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Now, Focus on the Family

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By Chris Sparks (Sep 26, 2015)
During the papal visit, we'll be sharing commentary, photos, and on-the-scene accounts of Pope Francis' first trip to the United States. Stay tuned!

Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015
10 p.m.
Well, there was a lot more going on than I expected.

Interspersed with musical performances were testimonies from families from across the globe, talking about the different challenges and blessings they've experienced through family life. They got to present their stories to the Holy Father, as well as to the watching crowd and the world.

And the Holy Father addressed the crowd. He talked about the beauty of family life, its place at the very foundation of all society, and how important it is to "dream" as God dreams, to dream of a society of families that live in loyalty and love, faithful to the model of the family of the Trinity.

"Let us help one another to make it possible to 'stake everything on love,'" he said. "Let us help one another at times of difficulty and lighten each other's burdens. Let us support one another. Let us be families which are a support for other families."

"Perfect families do not exist," he continued. "This must not discourage us. Quite the opposite. Love is something we learn; love is something we live; love grows as it is 'forged' by the concrete situations which each particular family experiences. Love is born and constantly develops amid lights and shadows. Love can flourish in men and women who try not to make conflict the last word, but rather a new opportunity. An opportunity to seek help, an opportunity to question how we need to improve, an opportunity to discover the God who is with us and never abandons us. This is a great legacy that we can give to our children, a very good lesson: we make mistakes, yes; we have problems, yes. But we know that that is not really what counts. We know that mistakes, problems and conflicts are an opportunity to draw closer to others, to draw closer to God."

Trust in God's mercy, in other words. Learn from the mercy of the Father to have mercy on others, starting with your family, and then, as a family, extend that mercy to other families, as well.

It's not for nothing that the motto adorning the World Meeting of Families logo is "Love is our mission." That's about as good a one-sentence summary of living faith, of faith taking action to work mercy in the world, that I've ever seen. If you haven't already, consider picking up a copy of Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive, the preparatory catechesis for the World Meeting of Families. It's a great summary of the Church's teaching on the family, and will help you live out everything the World Meeting here in Philadelphia has been about.

7:45 p.m.
He will largely be listening with the audience to the performances being offered. Mark Wahlberg is now speaking from the podium, emceeing the event. Among those taking the stage, both before and after the Holy Father's arrival: tenor Andrea Boccelli; actor Jim Caviezel; the Philadelphia Orchestra; and the singer Juanes. The festival will run till 10 p.m.

7:37 p.m.
The Holy Father takes the stage at the Festival of Families. Archbishop Chaput is introducing the Holy Father. How appropriate, really, that the "City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection" should host the World Meeting of Families under the theme "Love is Our Mission."

7:11 p.m.
The Holy Father is on his way. For some reason, as I'm watching him proceed up the street, it's striking me for the first time very forcibly that he is such a familiar figure to so many of us, perhaps we don't see clearly what a remarkable man he truly is. He has become a true world leader in these two years of his pontificate. Every pope is, of course, but some are massive, towering figures, like St. John Paul II, who stride the world stage and leave an immense mark on human history. Others are like Servant of God John Paul I, he of the month-long papacy. They come, they go, they fade in the popular memory. They are an entry in history, little more.

Pope Francis is a world leader. He is directing the Church and influencing the world, proclaiming Christ and reforming Christ's kingdom. Given him another couple of years, and he will have made a (hopefully) indelible mark upon the Church.

What a time to be alive.

7 p.m.
The band Sister Sledge is performing their hit song "We Are Family" for the gathered crowd.

6:33 p.m.
Comedian Jim Gaffigan just pointed out today is Archbishop Chaput's birthday. Man, a papal visit as a birthday gift for an archbishop. That's pretty good.

5:50 p.m
The main events have begun at the Festival of Families on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, including Jackie Evancho just now, the young singer with an incredible voice. Other talent slated to appear include comedian Jim Gaffigan, singer Aretha Franklin, and actor Mark Wahlberg.

5:00 p.m.
The Holy Father arrived by Popemobile at Independence Mall, outside Independence Hall, provoking some strong reactions from the gathered crowd. I don't recall seeing people physically shaking after seeing him in the previous motorcades, but they certainly were here. There was also a repeated refrain from many people that they couldn't believe they had actually seen the Pope. Now, remember, anyone can pull up video of him online whenever they want. Anyone can see the Pope.

But not everyone can see the Pope in person, with their own eyes. Not everyone can stand near enough to touch him.

It was a tremendous witness to the power of the ministry of presence. Being there for people matters a great deal, and even more so in an archdiocese with troubles such as those which Philadelphia has been wrestling with recently.

