Sunday, October 25, 2015

(162) Attending the Eighth World Meeting of Families and the Visit of Pope Adventure and a Great Experience


            The Pope did indeed turn Philadelphia upside down without even trying.  The city and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia went all out to prepare for him as though he were a superstar.  Traveling on the Pennsylvania Turnpike well over 150 miles west of Philadelphia a week before his arrival, there were electronic signs warning drivers to expect congestion on the weekend of September 26-27.  On our way to attend the wedding of a relative in northern New Jersey, we were blessed to stay at the Retreat House of the beautiful National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa (Patroness of Poland) in Doylestown, an hour away from the wedding and an hour north of Philadelphia.  Jaga worked it out with the Polish priests there.  Almost as big as the original shrine in Poland, the American Czestochowa has brought Polish Americans together and people of all ethnic backgrounds closer to Mary and her Son.

       After the wedding, we thought:  “Why not make our wedding trip into a pilgrimage retreat at a fabulous shrine, attend the World Meeting of Families September 22-25, and see Pope Francis on the weekend?”  So we commuted each day by train to downtown Philadelphia.  For once it paid off to be a senior citizen…..only a dollar each way. 

What brought Pope Francis to the United States was the Eighth World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia which attracted close to 20,000 people from all over the world in the huge Pennsylvania Convention Center which covers over three city blocks.  The purpose was to bring families together and to search for and learn about ways to strengthen the family.  The idea is that these lay men and women, priests, and religious return to their own countries to promote and strengthen families as leaders, teachers, catechists, and models of what marriage and family should be.  This is crucial because families are the building blocks of Society and all over the world the institution of Marriage and the Family are in a very serious crisis.  When the family disintegrates, Society and the whole Country will eventually disintegrate into chaos.

Pope Francis summed it all up in his message printed in the Family Guidebook for the Eighth World Meeting of Families started by Pope St. Pope John Paul II in 1994: “The mission of the Christian family, today as yesterday, is that of proclaiming to the world by the power of the Sacrament of Marriage, the love of God.  From this very proclamation a living family is born and built, one which sets the hearth of love at the center of its human and spiritual dynamism.  If, as St. Irenaeus said, ‘the glory of God is man fully alive’, then so a family, which, by the grace of the Lord, lives to the full its vocation and mission glorifies Him…….to rediscover ever again the royal road, in order to live and proclaim the grandeur and beauty of marriage and the joy of being and making a family.” 
            Each of the four daily sessions began with a Mass attended by all in a huge auditorium the size of two football fields side by side with numerous TV screens or jumbotrons.  Each liturgy was concelebrated by an army of priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals.  The entrance procession, led by an honor guard of 30 to 40 Fourth Degree Knights in full regalia, took 15-20 minutes.  We recognized Bishop Conlin and were told that Bishop Monforton was there too.  Joe Schmidt, the diocesan Marriage Ministry Coordinator, and his family were sent to represent our diocese.  Many other couples, some with children and even babies, attended from Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  The beautiful choir was accompanied by a symphonic orchestra with hymns in English, Spanish, and even Vietnamese.  Attendees had portable receivers to hear translations in Spanish, French. Italian, Portuguese, and Vietnamese.

        The Extended Holy Family with saints Ann & Joaquim, parents of Mary.
                    The painting, now in the Archdiocesan Cathedral of St. Peter & Paul                                            of Philadelphia, was created especially for the World Meeting of Families.

