Pilgrims share small sufferings, great joy during World Meeting, pope’s visit

| October 2, 2015 | 0 Comments
Pilgrims traveling with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families wait in line for the Festival of Families Sept. 26. From left, Beatriz Lopez, Justin Duda, Veronica Arias Pantoja, Pat Shannon and Christine Shannon. Maria Wiering/The Catholic Spirit

Pilgrims traveling with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families wait in line for the Festival of Families Sept. 26. From left, Beatriz Lopez, Justin Duda, Veronica Arias Pantoja, Pat Shannon and Christine Shannon. Maria Wiering/The Catholic Spirit

Pat Shannon counted the steps. Nine that time, he said. It was a big move for the pilgrims who had been standing in a massive crowd on a Philadelphia side street waiting to go through security to join Pope Francis’ Mass on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

They’d arrived shortly before noon, but they’d covered less than two blocks in three hours. They began wondering if they’d actually get through the gates in time for the liturgy. Behind them, the waiting crowd stretched back as far as they could see.

The afternoon was the culmination of a pilgrimage that began Tuesday, Sept. 22, with a 5:30 a.m. flight from Minneapolis to Philadelphia. From the airport, the 23 pilgrims traveling as part of an Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis delegation went straight to the Pennsylvania Convention Center for the World Meeting of Families’ opening Mass and keynote speaker — Bishop Robert Barron, known for his “Catholicism” video series and its umbrella ministry, Word on Fire.

“Authentic Christianity is a faith on the march,” said Bishop Barron, who is second only to Pope Francis as the most followed Catholic leader on social media. Ordained a bishop last month for Los Angeles, he set the tone for the World Meeting, challenging Catholics to reveal with their lives who they are: people made in the image and likeness of God — in Latin, the “imago Dei.”

“The family is the place where the ‘imago Dei’ is burnished, where the ‘imago Dei’ is brought to life,” he said.

‘Love is our mission’

St. John Paul II launched the World Meeting of Families in 1994 “to look at strengthening the sacred bonds of the family unit across the globe,” according to the 2015 conference organizers. The event was the principal reason Pope Francis visited the U.S., a point he reiterated throughout his three-city tour.

 With the theme “Love is our Mission,” the 2015 World Meeting of Families drew more than 18,000 participants, far exceeding the attendance at prior World Meetings. Minnesota pilgrims joined others from more than 100 countries over the course of the congress, which included daily Masses with long processions of concelebrating bishops, opportunities for reconciliation and eucharistic adoration, and more than 80 presentations on topics ranging from childrearing and family finances to divorce and caring for elderly parents.

Two speakers were from the archdiocese: Teresa Stanton Collett, a University of St. Thomas law professor who spoke on the contrasting use of the word “dignity” in Catholic social teaching and current law; and Father John Echert, pastor of Holy Trinity in South St. Paul, who drew on his experience as a military chaplain to outline ways families can stay connected during long periods of separation.

As if the World Meeting’s schedule wasn’t already packed, nearby sites hosted auxiliary events, including speakers, films and music. A half-mile from the convention center, a steady stream of pilgrims visited the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul, which displayed the World Meeting of Families’ official artwork of the Holy Family and the relics of St. Therese of Lisieux and her parents, Blessed Louis and Zélie Martin, expected to be canonized later this month.

Outside, pilgrims wrote prayers on strips of cloth and tied them to a whimsical and moving grotto designed for the World Meeting to honor Our Lady, Undoer of Knots, an image of Mary and devotion loved by Pope Francis.

Sonya Flomo, administrative assistant for archdiocese’s Office for Marriage, Family and Life, took a break from the conference to add her own intention to the “Knotted Grotto” Thursday afternoon. Holding the ribbon she tied to the central domed structure, she silently bowed her head.

“I prayed for my daughter and her unborn twins, for a healthy and happy pregnancy and safety in birth, and welcoming my new grandchildren,” she told The Catholic Spirit as the ribbons flittered around her. On Sunday before Mass, Pope Francis blessed the shrine with its estimated 100,000 ribbons.