The Most Rev. Charles Chaput, archbishop of Philadelphia, introduced Pope Francis before his address from the front of the Independence Hall. There was a sight: the first Native American archbishop in the U.S. introducing the son of Italian immigrant parents.

The Holy Father discussed religious liberty and human rights in front of the building where the Declaration of Independence was written. What better place to talk about the natural law than the place where the American Founders wrote:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

The thread connecting much of the papal visit has been this focus on the natural rights and responsibilities of persons, arising from the natural law.

Again, as has been discussed before in these daily blogs, this is a brilliant deployment of Catholic teaching. He's starting with the issues on which the secular world is in agreement with Catholic teaching: care for the environement, "our common home. Care for the poor. Care for the excluded. He's then laying out how once you start down those paths of care, you will inevitably be confronted by the moral demand to similarly care for the unborn, care for the elderly, care for the victims of the culture of death and the sexual revolution.

The Church's teaching is organic, one, just as all truth is organic, one. Truth cannot contradict truth. All truth is connected. Followed properly, with right reason and clear sight, guided by a will seeking the good, pursuing truth will always lead back to Jesus Christ, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. And where Jesus is, there is his Church.

It's a brilliant, subtle, welcoming, and accessible work of the New Evangelization. Something all of us should emulate.

2 p.m.
This afternoon, I went walking.

Philadelphia is like a ghost town, only with some really, really large crowds. There is no traffic, save the occasional fleet of police motorcycles and big cars with black-tinted windows. Many of the buildings appear to be empty, or at least deserted for the day. There were a number of tables and booths in front of businesses, offering water and other refreshment to itinerant pilgrims.

Again, the ubiquitous memorabilia salespeople. Again, the t-shirts, the flags, the pins, anything and everything with the Holy Father's face, or name, or anything on it.

And again with the street preachers.

This time, there was a new addition. I don't recall seeing the Seventh Day Adventists out in the last two cities, or if they were there, then they certainly weren't out in the numbers I'm seeing in Philadelphia. They're handing out a book and a DVD set, looking very intent, being very polite as they do so — it's almost pleasant to be proselytized by them, really.

Not so with some of their brethren. As I was walking out of the Philadelphia Convention Center, site of the World Meeting of Families, I caught sight of guys with very tall signs proclaiming the Pope the Anti-Christ and Catholicism of the devil dashing forward, shouting and using their loudspeakers. At the same time, coming from the opposite direction, I could hear what sounded like rhythmic chanting and marching. Suddenly this crowd of black with a touch of white at the throat burst out into the intersection, and the guys with the signs charged into their midst. I really couldn't quite make out what was about to happen, so I started speeding up, taking photos as I went. After a few moments of the signs bobbing furiously about in the sea of black, the marching, singing, clapping seminarians (priests, possibly, though it certainly had more of a seminarian feel to it) left the sign-wielding guys behind, wandering a little confusedly in a circle in the center of the intersection, seemingly a little bewildered to have met so little resistance. It was a comic end to what had seemed, at first, a menacing situation.

Indeed, all these people with their loudspeakers, signs, large Bibles held up repeatedly, all seem to be convinced that they're confronting something more akin to a machine or a hive-mind than the family or the organism the Catholic Church really is. They really do seem to expect the Spanish Inquisition of black legend all the time, everywhere, in the midst of all these festivities. It's a little strange. But thankfully, I've seen numerous Catholics, lay and in clerics, stopping and talking to the street preachers, patiently listening and responding in charity and with care to what's being said.

And walking through this whole milieu are the pilgrims alongside ordinary Philadelphians, people of every race and culture under the sun. The world did come to the World Meeting of Families, and it shows on the street, in the crowds, and in my interviews.

A number of people have pled limited English, or simply shrugged. A daughter did translation for her parents in the case of one immigrant family from China. Part of a multi-generational underground Catholic family, they'd fled China for the U.S. in part for religious freedom.

Many in the crowd now for the papal visit are from the U.S., determined not to miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Pope Francis. Several times, locals have told me stories about seeing St. John Paul II in 1979. There are children and the elderly, families and single folk. The Pope of the world has come to Philadelphia, and the world has come to see him.

1:15 p.m.
Archbishop Kurtz, the president of the USCCB, has just told the priest that this is the largest meeting of the World Meeting of Families ever, with 20,000 participants.

Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, has just told us that as the Holy Father was flown by helicopter from downtown Manhattan, Cardinal Dolan was able to point out to him the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, an especially poignant moment, given the Holy Father's repeated comments, both during the papal visit and throughout his pontificate, about the plight of immigrants around the world.

