September 11, 2015
When Pope Francis makes his first visit to the U.S. later this month, millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike will be closely following his journey from Washington, D.C., to New York to Philadelphia. Some members of the Diocese of Nashville will be making the trip, eager to experience the pope’s message of mercy and hope in person.
The spark that ignites
When tickets became available to view Pope Francis’ historic address to a joint session of Congress from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, Catholic Youth Office Director Bill Staley jumped at the chance.
He and his fellow chaperones will lead two busloads of high school students on the whirlwind journey, which will include driving to Washington, watching the papal address outside on a jumbo screen, and returning home, all within 32 hours.
“This is unchartered territory,” Staley said of organizing a trip to see the pope and juggling all the security and logistics that go with it.
There is so much excitement around this visit from Pope Francis, Staley said, and he is happy to facilitate an encounter between the young people of the diocese and the pope.
“This is the kind of thing that really transforms people’s lives. It could provide the initial spark that ignites people’s lives,” he said. “We have to offer these experiences because you never know what will happen.”
After Pope Francis makes his address to Congress on Thursday, Sept. 24, he is expected to come out on the balcony and give a blessing to the estimated 50,000 people who will be gathered on the lawn, Staley said. Pope Francis has an uncanny knack for cutting through a crowd of thousands and connecting with people, and the students in his group are anticipating a special moment with the pope.
Young people don’t just want to snap a photo of the pope, the holy celebrity, on their smartphone; they find true spiritual comfort in him. “They see him as a stepping stone between us and God,” Staley said. “He really is a global Holy Father … meeting people where they are on this digital continent.”
Renewed focus on families
Bishop David Choby will attend Pope Francis’ first events in Washington, a day ahead of the Congressional address – a meeting with U.S. bishops at the Cathedral of St. Matthew, and the canonization of Blessed Junipero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
The canonization Mass, especially, will be “very meaningful for me,” Bishop Choby said, because of the local Serra Club’s strong support for vocations, and the many priestly ordinations that have taken place in the Diocese of Nashville in recent years.
Bishop Choby also plans to attend the World Meeting of Families Congress in Philadelphia, the impetus for Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S. Bishop Choby said he would be looking to the Congress and upcoming Synod of Bishops on the Family to guide “our own response to serve the needs of family life and married life as its lived out in our own diocese.”
The World Meeting of Families Congress, held every three years since 1994, is designed to strengthen the sacred bonds of families across the globe. This year’s Congress, to be held in Philadelphia Sept. 22-27, will draw people from around the world to hear a diverse roster of speakers addressing the theme, “Love is our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.”
Bishop Choby said he “very much hopes to see married life and family life renewed in the spirit of the Gospel.”
After such a strong focus on priestly vocations in recent years, Bishop Choby said now he would like to turn more attention in the diocese to family life. The upcoming years present a “unique opportunity to re-energize ourselves in regards to service and ministry to families and couples,” he said.
Deacon Tom Samoray will guide the diocese’s renewed efforts to support couples and families, and he’s hoping the World Meeting of Families will offer some valuable tools for the toolkit. That might include learning how to better reach people such as single parents, widows and widowers, and women who have experienced a miscarriage, for example.
“Pope Francis tries to reach out to those who feel neglected and on the margins who need some attention, and unfortunately their numbers are growing,” said Deacon Samoray.
He would also like to start some programming for newly married couples. “One of the biggest areas where we could do better is newlywed enrichment,” he said, because adjusting to the first years of marriage is notoriously difficult.
In the upcoming months, Deacon Samoray will transition from focusing solely on engaged couples’ retreats and priestly vocations to serving as a coordinator of all family life activities in the diocese. Father Austin Gilstrap will take over the duties of vocations coordinator.
Deacon Samoray, who will attend the events in Philadelphia with his wife of 42 years, Barb, said he is also looking forward to distributing Communion at the closing papal Mass in Philadelphia on Sunday, Sept. 27. “I’m pretty excited to be able to do that,” he said.