Flomo saw the shrine as a symbol of “the unified prayer that God will have to hear,” she said, adding, “We know God hears our prayer, but just to be able to share them with so many people, I think it’s just special.”

‘By the grace of God’

The weightiness of the topics addressed at the World Meeting of Families struck a chord with many pilgrims; several shared a petition for adult children to return to the faith, others sifted through the difficulty of divorce, a spouse with dementia or the untimely death of a child.

Pat and Christine Shannon, one of two couples on the archdiocese’s pilgrimage, reflected on their own story as they waited in line for Sunday’s Mass. Parents of three and grandparents of eight, they said they’ve had their share of joys and challenges in 46 years of marriage.

“We started our marriage off with not good marriage preparation, so it was by the grace of God . . . . Often, we feel like we’re lifted up and carried around, like that ‘Footsteps’ holy card you see,” said Christine, who transitioned last year from her longtime role coordinating family life programs to directing faith formation at their parish, St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony.

They were drawn to the World Meeting because of their general concern for the family. But the couple’s connection to family ministry is also rooted in teaching first, natural childbirth, and later, natural family planning, they said.

The Shannons had been married about 10 years and had three children when their pastor, Father Francis Kittock, asked them to learn to teach NFP for the parish.

At the time, they were using contraception. They had never discussed it with Father Kittock, who is now retired, but they’re sure he knew it, Christine said.

“We were very selfish — certainly I was,” she said of their early marriage. “We were doing fine, I thought, until we started having kids, and we didn’t see eye-to-eye on raising children.”

Learning NFP was pivotal for their marriage, the Shannons said. They came to understand and appreciate why the Church proscribes artificial birth control, and embracing the teaching benefited their marriage, they said, as well as the 1,400 couples they taught. They became more “others centered,” Christine said.

“All of a sudden there was an awareness that God has a plan. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there,” Christine said. “The Church, in its wisdom, teaches you to go along with God’s plan.”

The World Meeting gave the couple hope for the Church because of the young families who were there learning and seemingly eager to be Christian witnesses. With that came a dose of humility, they said, but also an awareness of the opportunity they have as grandparents.

“We could have been a lot better along the way,” said Pat, a medical writer. “You don’t know what goes on in families, but all of the families with little kids here — I feel surrounded by holy people.”

Challenges to the family

The question of the greatest challenge facing families in Minnesota is one Jean Stolpestad regularly mulls, she said. The director of the archdiocese’s Office for Marriage, Family and Life since 2012, Stolpestad oversees initiatives and programs aimed at strengthening Catholic families.

There are a lot of challenges, she said, and it’s hard to point to just one. However, one of the biggest is the lack of “credible witnesses” — Catholics worthy of emulating. She sees many parents hitting a roadblock as witnesses when it comes to helping their children develop a relationship with Jesus.

“Every generation has to find Christ for themselves,” said Stolpestad, who led the archdiocesan pilgrimage to Philadelphia. “Faith can be lost in a single generation. Every person has to claim it and discover it like it’s brand new.”

Young adults are extremely spiritual, she said, but few are religious, because faith hasn’t been presented to them properly, she said. Without the Church, young people can’t discern their vocation, which wounds the priesthood, consecrated life and marriage.

“You can’t be called to that if you haven’t experienced the presence of God fully,” she said. “We can’t give what we don’t have — that sacrificial love that is present in our faith.”

In part, the challenge lies in Catholic adults’ struggle to live out their own faith, and fear looking hypocritical or inept at addressing questions of doctrine or theology, she said.

For Estela Villagrán Manancero, director of the archdiocese’s Office of Latino Ministry, the need for some Minnesota Latino families is much more basic: to stay together. Deportation of people who are in the country illegally has torn some families apart, she said.

The issue was among many that arose the day before the congress began, during a special gathering of U.S. Latino Catholics and delegates from Latin American countries attending the World Meeting of Families. Families from Venezuela, she noted, said that for many families in their country struggle to obtain food staples or live in safety.

