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The World Meeting of Families: Day Two

September 25, 2015

Halfway through the keynote address by Dr. Juan Francisco de la Guardia Brin and Mrs. Gabriela N. de la Guardia at the 2015 World Meeting of Families (WMF), the doctor used a metaphor concerning traffic lights. “Sexuality is like rules of transit, especially as our stoplights. We have green lights—it says ‘go right: on, forward.’ The yellow says, ‘Take care, cautious.’ Here we come with red, and the red definitively says, ‘Stop.’ And this is not for just having any kind of liberty—these are lights that we have to respect in order to arrive at our destination. They are there to protect us. And just imagine what would happen if, because we ought to respect ‘freedom’ or ‘the right of everybody,’ let’s just say every driver just does whatever he wants.” A third of the room clapped whole-heartedly, a third joined in with a manner that seemed perfunctory and the final third of the ballroom abstained altogether. Three groups of people hearing the same message, all behaving as if they were seeing a different colored light before them—the recipe for a traffic jam.

For the second day of the WMF, Dr. de la Guardia Brin’s metaphor could not have been more apt. From one session to another it seemed as though the tenor of the crowd changed. What drew applause in one breakout session failed to do so in another. Compounding these opposed attitudes were more logistical bottlenecks. Sessions were moved to different locations without warning, with changes only announced several minutes after the lecture was scheduled to start. The exhibition hall was given notice that it would close a day early—while rumors circulated about Philadelphia Police Department security measures, attendees weren’t given a clear answer for the early closure. There were difficulties with the professional translation services for some speakers, rendering certain addresses as staccato, halting presentations.

Albeit with several starts and stops, the WMF barreled ahead. With the exception of keynote addresses, the distinct ideological groups appeared to split off into their own directions with the start of breakout sessions. Judging from the questions and applause, these sessions seemed to be reasonably homogenous.

Dr. Janet Smith, three-term consultor to the Pontifical Council on the Family, set the tone for the day’s more conservative elements. A well-known opponent of contraception and a woman’s right to choose, Dr. Smith led a breakout session focusing on Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae—clearly placing herself within the camp of attendees holding fast to this ban on modern forms of birth control. “In vitro fertilization is necessary to a great extent because of contraception,” she assured her audience without citing a source, “because there are more and more women who get sexually transmitted diseases, the sexually transmitted diseases are a huge contributing factor to infertility.” Given the subject matter and title of her session—“Ahead of Its Time: The Prophetic Character of Humanae Vitae”—Dr. Smith met little opposition when affirming that contraception “contributes to poverty and social chaos” or “paves the way for same-sex unions.” In fact, she met none.

It was more or less the same situation in the session held by Ron Belgau and his mother, Beverly—the only segment featuring LGBT issues. Speaking on the subject “Always Consider the Person: Homosexuality and the Family,” Ron and his mother relayed the tale of his coming out, his struggle with his decision to do so, his father’s ultimate acceptance of his sexual orientation and Ron’s decision to stay within the faith while committing himself to celibacy. Forced to move from the main ballroom to a smaller, though still sizeable, venue due to a scheduling mistake, the session was standing room only. When Ron recounted his story the crowd clapped and nodded at certain points. A passionate remark made by Beverly as she attempted to wrap her portion of the presentation—that gay and lesbian Catholics just “want to be part of the church; they want to be accepted in the church”—was met with significant applause.

In the question and answer portion of the session, lines formed behind a pair of microphones and an engaging dialogue began. Individuals participating in a parallel LGBT event held by New Ways Ministry at a nearby Methodist Church opened a dialogue with the Belgaus. While they did not agree on some points, all speakers, along with Ron and Beverly, were understanding and civil. Ron accepted an invitation to participate in New Ways Ministry’s nighttime event. Worried family members asked practical questions—about suicide, about coping with family stress and acceptance, about why the church is not taking practical steps on how to deal with members of the faith whom it says it does not condemn, but whom it will not accept. They received patient, sympathetic answers, even when those answers were a simple, “I do not know.”

In the afternoon, while confusion was mounting about which rooms would house which sessions, the day’s highlight took place. At the keynote address by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the prominent archbishop of Manila delivered a speech titled “The Family: A Home for the Wounded Heart.” For an event that derives a great deal of its moment from the impending presence of Pope Francis, it has been somewhat peculiar that the central themes of the current pope’s tenure—mercy and charity—have been only briefly mentioned in the keynote sessions, or have been left out altogether. Even when these subjects have been brought up, they’ve been connected with various political points, even if somewhat elliptically. In what was no doubt the most well-attended session thus far, Cardinal Tagle neither skirted nor politicized these core issues. In concrete terms he discussed a duty to the poor and the corrosiveness of petty arguments that divide families, states, countries and regions. He made the subject personal, encouraging good works while acknowledging just how hard and ugly dealing with dark issues could be.

“At the core of the church,” the cardinal assured the audience, is “intimate union, communion, love—and NOT alienation. So at the very core of the church’s duty is its mission: you are not there to alienate further; you are there to heal, to unite, to reconcile.” For the first time in three days, the cheers were unanimous. Despite their diverse opinions, again and again the crowd cheered Cardinal Tagle. They applauded him when he encouraged his audience to look after everyone, even those with whom they disagreed vehemently, even those they demonized—perhaps even those who have been shamed for their stances on contraception. The cardinal swiftly but gently pivoted on the crowd, asking them: “Are you willing to heal even your wounded enemy?”

A unanimous silence fell. Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle smiled at his listeners, tilted his head and put a rather dysfunctional day into perspective by concluding, “And nobody claps.”

Which, of course, made half the crowd clap.