As soon as Stacey and I learned that the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) was coming to Philadelphia, we decided to attend with our three children. It was a no-brainer for us.
Since it was first convened in 1994 by Pope St. John Paul II, the WMOF is held every three years and is the world’s largest Catholic gathering of families. We both had moving experiences attending World Youth Days, so we had great hopes.
My experience of World Youth Day in 1993 profoundly shaped my understanding and relationship with the universal Church—simply being in the same space with thousands, even millions, of Catholics from around the world changed how I thought about being Catholic. I think that when we look back at the WMOF, we will say the same thing about its impact on our family.
At every turn this past week, we were surrounded by Catholic families from around the world. Our children met kids from Paraguay, Brazil, Louisiana, California, Argentina, and Texas. We heard world-class speakers while sitting next to parents changing diapers. Above all of the theology and Scripture and ideas that were shared, we were most moved by simply being with so many other Catholic families. We were pilgrims, but we felt at home.
Pilgrimages are a way to invest our lives and bodies in our faith. This week, we set out on a journey, put our feet on the road, and sought a deeper connection to God and others. Our main goal in this experience was to spend time together encountering the Church. Our time has not been without its share of meltdowns and angst—what family travels perfectly?—but we returned with good memories and a recommitment to one another.
Though we took in the sights of Philadelphia (we liked Pat’s cheesesteaks over Geno’s, viewed Van Gogh and Monet paintings, and studied Ben Franklin’s experiments), we traveled first as pilgrims. We packed lunches and walked long distances. We ran out of peanut butter and band aids. Our hotel room smelled of sweaty socks. We all had our moments of frustration and discomfort, but it was enriching to be on the same journey together. We returned more seasoned in the faith and bonded to one another.
There were two refrains in many of the talks we heard—including Pope Francis’—and they offered a solid theological grounding for family life. First, the Trinity: God is a communion of persons; we are created in this likeness; therefore, we are created for love and relationship, which is most fully realized in family life. Second, the Book of Genesis is rich in imagery that proclaims who we are and how God made us for one another. Relationship—especially in the family—is how we learn and practice love.
“Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love,” Pope Francis said in his homily at the concluding Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. “That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.”
I’ve been savoring that last line for a few days now: the family is where faith becomes life, and life becomes faith.
The motto for this WMOF was, “Love is our mission.” Our family took this to heart by huddling several times a day, placing our hands together, and calling out, “What is our mission?! Love’s our mission!”
The best advice I took from the meeting came from Greg and Lisa Popcak. They are well-known Catholic authors and speakers, and we’ve come to rely on their books in navigating parenthood. They said that every family should play, pray, work, and talk together. They suggested doing these four things every day for at least 10 minutes, and for an hour each at least once a week.
Talking, especially, is fundamental—on average, families share only 15 minutes a day together. Spending time together having conversations of depth is essential in grounding the family as the primary relationship in our lives. That is how family becomes a school of love, a “factory of hope,” in the words of Pope Francis.
Speaking of the pope—it was thrilling to see him. I was excited that our kids were so excited. We held our two youngest on our shoulders to see him drive by in his pope-mobile; we all waved and cheered. I was grateful for our children to have a personal connection—even if quick—with the head of the universal Church. It unified us with the crowd and with Catholics around the world.
At the opening of the World Meeting of Families, Archbishop Chaput (who confirmed me) said that the gathering would accomplish the purpose God intended for it if it renewed our commitment to one another as a family, and our awareness of the fundamental role of the family in society. It has certainly done that.