The gathering of Latino families from across the Americas fostered a sense of unity among its members, she said, and she was surprised to learn how common their struggles are.

“We are losing our youth to the media and with all the marketing and the phones,” Manancero said. “This fabulous media that we use for good, too, is being used badly, also.”

She was gratified, however, to learn that other countries are engaged in longstanding family-strengthening initiatives, and hopes that ongoing collaboration will provide support going forward.

Wounded hearts

The impact of presenters’ stories was key for many pilgrims. A speaker who particularly resonated was 58-year-old Cardinal Luis Tagle, archbishop of Manila, Philippines. He gave a keynote presentation Sept. 24 titled “The Family: Home for the Wounded Heart.”

“Our wounds will make us, if we want them to, avenues of understanding, compassion, solidarity and love,” he told an audience of thousands.

Father Kevin Kenney, pastor of Divine Mercy in Faribault and the pilgrimage’s chaplain, said as a pastor he is frequently asked to help people address their wounds, including divorce and economic hardship, and is grateful when he can serve as a “listening post,” he said.

With that, he said, comes mercy.

“The biggest thing I’m taking back with me is the whole issue of God’s forgiveness, God’s love,” he said. “I think for centuries we as Catholics have put guilt on one another, and too much ‘sin, sin, sin!’ But if God is as merciful and forgiving as they’ve talked about here — which I truly believe — then there’s nothing to be afraid of when you confess your sins, there’s nothing to be afraid of when you go before God to tell him you’re sorry.

“If people don’t have a good experience in confession, then the pope needs to talk to his priests and reeducate them about what mercy means, what forgiveness means,” he added. “We’re not God. To be able to be agents of that mercy and forgiveness is a beautiful thing, and we’ll get more people back to confession if they have a good experience of it.”

Saintly city

Throughout the World Meeting, downtown churches were open for prayer; one hosted the body of St. Maria Goretti, patroness of young people, whose relics had just begun a six-week tour of the United States.

The relics of foreign saints enhanced the presence of saints for which Philadelphia is already known. On Wednesday, the archdiocesan group visited the shrine of St. John Neumann, a 19th-century Redemptorist and Philadelphia bishop who helped to organize Catholic education in the U.S. On Thursday, they visited the convent and tomb of St. Katharine Drexel, a daughter of Philadelphia and heiress who founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament to minister to African Americans and Native Americans. The archdiocesan pilgrims also visited the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa north of Philadelphia.

A group from St. Pius X in White Bear Lake visited a series of churches and shrines on their bus trip to and from Philadelphia. They relied on the hospitality of a Philadelphia deacon who hosted their group during the papal events. Other pilgrimages were organized by St. Mary of the Lake in White Bear Lake, Incarnation in Minneapolis, and the University of St. Thomas and St. Catherine University in St. Paul. Still other families went on their own, many driving the 2,200 miles from the Twin Cities to Philadelphia and back.

Seminarians from St. John Vianney and the St. Paul Seminary headed to Washington, D.C., for the canonization Mass of St. Junipero Serra. The major seminarians also traveled to Philadelphia to join in the World Meeting of Families and papal events.

When he arrived at the World Meeting on Thursday, Father John Floeder was among the handful of participants who had already encountered Pope Francis during his U.S. visit; most attendees were anxiously awaiting Saturday’s Festival of Families, where Pope Francis would join them. An instructor of moral theology and dean of seminarians at the St. Paul Seminary, he said he was impressed by the congress’ speakers, but his focus was on Pope Francis.

“The canonization was extraordinary, and his homily at the canonization was extraordinary,” Father Floeder said, describing how the pope said people struggle with a “numbing of the heart” which must be overcome by going out to preach the Gospel, which is how people come to rejoice.

He felt especially challenged as a priest and seminary formator to heed Pope Francis’ call to go out to others, he said, and to teach the seminarians to go beyond their parishes, or places they feel comfortable.

In addition to compelling words, Pope Francis’ demeanor impressed Father Floeder.

