Hope for the future
The Bishop of Limerick finds signs of hope for the future of the church in the World Meeting of Families.
The World Meeting of Families, which is held in a different country every three years, took place in Dublin at the end of August. It was a great event of hope. With over 1,800 journalists covering the three-day Pastoral Congress and the thirty-six hours of the Pope’s presence in Ireland, the message of the family gathering reached the four corners of the earth.
Those who experienced the Family Festival live, watched it on television or saw clips of it, were greatly impressed by the modern, upbeat and lively presentations. They got the message: the family is indeed Good News worth sharing and celebrating.
An amazing amount of preparatory work went into getting everything ready for the over 20,000 visitors who travelled from 116 countries as well as the 200,000 Irish who participated in one way or another. A few statistics: 6,000 young people under the age of 18 attended the Pastoral Congress. Of the 292 speakers, 91 were lay women, 65 were lay men and 44 were clergy/religious with the largest group being couples. In other words, the World Meeting of Families was a lay-led, couples-led programme. There were 7,000 general volunteers at the various venues, the choir at the Concluding Mass numbered 3,000 people, and there were up to 3,000 Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.
The Pastoral Congress
It is impossible to describe all the events in detail. From 22nd to 24th August, the three-day Pastoral Congress in the Royal Dublin Society Conference Centre included a reflective programme of workshops, talks and discussions. Topics ranged from faith and sport to the transmission of faith in the family; from the use of technology in family life to outreach to prisoners and their families; from the launch of the YouthCat for Kids to pastoral encounter with people of same-sex attraction. Many of those present would have wanted to attend all the presentations, such was the rich fare on offer, but choices had to be made.
As well as talks there were stands displaying the life and work of many religious orders, movements and initiatives. So many facets of the life of the Church were on display. What characterised the days of the Pastoral Congress was, above all, the joy of being with one another, greeting one another, rediscovering acquaintances from years gone by. It was the joy of the Church as family, united by the Risen Jesus and his Spirit of mutual love.
The Congress also offered an engaging programme for young people and included faith and fun activities for children. Every afternoon was crowned with a memorable outdoor liturgy. And the miracle was that the sun shone for each of the liturgies with just a few minutes’ rain on the last day to remind us of what it could have been like!
The arrival of Pope Francis was bound to transform everything. And so it did. The sun shone gloriously to greet him. We were all struck by his inner serenity and peace, even though the issues of the dark aspects of the Church that he would have to face were well known. He greeted the President and his wife at the President’s Residence, then to Dublin Castle for a solemn meeting with civic representatives. Immediately after lunch he was on the streets of Dublin, being greeted very warmly and enthusiastically. Again an atmosphere of the Church family.
In fatherly fashion the Pope imparted words of wisdom, distilled from his own pastoral life, to newly married and about to be married couples in Dublin’s Pro-Cathedral. For instance, he encouraged them saying, ‘Gamble big, for your entire life! Take a risk! Because marriage is also a risk, but it is a risk worth taking. For your whole life, because that is how love is’.
The Pope’s encounter with the homeless in the Capuchin Day Centre was very moving. And later that same evening Pope Francis met privately with victims of sexual abuse of minors, a meeting that lasted well beyond the allotted time. Instead of half an hour, their conversation lasted 90 minutes during which time the Pope finalised with the victims the penitential ritual that he would use the following day.
Festival of Families
The first long day of the Pope’s visit still had an important appointment ahead: the Festival of Families in Croke Park, Ireland’s largest football stadium. The festival involved a cultural concert choreographed as a celebration of family life. One of the highlights was the renowned tenor Andrea Bocelli taking centre stage but the cast of thousands was impressive and included Nathan Carter, Daniel O’Donnell, Celine Byrne, Eimear Quinn, Cuthbert Tura Arutura, the Palestrina Choir and the Choir of Ages.
As well as these artists, the cast included an orchestra of more than 50 musicians, over 700 Irish dancers, a 1,000-strong choir, 100 community groups, and 300 flag bearers.
The stage design for the festival included a ‘Circle of Encounter’ where Pope Francis joined with families from across the world. He heard testimonies from five families from Ireland, Canada, India, Iraq and Burkina Faso. The themes of the family testimonies, mirroring priorities in the ministry of Pope Francis, focused on forgiveness in family; strength in family; hope in family life; the intergenerational nature of families today and the impact of technology on family life.
Pope Francis commented on each of these testimonies. So, for instance, in response to a family from Burkina Faso who shared an experience of forgiveness in the family, Pope Francis got the whole stadium to repeat with him three times the famous three words that he often says are key to good family life: ‘please’, ‘thanks’ and ‘sorry’. He continued, ‘When you quarrel at home, be sure that before going to bed you apologise and say you are sorry… Because if you don’t make peace, the next day you have a “cold war” and that is very dangerous! Watch out for cold wars in the family!’
He thanked a family from India for showing how social media are not necessarily a problem for families, but can also serve to build a ‘web’ of friendships, solidarity and mutual support. He hoped their story would help families review the amount of time they spend with technology. He pointed out that when you use the social media too much, you ‘spin into orbit’. When at table, instead of talking to one another as a family, everyone starts playing with his or her cell phone, they ‘spin into orbit’. This is dangerous. Why? ‘Because it takes you away from the concrete reality of the family and into a life of distraction and unreality. Be careful about this’.
The concluding Mass
The Papal Cross in the heart of the Phoenix Park in Dublin was the venue on the afternoon of Sunday 26th August for the concluding Mass of the world meeting. Unfortunately, the weather was awful and many who had enjoyed the superb television coverage the previous day felt daunted at the prospect they might have to walk long distances in very inclement weather. In the end some 150,000 attended, less than the 500,000 who had got tickets! But that didn’t dent the sheer delight of those present to be sharing in a moment of history, being together with the Pope, renewing their commitment to the faith.
The Mass began with a very moving penitential ritual that the Pope had composed with the victims of abuse he had met the day before. In his homily, he encouraged those present to go out and bear witness. He recognised that ‘the task of bearing witness to this Good News is not easy. Yet the challenges that Christians face today are, in their own way, no less difficult than those faced by the earliest Irish missionaries’.
We are probably still too close to the World Meeting of Families to make a proper assessment of it. The following Wednesday, at the General Audience in Rome, Pope Francis offered his own reflections on his time in Ireland. He observed how he had found joy and suffering. For many, it was indeed a time of great joy. It was a chance to throw off shackles of recent years that inhibited public witness of the faith. But the shadow side of what has been discovered about the Church in recent decades could not be eclipsed or forgotten. In the exultation of joy, the pilgrims knew and wanted to acknowledge the pain of so many because of wounds inflicted by the Church. And so, when Pope Francis read out the penitential ritual at the beginning of the concluding Mass, there was a very warm, supportive applause from those present.
This is our family Church, dying and rising, darkness and light, but we are that Church together, a family of families. That’s what the World Meeting of Families helped us rediscover in hope. We will certainly have to find ways to disseminate the great materials of talks and presentations that the World Meeting of Families generated. But, more substantially, this great event called us to set out again to connect with wider society in order to hand on the Good News of the Family, joy for the world.
Bishop Leahy will be the keynote speaker at the Open House conference next June.