The theme of the Eighth World Meeting of Families is “LOVE IS OUR MISSION: the Family Fully Alive” which is “the Sanctuary of Love and Life”.  The organizers brought in nationally known speakers for keynote talks and breakout sessions with questions such as Bishop Robert Barron, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle of Manila (perhaps a future Pope), Cardinal Robert Sarrah of Africa, Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles, Dr. Scott Hahn of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, Pastor Rick Warren, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Dr. Robert George of Princeton, Dr. Timothy O’Donnell, President of Christendom College, Dr. Janet Smith of the University of Dallas, Christopher West, Dr. Gregory & Lisa Popcak, Curtis Martin of FOCUS, etc.  There were many volunteer guides to direct us to the location of each talk.  The concepts of the home as a domestic church and parents as the principal educators of the Faith were frequently emphasized.  See For videos of selected keynote and breakout talks go to
EWTN was there to cover the proceedings with live and taped interviews.  Many book publishers, lay and religious organizations as Catholic Familyland of Bloomingdale Ohio, Catholic Relief Services, Catholic Medical Association, etc., promoted their apostolates in a huge exhibition hall.    The Knights of Columbus had probably the largest exhibit space in the huge exhibition hall, giving away strong double linked rosaries blessed by Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William Lori, Vatican documents on the family, information about the Knights, etc.  They also gave away transparent backpacks to early registrants. 

           Most enjoyable and satisfying was meeting people from such countries as the Philippines, Viet Nam, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Haiti, Columbia, Peru, etc.  Knowing Spanish made it more fun.  When I passed groups of Mexicans with their common jackets, I enjoyed shouting to them “Viva Mexico; Viva la Virgen de Guadalupe”.  A Vietnamese nun related how she once feared prison for attending Mass in Viet Nam of the 70’s.  Today one can practice the faith there, but the Church is very restricted as in Cuba.  All of this gave me the insight that we are all one Church of many different cultures, races, and languages, but all united as parts of the Mystical Body of Christ in our love of the Lord, our loyalty to the Pope and the traditional family according to Church teaching.   Upon receiving the Eucharist together, we were in communion with Christ Himself and each other…….a little foretaste of Heaven.

Some of the participants in the Eighth World Meeting of Families from Africa, Asia, Latin America, Haiti, and the U.S.             

The exhibits had to be taken down for security reasons Thursday evening, a day before the close of the proceedings at the Pennsylvania Convention Hall.  All over Philadelphia there were “Welcome Pope Francis” signs.  In stores people took selfies with a life size cardboard image of Pope Francis.  On Friday most businesses were closed and the trains were on their reduced Weekend Schedule.  On Saturday and Sunday only train stations with ample parking space were open; so we had to figure out how to get to the closest stop.  No vehicles were allowed in the city.  Strategic intersections were barricaded with concrete highway barriers.  It was great to safely jaywalk in the middle of normally very busy four lane boulevards. 
Deacon John Sebastian got hold of one of the images 
and forced Pope Francis to be a Chicago Cubs fan.  
Pope Francis is actually much bigger than the image.
            Independence Mall.  On Saturday we walked some 7 blocks from the downtown train station to the four block long Independence Mall for a program which included a speech by Pope Francis. Providentially, somebody in the train had given us vouchers which we exchanged for tickets hung around our necks.  The ticket policy kept the numbers down and kept troublemakers out.  We ran into several anti-Catholic groups; in front of the security checkpoint at Independence Square a large group greeted us with signs such as “Is the Pope the Antichrist?” and loudspeakers blaring:  “Mary is a sinner…….the Bible says to never call anyone father or papa (Pope in Spanish)”…..only in America. In some Muslim countries, such behavior would be considered blasphemy punishable by death.  Jaga couldn’t take it and proceeded to evangelize them and a lively debate between us and them ensued.  It was friendly and we departed giving them hugs.  Later in the day we got into it again with some youths handing out anti-catholic propaganda and again departed with hugs.  At least we diverted them away from other people and they had to recognize that Catholic Christians know how to love.

People sat on the grass and we sat on a window ledge.  The program included symphonic music, folk dancing, a song by an opera star, and a speech by Dr. Robert George on our eroding Religious Freedom which all began at Independence Hall behind him.  Finally, the Pope arrived.  All we could see was a tiny white speck in the distance, but thanks to eight or so jumbotrons, we had a very good view of what you saw in your living room.  However, we experienced the excitement of being there, the atmosphere, the comradery with the other people, etc.  It was heartwarming to see how his kind face communicated love to all, especially to the babies he kissed.  The Pope spoke in beautiful and clear Spanish with English subtitles on the jumbotrons, emphasizing the tremendous importance of the family with allusions to religious liberty & immigration.  He humbly concluded with “Reza por mí un poquito (pray for me a little).