“What struck me about Pope Francis was his ready smile as he’s walking through and people are trying to grab him,” he said, adding that it was “a fatherly presence.” “But as he’s preaching, he just speaks from the heart and preaches with conviction. You can see it in his face. He’s not simply reading from a script. He truly wants to be a shepherd and pastor to us, and it’s palpable, tangible to people with him.”

After catching glimpses of media coverage, the Minnesota pilgrims who had yet to see Pope Francis were eager for Saturday’s Festival of Families where Pope Francis was scheduled to join them.

On Friday morning, downtown Philadelphia was blocked from traffic, and by the afternoon, a security perimeter had been established. Inside, people walked and biked down the empty streets and bars, cafes and even dog-groomers advertised pope-related specials. On Saturday, many pilgrims waited a short time or not at all to get through security to join the festival and easily found a place along the pope’s route to wait for him to drive by.

When the popemobile passed the droves of pilgrims lined along the route, many said the moment came and went too quickly. What they anticipated would be a leisurely parade complete with stops to kiss babies was actually a swift motorcade, late, perhaps, for the on-stage events. Several said they had misplaced their priority on getting a photo, rather than focusing on really seeing Pope Francis.

That night, the crowd heard music from Marie Miller, the Fray and Andrea Bocelli, but also stories of families from around the world who shared their joys and struggles with Pope Francis. The brief testimonials were honest and moving, and they compelled the Holy Father to drop his prepared remarks and speak from the heart to the families gathered, quipping about family struggles, but also challenging them to live in love.

“Families have a citizenship that is divine,” he said. “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.”

Practice in patience

By noon the next day, the archdiocesan delegation was back at the parkway, waiting to get through security ahead of the 4 p.m. Mass. It was then that Pat Shannon started counting aloud the group’s steps, which in the standstill crowd felt like milestones.

Despite the inconvenience, the crowd was jovial — holding up babies to elicit cheers, doing the wave and buying hotdogs from the enterprising Episcopal Church adjacent the street. Some groups prayed the rosary and sang hymns as they inched their way to the bag checks and metal detectors.

The Shannons and others in their group finally got through at 4:45 p.m. in time to hear Pope Francis preach. They missed not only the first half of the liturgy, but also the entrance hymn composed by archdiocesan priest and University of St. Thomas professor Father Jan Michael Joncas.

They walked about a block before weaving into the crowd, hoping to get a better view of the jumbotron. Most people stood, but some children rested on blankets in the street, and adults perched on collapsible chairs. Onlookers strained to read the translation that ran under the pope’s picture as he preached in Spanish.

At Communion, yellow and white umbrellas popped up to mark extraordinary ministers of holy Communion, but the sheer number of people made it impossible for all to receive. The Shannons and others with them were turned away.

Crowd estimates for the papal Mass ranged wildly from 142,000 to more than 800,000.

With “withering hours of thousands pressing through security checks and jumbotron-only views of His Holiness,” Pat Shannon said the most memorable part of the pilgrimage was the World Meeting of Families and the friendships formed among fellow pilgrims.” In a reflection following the trip, he called the conference “stirring.”

For other pilgrims, the fleeting glimpse of the pope was well worth the hassle.

Justin Duda, whose right arm was in a sling from a sports injury, had joked ahead of seeing Pope Francis that he would try to jump the barrier for a blessing — and maybe a miraculous healing.

While waiting for the pope to pass by Saturday night, he was sobered by a nearby event volunteer holding a child with cancer and a 13-year-old from Peru with a handwritten letter for Pope Francis, he said. Despite their efforts, neither the volunteer nor the girl was able to interact with the pontiff as he headed to the stage.

For Duda, a student at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth and a FOCUS missionary from Mary, Mother of the Church in Burnsville, seeing the pope was enough.

“My first thought was, ‘I can’t believe I’m here,’” he said.

The Festival of Families, too, was beyond his expectations. “It makes me feel like I can do my work as a missionary more and more, and it’s arming me with the tools and spirits and courage to go out and do my work.”


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