Families Find Their Voice

There was a relaxed and festive atmosphere in the City of Brotherly Love on Saturday – quite a contrast with the high drama of the pope’s major speech to the United Nations and his visit to the 9/11 Memorial in Lower Manhattan on Friday. Perhaps also because he was finally at the World Meeting of Families – his main reason for coming to America – he delivered several crucial and strong messages.

In the morning, Francis gave a dignified homily to bishops and clergy at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul that encouraged vocations – lay and religious – and he spoke fluently, at times passionately, about religious freedom in front of Constitution Hall. But perhaps the high point of the day for him was how he held the crowd mesmerized at an otherwise rather kitschy concert in the evening, speaking in very simple terms about God, love, and family.

As has been his practice here in the United States, he approached his subjects often by invoking notable American figures. In Philadelphia, that’s easier than many other places because it’s the only American city to have had a saint for a bishop (St. John Neumann) and also one of the truly remarkable modern saints, Mother Katharine Drexel who died in 1955 and was canonized by St. John Paul II in 2000.

Drexel was the daughter of a very wealthy banker and spent about $20 million of what she inherited – a much larger figure in current dollars – on her philanthropic enterprises, which included missions to Indian reservations in the West – then some of the poorest and least cared for populations in America.

The pope referred to a private audience she had with pope Leo XIII, during which she spoke of the need for missions. But Leo asked her pointedly: “What about you? What are you going to do?” That question led to the discovery of a special vocation focused on education and personal care. Pope Francis turned that question to all those present – how would they act and how would they inspire others to become “a leaven of the Gospel in our world.”

And given the way of the world these days, he added:

This will require creativity in adapting to changed situations, carrying forward the legacy of the past not primarily by maintaining our structures and institutions, which have served us well, but above all by being open to the possibilities which the Spirit opens up to us and communicating the joy of the Gospel, daily and in every season of our life.

True enough, though as this passage suggests, the way forward is not clear – which is why it was appropriate that he called upon everyone to pray for the upcoming Synod on the Family.

The pope at Independence Hall
The pope at Independence Hall

The speech on religious freedom in the afternoon was deliberately set up so that the pope could speak to “The Hispanic community and other immigrants.” This might easily have led to a one-sided, sentimentalized view of immigration. And indeed, the Holy Father remarked, “Never be ashamed of your traditions. Do not forget the lessons you learned from your elders, which are something you can bring to enrich the life of this American land.” But he added something quite important that we rarely hear in the secular discussion of immigration questions: “You are also called to be responsible citizens, and to contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which you live.” Not so much, therefore, a political message as a moral and humane one.

None of his public statements had very prominent public policy implications on Saturday, but it’s interesting the way he approached religious freedom. It seems clear now that he is not much informed about the ways that HHS mandates insisted on by the Obama Administration or the militancy of the gay activists are the greatest threats to Catholic hospitals, relief agencies, and other institutions. Or it may be that he just doesn’t want to tackle those directly.

In any event, it was interesting that he didn’t present the question of religious freedom as something of concern internal to Catholicism, but as a general public good: “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.”

Some people were upset that when the Holy Father listed several of the moral struggles of American history – “the abolition of slavery, the extension of voting rights, the growth of the labor movement, and the gradual effort to eliminate every kind of racism and prejudice” – that he did not mention the most urgent human rights question of our time. But he did bring it up later, thanking those who have helped build up cities of brotherly love by, among other things, defending “the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages.”

The most moving pro-family messages of the day, however, came at the rather cheesy festival Saturday evening when acts that didn’t entirely seem appropriate to an event intended to bolster the family unrolled before the Holy Father. But these were interspersed with families who had traveled to Philadelphia from every continent – Australia, East Europe, the Middle East, Africa, North America, South America. They spoke of difficulties and glories, social exclusion and pride, handicaps and love.

No institution on earth can bring together the global family like the Catholic Church. And in an improvised discourse just before the fireworks, the Holy Father drove home the connection between divine love and familial love in a way that seemed to mesmerize the crowd.

So, a good day for Francis and the Church, nothing spectacular, no new intellectual ground broken, but rather a broad-gauged, multi-dimensional circling of several key issue about marriage and family life.

Sunday, the final day of the World Meeting of Families, will have to pull all these things together.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.