting of Families, which have taken place around the world every three years since 1994. The meetings are organized by the local host diocese together with the Pontifical Council for the Family. The last one was in Milan in 2012 and had 1 million people at the concluding papal Mass.

The meeting also fits in well with Pope Francis' desire to have a yearlong conversation in the church about family in preparation for the Synod of Bishops in October 2015.

Based on past experience, the meeting will have a threefold character: catechesis, celebration, and prayer.


Preparation for the catechetical or teaching portion of World Meeting of Families is already in full swing. The Philadelphia archdiocese has commissioned a preparatory catechism, Love is Our Mission: The Family Full Alive (Our Sunday Visitor, $9.95), which is available in English and Spanish with elementary and high school lesson plans.

According to the gathering's website, the catechism is "a collection of what Catholics believe about human purpose, marriage, and the family. The catechesis, like the World Meeting of Families, is for people of all ages at all stages of life." It presents "what the Catholic Church traditionally teaches, so this is not new teaching," but it emphasizes that "love is our mission, and it is by loving God and one another that we will be fully alive."

The topics of the catechism, as described on the gathering's website, will be reflected in the themes of the meeting:

1. Created for Joy. We are more than an accident of evolution. We are greater than the sum of our biology. God exists. He is good. He loves us. He made us in his image to share in his joy. He takes an active hand in our lives. He sent his only Son to restore our dignity and lead us home to him.

2. The Mission of Love. God works through us. We have a mission. We are in the world for a purpose -- to receive God's love and to show God's love to others. God seeks to heal a broken universe. He asks us to be his witnesses and helpers in that work.

3. The Meaning of Human Sexuality. The tangible, earthly, corporeal world is more than inert matter or modeling clay for the human will. Creation is sacred. It has sacramental meaning. It reflects God's glory. That includes our bodies. Our sexuality has the power to procreate, and shares in the dignity of being created in the image of God. We need to live accordingly.

4. Two Become One. We are not made to be alone. Human beings need and complete each other. Friendship and community satisfy that longing with bonds of common interest and love. Marriage is a uniquely intimate form of friendship that calls a man and a woman to love each other in the manner of God's covenant. Marriage is a Sacrament. Married love is fruitful and offered without reservation. This love is in the image of Jesus's faithfulness to the Church.

5. Creating the Future. Marriage is meant to be fertile and welcome new life. Children shape the future, just as they themselves are shaped in their families. Without children, there can be no future. Children reared with love and guidance are the foundation for a loving future. Wounded children portend a wounded future. Families are the bedrock for all larger communities. Families are domestic churches, places where parents help children discover that God loves them and has a plan for each child's life.

6. All Love Bears Fruit. Not everyone is called to marriage. But every life is meant to be fertile. Every life has the power and the need to nurture new life -- if not through bearing and raising children, then through other vital forms of self-giving, building and service. The Church is an extended family of different vocations, each distinct but each needing and supporting the others. Priesthood, religious life and the celibate lay vocation to enrich, and are enriched by, the witness of the married state. The different ways of being chaste and celibate outside of marriage are ways of donating one's life to God's service and the human community.

7. Light in a Dark World. At its best, the family is a school of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, mutual respect, patience and humility in the midst of a world darkened by selfishness and conflict. In these ways, the family teaches what it means to be human. However, many temptations arise which try to coax us into forgetting that male and female are created for covenant and communion. For example, poverty, affluence, pornography, contraception, philosophical and other intellectual mistakes can all create contexts that challenge or threaten healthy family life. The Church resists these things for the sake of protecting the family.

8. A Home for the Wounded Heart. Many people, especially today, face painful situations resulting from poverty, disability, illness and addictions, unemployment, and the loneliness of advanced age. But divorce and same-sex attraction impact the life of the family in different but powerful ways. Christian families and networks of families should be sources of mercy, safety, friendship and support for those struggling with these issues.

9. Mother, Teacher, Family: The Nature and Role of the Church. The Church has institutional forms because she must work in the world. But that does not exhaust her essence. The Church is the Bride of Christ, a "she," not an "it." In the words of Saint John XXIII, she is our mother and teacher, our comforter and guide, our family of faith. Even when her people and leaders sin, we still need the Church's wisdom, Sacraments, support and proclamation of the truth, because she is the body of Jesus himself in the world; the family of God's people writ large.

10. Choosing Life. God made us for a reason. His love is our life mission. This mission enables us to find our true identity. If we choose to embrace this mission, we will have a new perspective on many issues, not just the family. To live the mission of the domestic church means that Catholic families will sometimes live as minorities, with different values than their surrounding culture. Our mission of love will require courage and fortitude. Jesus is calling, and we can respond, choosing lives of faith, hope, charity, joy, service, and mission.

There will also be catechetical instruction during the meeting. Keynote speakers will set a theme to be followed by breakout sessions led by other speakers. The preliminary agenda includes:

  • Fr. Robert Barron, "Living as the Image of God: Created for Joy and Love"
  • Cardinal Sean O'Malley, "The Light of the Family in a Dark World"
  • Helen Alvaré, "Creating the Future: The Fertility of Christian Love"
  • Juan Francisco de la Guardia Brin and Gabriela N. de la Guardia, "A Gift from God: The Meaning of Human Sexuality"
  • Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, "The Family: A Home for the Wounded Heart"
  • Cardinal Robert Sarah, "The Joy of the Gospel of Life"

There does not appear to be any space in the program for open discussion of family issues in the spirit that Pope Francis encouraged at last month's synod. None of the breakout leaders are on the cutting edge of theological discussions today. No local theologians from St. Joseph's University or Villanova University were invited to speak. Nor does Catholic social teaching appear to be a major component of the catechesis.

Celebration and prayer

The World Meeting of Families is more than an educational event. It is also a celebration of family life, families, and their contribution to the world. Catholics do like to party, and Catholic families from all over the world will gather in Philadelphia to celebrate with their own distinctive styles and customs but still as members of the same Catholic family we call church.

Part of that celebration will be in prayer and liturgy with Mass each day. It is presumed that the pope will celebrate the final Mass on Sept. 25.

[Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese is a senior analyst for NCR and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @ThomasReeseSJ.]

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