by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — It might take some folks a million words to describe the recently concluded World Meeting of Families, but with a little bit of coaxing, archdiocesan pilgrims finally made do with just one.
“Oh, where do I begin?” said Father Gary Pennings, archdiocesan vicar general and moderator of the curia. “It was a little overwhelming.”
That’s what Dutch and Kathy tenBroek thought.
“It was the most awesome experience my wife and I have had in quite some time,” said Dutch tenBroek, from Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park. “Actually, the content was overwhelming, very inspiring.”
It was all so impressive, said Rosemary Crock, a member of Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Topeka. It was also . . .
“Somewhat overwhelming at times,” she said. “Very beautiful, often.”
Yes, that’s the word: “overwhelming.”
The World Meeting of Families, held Sept. 21 to 25, drew tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the nation and the world to Philadelphia. The crowd swelled to hundreds of thousands when Pope Francis showed for the Festival of Families on Sept. 26 and the papal Mass on Sept. 27.
But the events were not merely “overwhelming” because of the crowd or the content of the keynote presentations and breakout sessions.
It was the joy. That’s what was overwhelming, said Deacon Tony Zimmerman, lead consultant of the archdiocesan marriage and family office.
“I’ve never experienced anything like the pure joy of the 20,000 people in the Pennsylvania Convention Center,” said Deacon Zimmerman. “The presence of the Holy Spirit was there all day during the congress. It was absolutely unbelievable.”
The archdiocesan family life office sponsored the official archdiocesan delegation of 55 people, but other parishioners found their own way to Philadelphia, as did Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, Father Gary Pennings, Father John Riley and Msgr. Michael Mullen.
Happiest (crowded) place on earth
It was inevitable that, with the crowds and security checkpoints, there would be long waits in crowds. The stringent security caused some people to miss the papal Mass.
“The week culminated with the Festival of Families on Saturday evening and the papal Mass on Sunday,” said Father Pennings. “Those events were logistical challenges. It was a lot of ‘hurry up and wait’ because security was so tight.”
“On Sunday, some members of our group spent between four and five hours in line waiting to get security screened,” he continued. “A few did not even make it into Ben Franklin Parkway in time to participate in Mass. I personally had never been in such large crowds. On Sunday for the papal Mass, there had to be a million people in or adjacent to the parkway where the Mass was celebrated.”
Although it was quite unplanned, waiting in line for three and four hours became the occasion for the best interaction. And the crowds were well behaved.
“It was a really positive experience,” said Sister Doris Engeman, FSHF, religious education coordinator at Corpus Christi Parish in Lawrence. “Comments by Secret Service people, Homeland Security and guards of every description were: ‘This is going really well, there are no problems. People are happy, and this is strange.’”
“There was a docility about it,” Sister Doris continued. “We visited with people all around us from all over the world, old and young, people of every description. People were happy and excited. . . . I think with any other crowd the tone would be different.”
Crock and Linden Appel, from Most Pure Heart of Mary Parish in Topeka, met people from the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Philippines, Africa and other American states.
“Joseph from North Carolina was maybe the most single, radiant person we met on the trip,” said Appel. “He had his son with him, who has a severe neurological condition and is in a wheelchair.”
Crock was very touched by a couple from Africa.
“While in line for the Festival of Families, I stood next to a couple from Africa,” she said. “We knew we didn’t have much time together, so we talked about important things quickly. They were very lovely. I told them that I believed Africa would lead the Catholic world because that’s the place where there is a lot of leadership. We met so many Africans — wow, these people are really putting their money where their mouths are.”
They met a boy from Guatemala who lives in the United States with an aunt and uncle who don’t go to church, but he does. They also met a priest named Kennedy — from Latin America.
“He didn’t speak English,” said Crock. “He was trying to find the Mass, but couldn’t find anyone who spoke Spanish. I found out he speaks French, and I studied French long ago, so we were able to invite him to come with us to Mass.”
The world meeting generated an incredible sense of solidarity on all levels.
“It felt good and safe among Christians,” said Linda March, a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Leawood. “It’s the way the world should be. People were kind and patient. It was a celebration.”
