Preparations underway for World Meeting of Families

By Sharon Perkins
Diocesan Staff

In February 2014, in his “Letter to Families,” Pope Francis announced an Extraordinary General Assembly of all the world’s bishops, convened to discuss the theme of “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization.” 
That assembly met in Rome last fall, producing much debate and inviting controversy as media outlets reported on hot-button issues such as the status of divorced and remarried Catholics. The Ordinary Synod on the Family in October will continue the bishops’ conversations on the themes raised last fall and draw on additional data gleaned from dioceses throughout the world. (Further explanation of these two synods can be found at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ website: www.usccb.org). 
Just prior to the Ordinary Synod , the World Meeting of Families will be held in Philadelphia this September. Since its inception by St. John Paul II in 1994, the World Meeting of Families — the world’s largest Catholic gathering of families — has been sponsored by the Holy See’s Pontifical Council for the Family and held every three years. The theme of the Philadelphia gathering is “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” emphasizing the impact of the love and life of families on our society.
With such significant occasions approaching on the horizon for the universal church, how do these events impact Catholics at the local level, especially in Central Texas? How are Catholics in the Diocese of Austin invited to prepare and participate, given that most of them will neither assemble with the bishops in Rome nor travel to Philadelphia for the festivities in September? 
Survey
In the spirit of dialogue demonstrated by Pope Francis and in response to the directive to find a “suitable manner” of involvement from components of the particular churches, in February Bishop Joe Vásquez invited the faithful to complete an online, 48-question, narrative style survey in English and Spanish, corresponding to the issues raised by the Extraordinary Synod. 
The 190 English responses denoted a wide range of opinions about the nature of marriage and family and a broad spectrum of lived experience. Some indicated that nuclear families with children are often considered as normative, to the unfortunate exclusion of other kinds of family arrangements and situations. 
Several other themes emerged as well: strong and often polarized opinion around the church’s teaching and pastoral practice on artificial contraception; a frequent call for better adult catechesis, more family based catechesis, and a more thorough and comprehensive preparation for marriage; a lament from many respondents that clergy do not sufficiently address the issue of marriage in their homilies nor do they connect with the realities of family life; and concern about the shortage of pastoral care for families, especially those in crisis situations — suggesting that ministers of care should be recruited from among peers and receive better training. 
The function of the diocesan Tribunal and the entire annulment process, from start to completion, was of vital concern, with calls for making the process more streamlined, pastorally sensitive and personally welcoming. The emotionally and politically-charged issues of abortion, same-sex attraction and gender identity confusion also were mentioned — advocating support, counseling and mentoring resources and an attitude of mercy toward those who are struggling, while maintaining the clarity and integrity of church teaching on chastity for all members. While there were no Spanish-language responses to the survey, the summary report sent to the USCCB and then to Rome reflected many concerns particular to the experiences of Latino families.
A challenge
As the World Meeting of Families approaches, individuals and families are invited to participate in the 10-week “Love is Our Mission” Challenge. A slim, easy-to-read booklet entitled “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive” has been prepared for catechesis and discussion prior to the World Meeting of Families (available for purchase or download in several languages at www.worldmeeting2015.org). 
Copies of the booklet have been distributed to Catholic school leaders, parish directors of religious education, and members of the diocesan staff, who meet on Fridays for “brown bag” discussions of the document and its implications for ministry.
Parish level
Several parishes are also hosting gatherings for all ages, using a formula that combines food, fun, creativity, intergenerational learning and prayer. Amy Allert, director of Adult and Family Ministry at St. Louis King of France Parish in Austin, identified the themes of “Fatherhood, Motherhood, Marriage and Family” to design a four-part series of parish events open to families of every shape, size and circumstance — single, engaged, divorced, with kids or without. 
“We all are part of a family in some way whether it’s the family we come from, the family we create through marriage and children or our faith family as Catholics. We simply come together to share a meal, share fellowship and learn about how families are supported and celebrated in our Catholic faith,” Allert said. 
The response has been positive thus far.
“Although it might have been a little confusing to those who are single or don’t have a traditional family, the parish seems to be catching on,” she said.
For future events, Allert is watching and listening to Pope Francis and the continued efforts of the Synod as well to develop themes and ideas.
Diocesan level
As the fall meetings in Philadelphia and Rome draw near, the diocesan Office of Evangelization, Catechesis and Family Life is planning a corresponding event, “A Celebration of Families Fully Alive,” for Nov. 14, at a location to be announced in the Austin area. More details will be available in the Catholic Spirit and on the diocesan website at www.austindiocese.org.