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Happily Even After

Family Travel

July 12, 2010

We just undertook a somewhat convoluted “vacation” over the course of twelve days, two states and eight legs of plane travel.  Gratefully the children were only a part of four of the legs of the plane trips.

Joshua and I were interested in attending a conference at Notre Dame for work.  As we live thousands of miles from our family and anyone we could consider leaving the children with for more than one overnight, we weren’t particularly optimistic that it would work out until I spoke with my mother.  She suggested that we take a vacation around the dates of the conference in Florida where they live.  We would fly down some days ahead of the conference, then leave the children with them to head north to South Bend, and then return to Florida to “pick them up” on the way home.

I suppose this is what our lives have come to living in such a spread out society.  Folks live and work in the same towns, cities and states as their parents and siblings far less frequently.  We don’t live in the same town (or state) in which either of us grew up.  Yet we are both very close with our families.  One of our largest financial investments is in plane tickets to visit them.  And even though it isn’t the same as living across town, they are eager to fill the same roles with our children as they might if we were much closer.  Enter mom’s suggestion.

One fantastic and unanticipated bonus to her plan was that some very dear friends of ours from graduate school were willing and interested in meeting us in Florida for the first part of our stay.  The five of them, seminarians in grad school, are all now ordained Holy Cross priests.  Yes, we took our family vacation with my parents, all our children and five of the greatest, most enjoyable men we know.  That was the good news to the vacation plan.

The challenging flipside to the plan was that because of the time of year, our children were still in school. Unfortunately we didn’t make that connection until after plane tickets had been purchased.  Seriously…what parent “accidentally” takes their third grader out of school for 9 days of school so they can go on vacation?  Me, the bad parent sitting over here.  You should have seen Josh’s and my faces when we made the connection.  A great photojournalism opportunity there. 

In the end the plan worked out beautifully.  The family had unforgettable times on the beach in Florida with the guys (including daily mass with 5 concelebrants), Josh and I got to experience a wonderful Symposium at Notre Dame while the children enjoyed grandparent time, and Oscar’s teacher and school were incredibly accomodating.  He brought all his books with us and worked a little each day.  In the end, I suppose it was a little flavor of home schooling for him.

The universality of this fine-tuned, twenty-first century version of family bonding got thrown into crystal clear relief for me when we were on our last leg of the journey home to Portland.  Sweet Simon (4) was doing a super job on the plane, enjoying some cartoons on the direct TV in the headrest in front of him.  They had already illuminated the fasten seatbelt sign for our decent and the turbulence had started, when he turns to me and says, “Mommy, I’m going to throw up.”  Now, how many generations of mothers have had exactly the same experience with a young child?  Maybe it was in a car instead of a plane, or even a covered wagon for that matter (we do live in Oregon).  But is family life so very different now? 

How did it end? Well, I couldn’t pull the plane over and open the door for him and I couldn’t even get up and take him to the bathroom.  But I did manage to grab the motion sickness bag before he started…and then another (that’s right, for a total of three bags)…and Josh managed to get in our stowed carry-on for the wet wipes, handing them to me across the aisle and taking filled bags in exchange.  When all was said and done, there wasn’t a spot on any of us and Simon turned to me and said, “Ok Mommy, I feel better.”  That’s what I call a successful family vacation.

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Family Pilgrimage

Family Pilgrimage

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.


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