Don’t forget the World Meeting of Families

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Pilgrims from Western Washington joined Pope Francis ‘to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family’

By now, Pope Francis’ September visit to the United States (and the World Meeting of Families that prompted it) might feel like ancient history, but for the Western Washington pilgrims who traveled to Philadelphia for the occasion, it was an experience that will long remain vivid in their minds.

That’s the way Pope Francis would want it. As he prepared to board his plane back to Rome at the end of the trip, the pope expressed his hope that “our days together” would bear lasting fruit, and that the enthusiasm of the week would not run dry: “I pray that our days of prayer and reflection on the importance of the family for a healthy society will inspire families to continue to strive for holiness.”

Much of the media buzz around the pope’s U.S. trip focused on his addresses to a joint session of Congress and the General Assembly of the United Nations, in which he took up hot-button political issues including immigration, poverty and climate change. But the main purpose of the visit, the pope said, was to attend the Eighth World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, “to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family at this, a critical moment in the history of our civilization.”

‘Love Is Our Mission’

The Archdiocese of Seattle’s official pilgrimage group of 16 flew out from Seattle Sept. 21 for the world meeting, and another 22 joined them for the pope’s weekend in Philadelphia Sept. 26–27.

It was a diverse little group: men and women, ages 2 to 82, married, single, divorced and widowed, cradle Catholics and converts, clergy and laity, children, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. But all were drawn by a desire to see Pope Francis and a hope that the world meeting would be of help in building up the family.

Sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family, the world meeting has been held every three years since Pope John Paul II initiated it in 1994. This year’s meeting, with the theme “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” was the largest ever, with more than 20,000 registered participants from more than 100 countries, said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.

The majority were laypeople young and old, but the massive Pennsylvania Convention Center also swarmed with an incredible (and encouraging) number of cardinals and bishops, priests in Roman collars and religious sisters in bright flowing habits.

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‘We need to reenergize our families’

“Like drinking from a fire hose” is the way several pilgrims described trying to take in and process everything on tap at the world meeting, which was like a four-day pep rally/conference for families, with enormous daily Masses, six keynote addresses and 73 breakout sessions covering all facets of family life. There was a general consensus among the pilgrims that three of the keynote speakers were especially powerful.

In his opening address Sept. 22, Bishop Robert Barron spoke of our increasingly secular world’s need for “families that pray together, that go to Mass together, parents that bless their kids before they go to bed at night, families where a sense of mission among the children is cultivated … where basic moral truths are taught and, above all, lived … where the virtues are cultivated.” Afterward, Deacon Ray Biersbach of Holy Rosary Parish in Edmonds said, “That talk alone was worth the trip and the admission.”

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In his talk “The Family: A Home for the Wounded Heart,” Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila, Philippines, showed why he’s been called the “Asian Francis,” with a charisma and a concern for the suffering and marginalized reminiscent of the pope’s. “All people are wounded,” he said. “There are different types of wounds, some physical, some spiritual, some emotional, some relational, some financial.” If we let them, he said, our wounds can make us “avenues of understanding, compassion, solidarity and love.”

In the closing keynote Sept. 25, megachurch pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, said Christians need to “revitalize our worship, we need to minimize our differences, we need to mobilize our members, we need to evangelize the lost, and we need to reenergize our families.” He listed five marks of “joy-filled families”: They are based on the love of God, they are built on purpose, they focus on becoming like Christ, they serve together, and they fulfill their mission.

‘One whole big humongous family’

Much as the Seattle pilgrims enjoyed the talks at the world meeting, for many, the high point of the week was the Sept. 27 Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with Pope Francis and an estimated crowd of nearly 900,000.

Even amid the crush of so many strangers, there was a sense that those in attendance were “all really connected in unity as one whole big humongous family,” said Vui Nguyen, a pilgrim from Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Seattle. The mother of seven said the week had inspired her and her husband, Tien Le, to re-examine their priorities. “We know that we’ve got to change the way we live our life, to make our family the focus.”

At the close of the Mass, it was announced that the next World Meeting of Families would be held in 2018 in Dublin. “I hope I’m living long enough to go to Ireland!” said 82-year-old Doris Lundgren of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Bothell. 

After the final blessing, Pope Francis added a few words that seemed to sum up the week: “God bless you all. Thank you very much for your participation and for your love for the family. And I ask you, pray for me. Don’t forget!”  

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Northwest Catholic assistant editor Kevin Birnbaum traveled to Philadelphia to cover the Archdiocese of Seattle’s pilgrimage to the World Meeting of Families. Read his blog posts on the pilgrimage at

Watch the keynotes

The World Meeting of Families featured an exceptional slate of keynote speakers: Bishop Robert Barron, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Helen Alvaré, Juan Francisco de la Guardia Brin and Gabriela N. de la Guardia, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Rick Warren and Cardinal Seán O’Malley. You can watch all the keynote addresses at (search “World Meeting of Families”).

Pope Francis on the family

In his Sept. 23 meeting with U.S. bishops in Washington, D.C., Pope Francis told them, “I appreciate the unfailing commitment of the church in America to the cause of life and that of the family, which is the primary reason for my present visit.” Throughout his U.S. trip, Pope Francis spoke frequently of the family, voicing his joys, concerns and hopes, and offering encouragement, challenges and advice. Here are a few of the highlights:

“How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.” Address to Congress, Sept. 24

“All the love God has in himself, all the beauty God has in himself, all the truth God has in himself, he entrusts to the family. A family is truly a family when it is capable of opening its arms to receive all that love.” Festival of Families, Philadelphia, Sept. 26

“For the church, the family is not first and foremost a cause for concern, but rather the joyous confirmation of God’s blessing upon the masterpiece of creation. Every day, all over the world, the church can rejoice in the Lord’s gift of so many families who, even amid difficult trials, remain faithful to their promises and keep the faith!” Meeting with bishops, Philadelphia, Sept. 27

“Many young people … are afraid, deep down, paralyzed before the beautiful, noble and truly necessary challenges. Many put off marriage while waiting for ideal conditions, when everything can be perfect. Meanwhile, life goes on, without really being lived to the full. For knowledge of life’s true pleasures only comes as the fruit of a long-term, generous investment of our intelligence, enthusiasm and passion.” Meeting with bishops, Philadelphia, Sept. 27

“I leave you with a question for each of you to answer. … At home do we shout at one another, or do we speak with love and tenderness? This is a good way of measuring our love.” Closing Mass, Philadelphia, Sept. 27

To read all Pope Francis’ speeches and homilies from his U.S. trip, visit

 Northwest Catholic - November 2015

Kevin Birnbaum

Kevin Birnbaum is the editor/associate publisher of Northwest Catholic and a member of Seattle’s Blessed Sacrament Parish. Contact him at

Kevin Birnbaum es el editor de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic y miembro de la Parroquia del Sagrado Sacramento en Seattle. Pueden contactarle en: