Families, faith and the universal Church

The recent World Meeting of Families attracted participants from around the globe, including the Archdiocese’s Shawn and Branka van der Linden, who share their experience below… 

WHILE most Catholics know about World Youth Days which involve millions of young people coming together to celebrate faith and hope in the future of the Church, not many would be aware of the International World Meeting of Families.

It is another truly inspirational event that, like World Youth Day, stands as one the great legacies of Pope St John Paul II.

It was in 1992 that the Polish Pontiff first articulated his vision for a World Meeting of Families. He conceived of the meeting as a pastoral initiative to strengthen the sacred bonds of the family across the globe. There have been seven previous events since then and they are sponsored by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family.

The theme for this year’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia was ‘Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive’. In his homily at the opening Mass of the congress, Philadelphia’s Archbishop Charles Chaput proclaimed: “We really do hope to learn from one another… how we might love our families better”. The congress had 18,000 registered participants, and the Papal Mass at the end of the week was attended by nearly one million people.

We were blessed to travel to Philadelphia with a group of 44 Australians (21 adults and 23 children) who were representing other dioceses from around Australia. The group was led by Bishop Delegate for Marriage and Family, Michael Kennedy (Bishop of Armidale), along with Ron and Mavis Pirola, co-chair couple of the Australian Catholic Marriage and Family Council (ACMFC). We were also fortunate to be joined in Philadelphia by the Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher and also Emeritus Archbishop of Perth, Barry Hickey. The group travelled first to Washington DC, and then on to Philadelphia for the remainder of the trip.

An encounter with the universal Church 

The World Meeting of Families provided a unique opportunity to experience the universal Church. Often our experience as Catholics does not extend much beyond the parish or diocesan level. Yet the reality of the universal character of our Church is so fundamental to our identity as Catholics. Being together with the ‘rest of the world’ and with the Pope really highlighted to us the richness of our Catholic faith.

Despite being together with the rest of the world, we still managed an unplanned encounter with former Canberran Sr Marie Kesina who we spotted in the crowd at the congress by chance. Sr Marie is in her second year with the Dominican Sisters of St Cecilia in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to joining the Dominicans, Sr Marie served our Archdiocese as a member of the Catholic Youth Ministry team. The encounter with Sr Marie was a reminder that despite the vast size of our Church, it is always a place of familiarity and connection.

Learning and faith formation 

The World Meeting of Families congress provides a wonderful opportunity for learning and formation. As well as attending Mass each day, we were able to attend keynotes and workshops on different topics that explored the practical application of the Church’s teaching in different pastoral situations. The following provides an example of some of the workshops that we attended:

• The other side of Mount Sinai – Growing in Virtue (Dr John S. Grabowski)

• Building a Just Society – Catholic Social Teaching in your life (Dr Helen Alvare)

• Family Ties: How meals, rituals, traditions, worship and prayer create strong, healthy and joy-filled Catholic homes (Lacey Rabideau)

• Creating a flourishing marriage culture (Professor Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis)

Many of the presentations from the congress can be accessed from the website, www.worldmeeting2015.org.

The new Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Bishop Robert Barron, gave one of the standout keynote addresses. Bishop Barron spoke about the biblical doctrine of ‘Imago Dei’ – that, as human beings, we are made in the image and likeness of God, and that we need to live out that image in our own lives and bring that love to the world around us. He spoke about the fact that our faith is not meant to be a private thing, as is often encouraged in contemporary society; but rather, it is meant to be shared with the world around us.

We came away from the congress encouraged in our own faith. We now have a stronger understanding of our family as a domestic church, and of the impact that passing on our faith to our children can have in strengthening the Church and our broader community.

An experience of pilgrimage 

The most memorable part of the trip for us was the opportunity to share the journey with the pilgrims in our group. There was something very special about travelling together with other Australians to attend an event in another country.

Shawn and Branka van der Linden say attending the World Meeting of Families was truly inspirational. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Shawn and Branka van der Linden say attending the World Meeting of Families was truly inspirational. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

We spent time getting to know members of the group as we explored the cities of Washington DC and Philadelphia; we prayed together and shared intimate Masses at various shrines and churches in those cities, and we spent time together at dinner together each evening – regrouping and sharing the experiences we had had each day. We spent a total of 11 days travelling together, and in that time we learnt so much about how other families are living out their faith, how other parishes around the country support families and married couples, and how other couples experience the Church in Australia. Because we had so many children on our pilgrimage, we were able to witness first hand the way that other families are concretely living out their faith in a day-to-day sense. The children added so much life and joy to the trip and it was a blessing to have them as part of the group.

Our time in Washington DC and in Philadelphia in the days leading up to the congress were spent visiting the sacred places in those cities that Pope Francis himself would visit in the following days, including the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (where Pope Francis canonised Blessed Junipero Serra on September 23), St Patrick’s Church (the oldest church in Washington DC where Pope Francis gave a blessing and spent some time with the homeless gathered at lunchtime for the St Maria Meals Program) as well as the Shrine of St Rita of Cascia.

Encountering Pope Francis 

The week in Philadelphia concluded with a celebration with Pope Francis on the weekend, which involved two main events – the Papal Festival of Families on the Saturday (a major music and entertainment festival), and the Papal Mass on the Sunday.

We found the reactions of ordinary Americans incredibly warm and enthusiastic whenever we mentioned that we had travelled to the United States to see Pope Francis. It was clear that he has touched the hearts of many people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, with his warmth, genuine love for people and message of mercy and forgiveness.

On the Saturday morning of the Festival of Families we came together, along with other Australians who were not a part of the group, for Mass with Archbishop Fisher at St John the Evangelist Church in Philadelphia. It was a special experience to be together as Australians whilst together for this international Catholic experience. In addition, we sat with our pilgrimage group for both the Festival of Families and the Papal Mass. So while we were part of a crowd of nearly one million people, we felt a little at home as we shared it with our fellow Australians.

Our marriage and family 

It was hard for us to be away from our children for what seemed like such a long time. But at the same time, it ended up being an incredibly blessed time for us as a married couple.

We had time to talk, to explore both cities in our free time, to pray and experience the talks and workshops at the congress, and to take stock as a couple after many years of rearing small children and all the lack of sleep and lack of self-reflection that this usually entails.

We had some perspective away from our ordinary child-rearing responsibilities to reflect on our own marriage, parenting and family, and in particular, in the ways we could do all of them a little better.

We left Philadelphia with a renewed sense of the importance of prayer as a married couple and as a family; in particular the centrality of the Eucharist and of Sacred Scripture, and also of the importance of walking side by side with the poor and the lonely and marginalised in our community, and to share the gifts and the blessings that we experience as a family with others.

We were also encouraged and have great hope about what God is doing around the world in the quietness and ordinariness of family life everywhere. We saw it in the families in our pilgrimage group, as well as in the talks and workshops we attended – the wonderful fruit that is borne from the hard work of parenting children in the faith each day in a thousand different ways.

We are very grateful to Archbishop Christopher Prowse for providing us with this opportunity to represent the Archdiocese at this great event.

The next World Meeting of Families will take place in Dublin, Ireland. This would represent a great opportunity for the Church in Australia to send families to experience such an incredible experience of the global Church. As Archbishop Chaput stated after the congress in Philadelphia: “If each person goes forth renewed in their commitment to the faith and to interpersonal communion, then the congress will have done its job”.