            Festival of Families. Then came a 14 block hike to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the Festival of Families and again we passed through a security checkpoint.  Our daily 45 minute rosary walks prepared us well.  This time we had good glimpses of Pope Francis in his well lit popemobile at about 8 pm.  Although we didn’t know that he would give another talk there, but we left, tired from a rather grueling day.  See the map at

A view from the altar of the million or so people who attended the closing Papal Mass.
     For the 4 pm Papal Mass on Sunday we hitched a ride on one of the two buses that Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Doylestown contracted.  All vehicles had to park at the ATT Sports Complex for professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey in South Philadelphia.  From there we had to take a train to downtown Philadelphia and hike 12 blocks to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway security checkpoint for the closing outdoor Mass.  There were local police, state police, National Guard, TSA, Secret Service all over the place.  The security was unbelievable.  We arrived at the security checkpoint at 10 am and waited in a three block line until 1 pm when we finally got through.  Examining us were Secret Service agents who said that the security procedure was the same as at the White House.  One group came from Iowa at about 1 pm and by the time they got through security five hours later, it was all over. 

We slept on the ground along the mile long Franklin Parkway, waiting for the Pope’s arrival.  We again saw him in his popemobile that went up and down the parkway.  Exciting was the atmosphere and the feeling of solidarity with up to a million other pilgrims both within and outside the ticketed area.  Next to us some guys from Steeler Nation kept me posted on the game with the St. Louis Rams.  At the Kiss of Peace, one of them greeted me with “Peace…….they won”.  That did put me at peace even though the Steeler star quarterback was knocked out of the game. 

       It was a beautiful Mass with an excellent choir and instrumental accompaniment.  We saw the altar in the distance, but not the Pope.  Again thank you, Jumbotron for a good view which you, dear reader, also had on EWTN.  Again Pope Francis gave his homily in Spanish with the translation on the numerous jumbotrons.  The Pope concelebrated with an army of priests (at least a couple hundred), who distributed Holy Communion.  Each priest brought the Eucharist under a yellow and white umbrella held by a server.  For video or text links to all of his talks and press conferences in the USA & Cuba with a choice of seven languages on the Vatican website (English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Spanish, and Portuguese with some in Arabic, click on

Ella and Mary Ann Bokovitz were there and so was our daughter Naomi, but we didn’t see any of them.  She was among three busloads of students from the Franciscan University of Steubenville.  We contacted her by cell phone, but couldn’t find the flag of Sweden she was under.  There were so many people that it was hard to move; let alone find one among a million.  The students made the 8 hour trip and back in one day without missing any classes.  So we had five people representing St. Louis Church.

Then we hiked back to the downtown railroad station for the train to our bus at the sports complex.  The line at the train station was five blocks long with a two hour wait.  Again the loudspeakers, but this time the Latinos, who might have been in the majority, drowned them out with “Viva el Papa”.  The crowd was very orderly and patient on both days except for just a little bit of pushing getting onto the train which is common in big Latin American cities.  The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the city spent months preparing for this huge undertaking……first the World Meeting of Families and then the visit of the Pope.  Overall, they did a great job in organizing it.  The only major flaw was the inordinate amount of time it took to pass through the security checkpoints, which prevented thousands of people from attending the papal Mass.

In the middle ages pilgrims had to walk to holy sites for weeks with the danger of robbers.  But at least they didn’t have to put up with long lines, long waits, and security checks worse than boarding an airplane.  It was all a great experience, but a rather grueling one.  For the texts of all of the Pope’s speeches and homilies in the USA, go to and/or

A Postscript: Why All of This Fuss Over Pope Francis and the Synod on the Family?
(See the next Blog #163)

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