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The World Meeting of Families: An Introductory Report

September 22-25, 2015

Coinciding with Pope Francis’ first visit to the United States, the 2015 World Meeting of Families (WMF) will kick off in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on September 22 and run through September 25 at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. Organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, the World Meeting of Families is billed as “a week-long international event of prayer, catechesis, and celebration that draws participants from around the globe.” While primarily a Catholic-oriented event, the WMF is an interdenominational, multi-faith conference held every three years. Because the pope’s visit to Philadelphia will cap the WMF with a special Mass, this year’s meeting is set to host a projected 15,000 attendees.

The 2015 WMF theme is “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive”—a sentiment that is derived from St. Irenaeus’ claim that “the Glory of God is man fully alive.”

While the theme is worded broadly enough to allow for a number of interpretations, this year’s meeting appears to take a conservative line on what constitutes “family” and the political, social, and economic positions in which those families find themselves. Session titles include: “The Light of the Family in a Dark World”, “Can Society Exist Without the Family?”, “A Gift from God: The Meaning of Human Sexuality”, “Pro-Creation as Co-Creation: The Spirituality of Parenting”, “One Ring to Rule Them All: The Covenant of Marriage”, “Where is this Relationship Going? Dating as Discernment” and “Digging into Dignity: Promoting the Dignity of the Human Person.” A brief survey of scheduled speakers—Fr. Robert Barron, Cardinal Robert Sarah, Dr. Scott Hahn, Professor Helen Alvaré, and Dr. Greg and Mrs. Lisa Popcak—further indicates the WMF’s conservative attitude towards family.

While a significant amount of national and international attention has been devoted to Pope Francis’ impending visit to Philadelphia, the amount of media attention paid to the 2015 World Meeting of Families has been notably smaller. The primary exception to this limited press coverage is a conflict between the archdiocese and progressive LGBT Catholic groups—a disagreement that has underscored the conservative tone of the meeting.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, the host of the 2015 World Meeting of Families, extended a welcome to gay families that was quickly followed by his rationale for WMF programming: “We don’t want to provide a platform at the meeting for people to lobby for positions contrary to the life of our church.” Thus, the 22 representatives from the Equally Blessed coalition, which works for a more inclusive Catholic community for LGBT people, will not be allowed to make a presentation.

Francis DeBernardo, spokesperson of New Ways Ministry, accused the clergy of “putting their heads in the sand” because the only speakers that will be talking about LGBT issues are a celibate gay man and his mother. New Ways Ministry had initially planned a parallel set of workshops at a Catholic church in Philadelphia along with other Equally Blessed members. However, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that, upon the instigation of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, St. John the Evangelist church rescinded its invitation to the coalition. The workshops will be held at a nearby Methodist church during the meeting instead.

The WMF’s unwelcoming attitude towards LGBT Catholics indicates the official conservative stance in Philadelphia on the eve of the pope’s arrival. Precisely how these attitudes will intersect with Pope Francis’ more pastoral comments on the family remains to be seen. For instance, Francis declared that during the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy, all priests could offer absolution to women who have had an abortion. This could prove to be a challenging topic for the strongly antiabortion milieu at the WMF.

In the coming days, the views on family and love heard inside the walls of the Pennsylvania Convention Center are sure to be compelling. And whatever those views may be, however they may intersect, conflict and align, Catholics for Choice will be on hand to provide you with the information that will help inform your opinion and exercise your conscience.