‘This is something big’
Janet Catalano, RCIA director at St. Henry Church, along with her husband Deacon Mike Catalano, will also be attending the World Meeting of Families. When she first heard it would take place in Philadelphia, the first time ever outside of Europe, she knew that “this is something big” and she wanted to participate.
The mother of two teenage daughters, Catalano is looking forward to hearing about new ideas that can be incorporated into ministries in the Diocese of Nashville. One issue she is particularly concerned about is the impact of technology and electronics on family life and young people’s relationships, how they can inhibit people from meaningfully connecting face to face. Parents need to know how to combat that, she said. “Are we breaking bread together, sharing virtues with our children?”
Catalano also hopes to hear about the sacredness of marriage, an important topic in her role as RCIA director.
“The idea of marriage as a sacrament is a new take on marriage” for people entering the Catholic Church who may not have been married in the Church, she said. “I would like to be able to re-instill the concept of marriage as a sacrament.”
Catalano is excited about the diocese’s renewed support for marriage and family life, because, she said, “it really has not been tackled to its fullest extent.”
Catalano is already planning a day of presentations this fall to share what she and other members of the diocese learn from the Congress, which will be open to all. “We can’t cover everything,” she said, but “we want to cover topics applicable to everyday life.” More details will be available in the Tennessee Register in the coming weeks.
‘Beautiful vocation’ of families
Mother Ann Marie Karlovic, O.P., prioress general of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, along with three other sisters, will lead a breakout session at the Congress on “Fostering Vocations in the Home,” exploring the connection between family life and vocations in the Church.
“A strong family life, where Christ is at the center, very naturally opens itself to the life of the Church outside the family, especially the parish family,” Mother Ann Marie said. “The family is the privileged place where the faith is first passed on to each child by the parents. … It is their first school of virtue.”
Pope Francis “has a genuine feel for family life, I think, which must certainly come from his experience in his own family, and from his practical pastoral experience,” Mother Ann Marie said. “Always his message is one of understanding, while at the same time seeking to help families live the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life.”
Mother Ann Marie emphasized that the World Meeting of Families is meant to be a celebration of the “beautiful vocation” of families. “The Church wants married couples to experience the fact that the Church loves them, deeply values their vocation which is so crucial in the life of the Church and in society.”
Truth with love and mercy
Joan Watson, director of adult formation for the Diocese of Nashville, is traveling to Philadelphia, eager to witness a vibrant church, alive and well. “I’m going for the adventure,” she says with a laugh.
A seasoned traveler who has lived in Rome, she said she is ready to brave the throngs of people and is “really excited to hear for myself what Pope Francis has to say versus what media spin is,” she said.
The mainstream media often “misses the hard truths” of Pope Francis’ message, Watson said. “He delivers the truth in love and mercy,” she said, “but mercy doesn’t mean letting everything slide.”
Pope Francis offers ample opportunities for sinners to repent, and for those seeking a conversion of heart to find refuge in the Church, Watson said.
A student of Pope Benedict, Watson said she sees striking similarities between Popes Benedict and Francis, but also key differences. Benedict, a professor and scholar, “was not getting through to the culture,” she said, because “he’s not tweet-able.” On the other hand, Pope Francis is “the face of the new evangelization … speaking in sound bites for the guy on the sidewalk.”
While the message of the two popes is largely the same, “the delivery of the message has changed,” Watson said, and that sometimes results in people misunderstanding the message, or taking it out of context, but at least more people are paying attention.
When Pope Francis comes to the U.S., he will come with the intention of “building up families,” Watson said. “He radiates joy, peace and hope. We all have brokenness in our families” and we need that message he brings.”
The World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’ visit “will be a time of grace and renewal of family life, not only in our country, but in the whole world,” Mother Ann Marie said. “The Holy Spirit is at work in an event such as this. We simply need to be open to what He wants to do in each of us.”