By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

My wife Paula and I traveled with Mike and Tanya Venneberg from St. Gregory’s parish in Sitka to attend the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) in Philadelphia at the end of September. We were able to do so due to the generosity of Archbishop Chaput and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who provided twenty-two mission dioceses with scholarships that enabled two couples from each diocese to attend.

The World Meeting lasted from Tuesday, September 22nd until Friday, September 25th. Saturday, September 26th was the Festival of Families and the arrival of Pope Francis in Philadelphia and then on Sunday, September 27th was the Papal Mass.

There was so much to take in during that week, and I’m just beginning to process everything that I saw and experienced there. But here are a few preliminary observations and thoughts.

A woman reacts to Pope Francis' final words during the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters)
A woman reacts to Pope Francis’ final words during the closing Mass of the World Meeting of Families on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters)

It’s a Big Church Out There
Living in a small corner of Southeast Alaska, it’s easy for me to forget just how big and diverse the Church actually is. WMOF provided a revealing glimpse of the catholicity of the Church. There were 17,000 individuals, couples and families who attended from all over the world. There were three official languages (English, Spanish and French) as well as talks in Italian, Polish, Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese.

At one Mass (completely at random by the way) we found ourselves sitting next to a young married couple with children and extended family members and friends from India. We talked a little after Mass and it turned out that they were Syro-Malabar Catholics from Kerala in India (from the second largest Eastern Catholic Church.) They were members of a Catholic youth movement I’d never heard of (also from India).

Waiting for a breakout session led by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, we met a large group of about sixty Nigerian Catholics, many of whom were from Abuja, in Central Nigeria. They shared about how the Islamic extremist group has been attacking churches, and kidnapping and killing Christians in the northern region. But they also shared about how their faith is stronger than ever, despite the challenges that they face.

The Church is a Family of Families
Literally this was true of the WMOF. It really was a meeting of families, including infants, toddlers, school age children, teens, and their parents. There was a separate Youth component for the children and young people but everyone came together for Mass every day, which meant that just as at an ordinary parish Mass you couldn’t help but hear crying babies and witness parents attending to the (sometimes urgent and insistent) needs of their children. This brought a refreshing note of realism to the entire gathering and a visible reminder of the quotidian realities of lived life in our families.

But it was also a reminder that as the Holy Father has been trying to emphasize in his teaching, we live out our faith as disciples of Jesus, not as isolated individuals on a solitary spiritual quest, but within the context of marriage and family. So, it was encouraging to meet parents and children, but also fellow disciples who were single, as well as priests and men and women in consecrated life.

It was a reminder, too, that we don’t choose our families, but they are providentially chosen for us. In a similar way, it was apparent that this family of families, God’s holy Church, is made up of people we would never choose as brothers and sisters but who are our brothers and sisters nonetheless. And we are the richer for it.

Let’s Have a Party!
While we were there, I read a news story about the Holy Father’s visit to the United States that noted he was coming to Philadelphia at the conclusion of the WMOF, which it dismissively characterized as a “Catholic jamboree.” The dictionary defines a jamboree as “a large celebration or party, typically a lavish and boisterous one,” which is pretty close to what went on in Philly both during the week and the weekend of the Holy Father’s visit.

The tone of the many keynote talks and breakout sessions was positive and upbeat. Yes, there was a variety of talks about the various challenges that marriage and family life face worldwide and in our own society. But overall the message and the event itself was joyful and emphasized the gift that God has given us in our husbands and wives, in our parents and children and in our families.

Things didn’t get too boisterous – after all, the State of Pennsylvania had called the National Guard to patrol the streets for the Pope’s visit!

God’s Overwhelming Abundance
The grand finale of the week was the outdoor Mass with the Holy Father on the city parkway (an enormous mall stretching from City Hall to the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Deacons had been asked to gather at the cathedral, about a mile or so from the altar where the Pope would preside. So Paula and I, along with the 400 or so deacons waiting before Mass. didn’t think we’d see the Pope in person. But he decided to drop by and make a stop at the Cathedral to visit (he got out of his pope-mobile to look at a structure erected outside the building onto which thousands of people had attached cloth streamers on which they had written prayer intentions.) So we saw the Holy Father after all!

But for me the high point of the entire week came at communion time at the Papal Mass. I had the privilege of distributing Holy Communion to some of those who had come from around the world to the Holy Father’s Mass. I was reminded of something that Dr. Carolyn Woo, the Executive Director of Catholic Relief Services, had said earlier in the week. She noted that life is good and that everything is premised on the generosity of God, who showers us with an abundance of good gifts. What a privilege, what a joy, to be a minister of God’s most abundant and generous gift, His own Son. As I looked at each person coming forward, I thought, how beloved by God are his holy people. What a gift for the Church and for the world are our families and children.

– Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 x 23.  Email: charlesr@gci.net