At the end of September I had the honour of going to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia and attend the World Meeting of Families, a four day conference for Catholics from around the world.
With the glee of a child, I braced my friends and family on Facebook for what was coming: a barrage of Pope pictures, quotes, selfies with priests and video clips of mass chants – simply a celebration of the life religion brings to me and so many others.
I felt I had to brace them because religion has become a taboo word to many across the philosophical and political spectrums. While some subscribe to a faith, many see it is obsolete, cumbersome, or just down right false. Others don’t give it much thought at all but simply write it off as another hobby – as though it were a diet or a fad. They might find it fitting that last month I attended Yukomicon and now I was attending a conference for another equally obscure pastime.
I went with what is the natural enthusiasm of a Catholic holding to her faith in the time of “The People’s Pope”. Certainly, the Francis Effect is now well known to people of most countries and creeds. It’s easy to see why. He has reasserted the place of Catholicism and all peaceable religion in our world and preached endlessly of the place for mercy and understanding (“Who am I to judge?).
At the papal mass, the almost 1 million present (and countless others watching from home) demonstrated that religion has place in the family, in society and even in the state. Gasp.
The Pope chose the theme for the week - The Family Fully Alive: Love is our Mission. Well who can argue with that? And before you ask how exciting a conference could be with 17,000 people coming from the same traditional cookie-cutter families? Think again.
My husband and I had no idea what to expect for this week of “getting our Catholic Church on”. I began to explore the Catholic faith about 15 years ago (joined it a decade ago) and still sometimes forget whether I go right to left, or left to right when I do the sign of the cross. I married a divorced man who has been a catechumen (someone figuring out whether they want to become Catholic) for some time. We love our parish community here in Whitehorse, Canada but just always assumed we are not the a-typical Catholic (almost Catholic) family.
As soon as we landed, we discovered that there is no a-typical Catholic family. I met many blended families, single people who choose to live in deliberate communities with others, and widowed women who have moved in together to support one another.
Someone cracked a joke that if you want cookie-cutter experience you should go to a Communist Congress. Okay, maybe not funny but you get the point. There was a just a whole lot of unexpected diversity- and not just in the variations of Philly Cheesestakes available on every corner (which my husband made sure to sample).
Nuns attended the conference in abundance. I met single people, young people, priests, single parent families, and the elderly. There was a huge contingent from Asia and Africa. Mexicans were proudly present in numbers. What did we all have in common? We are all part of family. We all came into this world via la familia.
Even the city got into the spirit of things. There was a van parked down the street from our hotel selling “popesicles”. Someone had plastered “CONFESSIONAL” over many of the porta-potties generously distributed around the city (I think there were more toilets than people when the papal mass finally rolled around).
Buddhist monks lined up behind me for the security check entrance for the papal mass which I can only compare to a line-up at our local coffee shop on a Tuesday morning after a the long weekend. A mother rallied her five children by telling them they could offer this wait up as sacrifice for others. Another family quietly whispered through the rosary – ten times – and we still had an hour left to wait.
Slightly less pious, a beauty salon reiterated the words of Pope Francis, “Have the courage to be truly happy”, but tacked, “and have beautiful hair”.
A non-stop stream of bikes rode by our hotel on the morning of the mass in what I thought was just a good choice of bike route for some Philadelphians to get to the celebrations. No. It was a coordinated “PopeRide” that saw thousands, young and old, travel together to this epic event.
That helped me realize I better brush my teeth and get down to the papal mass.
Arriving at the entrance line four hours early still wasn’t enough to get me through on time. Security in Philly made perfectly clear that the U.S. was going to make sure that nothing happened to “The People’s Pope” on American soil.
But that’s ok. I managed to see him drive by in the Popemobile when my family and I waited on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway during the Festival of Families – a diverse celebration that saw the Pope telling half a million people that “families have a citizenship that is divine” and Sister Sledge blasted out a rather tired version of “We are a family, I’ve got all my sisters with me.” (There certainly were a lot of nuns there).
The best part really was participating in a shared week of reinvigoration of the Catholic faith, particularly as expressed through family life.
Pope Francis described the family as the ideal setting for finding our purpose, our ethics, our direction and meaning but did not idealize the reality; “In families, we argue; in families, sometimes the plates fly”.
He reflected, as many others did at this conference, that the first to suffer in the retreat of the family are the elderly and the young. The implication is that we often look to the state, school or any other institution to make up for what has been lost in the family, but ultimately what we must do, as the Holy Father pleaded, is “defend the family, because there, there, our future is at play”.
He also had words for any who would seek to marginalize the value of religion and impose an unnecessary uniformity, as well as for those who would use religion in a violent or oppressive way; “In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
There are many who would call this Pope a hypocrite to at once preach about peace, tolerance and respect and moments later reemphasize the unique martial bond between a man and woman, a male priesthood or any number of other Catholic teachings that seem anachronistic in our society.
Our polarized and impassioned society is bewildered by such paradoxes. In recent days, it has emerged that he invited Kim Davis and a homosexual couple to meet with him on this U.S. visit (I imagine at separate times).
While we are left scratching our heads, trying to interpret his actions, his most simple words echo in my ears. To the people of the Catholic faith and all those of good will who gathered to see him on this inaugural US visit, he simply redirects our focus – “All that is good, all that is true, all that is beautiful brings us to God. “
The sheer numbers present both at the World Meeting and the papal mass was a testament that God is not dead but vitally alive amongst the people of this earth. And it is through families, the ones we are born into and the ones we gather around us, that we find the beauty of God.
Pope Francis told a listening crowd –myself, my baby and my husband nestled among them – "Families have a citizenship that is divine. The identity card that they have is given to them by God so that within the heart of the family truth, goodness and beauty can truly grow."
A shorter version of this article was published as a commentary in the Yukon News on Wednesday, October 28th, 2015.