12:50 p.m.
Well, the Holy Father is spending time with the seminarians of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. He's here in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, of course, but also to exercise one particular charism of his office: to confirm the brethren in the faith (see Lk 22:32). The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has faced hard times in recent years: fallout from the sex abuse scandal; closures of parishes; and the same culture storms that have been so hard upon the broader Church. Now, Philadelphia has been able to host the World Meeting of Families, and they welcome the Holy Father.

12:10 p.m.
The Holy Father is blessing two handicapped children and other young ones as he departs the Cathedral Basilica.

12 p.m.
Speaking of papal humility, the Holy Father gave an impromptu reflection to priests and religious in Cuba that's the best single statement of his own spirituality I've ever seen.

Archbishop Chaput is addressing the congregation after the Mass. He's welcoming the Holy Father, introducing the Cathedral itself, and referencing the two saints of Philadelphia, St. John Neumann and St. Katharine Drexel.

Even as the recessional music began, the Holy Father grabbed the mic one last time to ask everyone to pray for him. Let's do so!

11:50 a.m.
The liturgical celebrations have been pretty uniformly lovely. Beautiful music, elegant ceremony; it's been impressive.

Of course, there's a certain irony in the way these things get covered. We all wait eagerly for the homily, waiting to parse every papal utterance, every off-the-cuff comment.

But what really matters here is the Mass itself, and the coming of Christ among his people through Word, Sacrament, and Spirit.

This is apocalypse now; this, the meeting of heaven and earth. When the priest celebrates Mass, Jesus is present on the altar. Jesus Christ himself, of whom the Holy Father is only the Vicar, the representative on earth, comes in the Mass.

Why do we not talk about that more often? Maybe because Jesus does it so regularly, so quietly, with a bare minimum of ceremony and fuss.

The Mass is so often celebrated by poor priests for the poor in bare accomondations and with the least of vessels. Stories abound of the quiet heroics of prisoner priests in cells and concentration camps throughout the 20th century, laboring to provide their fellow prisoners with access to the Sacraments, as best they may.

The glories of this Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, of St. Peter's itself are far from fully expressing the glory and the grandeur of the Sacraments celebrated inside or of the One who resides there under the appearance of bread. The humble Eucharistic Lord Jesus, the one whom Francis emulates, is faithful to his promise to be with us to the end of time.

And yet we focus our reporting on the homily. Just something to think about.

11 a.m.
His homily references a story told about the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia. The Cathedral was being built during a time of anti-Catholic riots and church-burnings across the U.S. So St. John Neumann, the bishop of Philadelphia at the time, had strong Irish workers throw bricks as high as they could. The windows of the Cathedral were built slightly higher than the highest the bricks could reach.

But the Holy Father turns quickly from that story of building walls to observing that the Church in the U.S. has a history of tearing down walls, of finding a place and acceptance in the wider U.S. society through her many works of charity, her schools and institutions that have helped serve the common good of American society. He points to the many shrines and houses of worship in Philadelphia, a place where brotherly love is truly also infused with divine charity through the Mass and the Sacraments.

He's pointing to St. Katherine Drexel, a native of Philadelphia, heiress to great wealth, and model religious and benefactress to those in need. She who went to serve the Native Americans and African Americans in the heart of a time of deep prejudice and segregation is a model for the sort of tearing down walls that the Holy Father is celebrating. She is also a model for answering a vocational call from God to found a religious congregation, a particularly appropriate point, as the Holy Father is largely addressing a congregation of priests and religious.

10:10 a.m.
Philadelphia is welcoming the Holy Father with music. There's a full choir singing outside the Cathedral Basilica right now, awaiting his arrival, and he was greeted by a marching band at the airport. As he was getting off the plane, he paused to lay hands on some kids, some disabled folk, and their families.

10 a.m.
A few random thoughts:

* If you ever get an invitation to an event where the security is run by the Secret Service, don't even think of bringing your selfie sticks with you. They won't be allowed through security.

* I've discovered in the last few days of following the coverage of others as I do my own that the Holy Father's sciatica is what prevents him from doing a full genuflection at Mass, and which makes stairs a challenge for him.

* New Yorkers are far more friendly and helpful than is popularly supposed. The Big Apple does have a big heart, especially when they welcome someone like the Holy Father to town. Everyone pulled together to help lost pilgrims and confused travelers get where they needed to go.

9 a.m.
The Holy Father is aboard the plane to Philadelphia and waving through the window at the crowd below. He must be exhausted after all these speeches (many in an unfamiliar language), all these meetings, all this pomp and ceremony. Let's pray for him!

Visit here for all papal visit coverage.

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