“Our group consisted of two or three people who knew each other at the beginning of the trip,” she continued. “We started off as strangers, but ended up as a unit caring about each other. We were blessed to have Msgr. Michael Mullen and Father Gary Pennings with us. They were great spiritual leaders. . . . [They] led the rosary on several of the bus rides, which gave us a peaceful calm.”
Keynotes and breakouts
The main activity for pilgrims was attending the keynote addresses and breakout sessions. Both featured presentations by world-class Catholic speakers.
“I read his books but never had an opportunity to hear Scott Hahn speak [before],” said Shannon Holthaus, a member of Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Seneca. “It was just amazing. His ability to bring the Bible to life, in regard to God’s plan for us and our families, was just amazing.”
“Our group [also] had an opportunity to have a private presentation by Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, from Oregon,” she continued. “He gave the opening remarks and welcome for the World Meeting of Families.”
Several archdiocesan pilgrims were impressed by Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle, archbishop of Manila.
“He spoke to us about the importance of dialogue,” said Father Jim Shaughnessy, pastor of St. Gregory Parish in Marysville and St. Malachy Parish in Beattie.
“In the West, people are concerned about the shrinking influence of the church. But in the East, the Orient, [Christians] have always been a minority and they’ve had to learn to live in dialogue, and to have influence through communication and dialogue with others around them who have the same values and goals,” continued Father Shaughnessy.
“We learn communication and dialogue in the family,” he added, “and that’s how we have to do it with the church as a family with those outside of us.”
Dutch tenBroek liked Cardinal Tagle and the newly ordained Bishop Robert Barron.
“The quality of the presentations was challenging and overwhelming at the same time. We’d go in the morning and almost be numb by the time we came out,” said Dutch tenBroek.
Bishop Barron gave some very practical advice for Dutch and his wife Kathy, who lead marriage preparation classes.
“One of the things we struggle with is the young couples [telling us] ‘You’re really good at explaining the rules, but how [about] explaining the why behind the rules?’
“Bishop Barron used a golf analogy, which opened my eyes a bit. He said the rules for swinging a golf club are designed to help you swing better, and the better you are at the rules, the freer you are to play the game.
“The same thing’s true with our faith. The rules are designed to free you up.”
One of the favorite speakers wasn’t Catholic. He was Pastor Rick Warren, the evangelical Protestant pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest, California.
“Pastor Warren had a great presentation about the current state of affairs that Christians are facing,” said Father Pennings. “He said, ‘In today’s society, materialism is idolized, immorality is glamorized, truth is minimized, sin is normalized, divorce is rationalized and abortion is legalized.’”
Taking the world meeting home
Tom Rangel was listening to a Catholic radio station while driving his truck one morning when he heard a 12-year-old girl asked why she wanted to go to the World Meeting of Families.
“She responded by saying, ‘I want to go see the pope because I want to see the successor of St. Peter,” said Rangel, from Mother Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Topeka. “She was right on target. I just have to stand behind her, raise my hand, and say, ‘Ditto.’”
He and his wife Connie marveled at how friendly the Philadelphians were, and how strong was the witness of their fellow pilgrims.
“Everyone I stood by — front and back, left and right — the conversations were so heartfelt,” he continued. “I had conversations with the most strong-willed Catholics. There were so many beautiful people there.”
Important and wonderful things happened at the World Meeting of Families, but the greatest thing is what the pilgrims will take away: their mission.
“On the one side [of the stage] was a display [with] ‘Love Is Our Mission,’” said Rangel. “Cardinal Tagle talked about that. We should have this love naturally in our immediate family, but the love should also be in our extended family. The love should be in our parish family and it should be in our community family.”
“It’s easy to love your family, but to love your enemies. . . . When those points were brought up I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got some people in that category I struggle with,’” said Rangel. “You’re supposed to love your neighbor as yourself. My wife and I came away with a stronger will to push that portion of our faith further.
“At Mother Teresa we do a lot — we try to be active. But the message is we need to do more.
“That’s what we came away with. Love needs to move way out forward.”