The City of Brotherly Love lived up to its name as millions of people from around the globe poured into Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families and two days of worship with Pope Francis.
Held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia from Sept. 22-25, the world meeting was a high-energy celebration of faith, with daily Mass, devotions, keynote addresses and breakout sessions.
International heavy hitters spoke at the conference, lifting the faithful up and infusing them with a fresh breath of the Spirit to go forth and be the face of Christ. Some of the favorites from the diocesan folks who attended included Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, and Bishop Martin Igwe Uzoukwu of Nigeria.
Religious leaders maintained an atmosphere of love as enthusiasm steadily mounted for the arrival of Pope Francis on Sept. 26.
“The absolute highlight of the trip was the pope’s visit,” said Michael Martocchio, diocesan director of Catechesis and Christian Initiation, “but the rest of the week — you can’t downplay what the conference was all about and the impact it made.”
Martocchio and his family were among several busloads of people from the Diocese of Charleston that made the trek to attend the conference and see and hear the pope.
At the Festival of Families on Sept. 26, Martocchio, his wife Kristen and daughters, Francesca and Cecilia, arrived super early and found spots about 30 yards from where the Holy Father would be.
“Here I am, sitting with my family as the pope is speaking about how God’s love shines through the family,” he said. “It was pretty cool, pretty special.”
The next day was more leisurely and they ended up at the back of the crowd for the celebration of Mass, but that spot had its own rewards.
“We were sitting at the back of this massive throng, and we saw the vastness of the Catholic Church, with people from all over the world,” Martocchio said. “[The area] was transformed from a parkway to a basilica.”
Others from the diocese lined the Benjamin Franklin Parkway as Pope Francis made his way up the avenue in his open-air popemobile, waving to the crowds who sang and cheered his name in many languages. When he reached the altar, he praised the listeners for their presence, calling it an affirmation of the family and the power of love.
“Would that all of us could be open to miracles of love for the sake of all the families of the world,” he said.
That call to show love and reach out to one another was a message that Kathy Schmugge saw in action throughout the week. Director of the diocesan Office of Family Life, she said every interaction she witnessed at the conference, the Festival of Families and Mass with the pope was handled with joy and love, even the inconveniences.
When someone in a wheelchair or motorized scooter found themselves blocked by cement barriers, people around them jumped to help, lifting the bulky items over the wall and helping the people through small openings in the blockade.
Schmugge said almost everyone in her group faced obstacles along the way, some large and some small. But each time, the sacrifice ended in blessings, including herself, who was blessed with a meeting and photo with Bishop Robert Barron.
“It was like God was putting His arm around me and saying ‘Thank you,’” she said.
The challenge she received from the trip is to look for solutions to family struggles with greater zeal and enthusiasm, Schmugge said.
“If you’re doing well in your family, then look around and reach out to someone else,” she encouraged.
Michaela Schenkelberg, a graduate student at the University of South Carolina and member of the Columbia young adults group, said that is a challenge she will take up in her own life.
“The whole conference was just filled with wisdom,” she said. Listening to families — across the spectrum of nuclear family, community and church — as they spoke about their trials and how they overcame them through the teachings of the Church was inspiring, and she hopes to pass it along to others.
During the pope’s visit, Schenkelberg and her group arrived with the sun to claim a spot both days. She was rewarded by being about five feet from Pope Francis at the family festival.
“People were climbing trees and poles to see the pope; it was crazy,” she said. At the celebration of Mass, she ended up on her friend Luke Chojnowski’s shoulders and took some treasured photos of the pontiff.
The whole flock came home physically exhausted but rejoicing and rejuvenated in their faith; ready to take on new challenges of evangelization — to spread the faith and care for their fellow man.