I’m a little late in chiming in on the World the Meeting of Families. I have spent the past few days feeling overwhelmed from an incredible and exhausting pilgrimage to Philadelphia. My mind still seems to be spinning from this life-changing experience. The week was jam-packed with amazing speakers, large scale painting and service projects, Mass, prayer, and spiritual reflection which culminated in Benjamin Parkway for two days of celebration with Pope Francis. There were seemingly endless opportunities for prayer and spiritual encounter. Throughout all of these experiences, my heart kept being drawn to the many wounds found in families today and I was constantly reminded of the many burdens that life brings. When we talk about family-life, too often the ideal is portrayed in such a way that often individuals leave feeling inadequate or not “holy” enough. Moreover, Catholics have the tendency to picture saints as the holiest of people, people so perfect that the average person could never live up.
This week was different. This week provided reflection on the realities of family life. Everyday I’m reminded of the struggles of life, in particularly family life. People are burdened with suffering of all kinds: fatigue, rejection, anger, abuse, mental and physical illness, and the list goes on and on. Throughout the week, God reminded me of the responsibility that I have, as His son and disciple, to reach out and touch the wounds of my brothers and sisters in Christ. He showed me that, in the beauty of His divine plan, suffering is often the means by which we become holy. As Pope Francis shared in his speech at the Festival of Families:
“Certainly, in the family there are difficulties. In families we argue. In families sometimes we throw dishes. In families children cause headaches. I’m not going to say anything about mothers-in-law! Families always, always, have crosses. Always. Because the love of God, the Son of God, also asked us to follow him along this way. But in families also, the cross is followed by resurrection, because there too the Son of God leads us. So the family is – if you excuse the word – a workshop of hope, of the hope of life and resurrection.”
(My Mother-in-Law was kind enough to help my wife care for our children while I was away, so I’m going to avoid that subject as well!). What the Pope says here points to a powerful reality that was confirmed by my time with the saints. Three experiences brought that message to life for me: venerating the relics of St. Maria Goretti, venerating relics from St. Gianna and St. John Paul II, and visiting the temporary shrine to Mary the Undoer of Knots. My first encounter was with St. Gianna. St. Gianna, a mother of four, developed fibroma and had a risky final pregnancy. She refused an abortion and hysterectomy, and lost her life to save the life of the daughter she was carrying. That daughter was present at the World Meeting of Families sharing her witness, and her mother’s witness. St. Gianna’s illness, the cross of her and her family, cost her life on earth, but brought about eternal life in the Kingdom of God!
My visit with St. Maria Goretti was further confirmation of this point. Visiting her relics made her life real to me. She actually was a real person! For those who do not know her story, she was only 11 when she died of complications after being stabbed for fighting off her assaulter’s attempts to rape her. Before her tragic death, she forgave the man that killed her, and later appeared to him in a dream which led to his conversion. Her wounds were real, deep, and tragic. Yet, they, too, were the means by which she became a saint, and the means of conversion of the man that killed her.
Visiting the Shrine of Mary, Undoer of Knots brought this point home. The shrine was erected during the week of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia at the Cathedral Basilica, Sts. Peter and Paul. It consisted of fencing where visitors were invited to write prayer intentions on a piece of paper and tie it to the fencing, offering it through the intercession of Mary, the Undoer of the knots. Her intercession helps undo the knots that bind us from a deeper relationship with Jesus, her Son. Upon entering this shrine, I was overwhelmed by the prayers and burdens that are carried and offered in the hearts of those around me. It reminded me that the struggle is real, that people need help, and that people carry wounds both visible and hidden. Simultaneously, I was overwhelmed with the hope that each person has that his or her prayers will be heard, and that the knots and wounds they carry will be undone or transformed! God uses the saints, He uses his creation, to bring about resurrection, and to bring about new life!
Pope Francis shared beautiful words during the homily of his final Mass in Philly. He stated: “When the man and his wife went astray and walked away from God, God did not leave them alone… So great was his love that he began to walk with mankind, he began to walk alongside his people, until the right time came and then he gave the greatest demonstration of love: his Son. And where did he send his Son? To a palace, to a city, to an office building? He sent him to a family.” It’s the family, that brings hope. As God walked with mankind, we too, are called to walk with mankind. It is the family that is charged with the task of bringing God’s powerful love to the world. It is the family, where we learn to walk together. It is in the family where one learns of God’s powerful love, and where he/she learns to love one another. When that is broken, and in a sinful world, that love is often broken. We are called to reach out in our Spiritual family, following the example of our Heavenly Father who is love itself, and touch the wounds of our brothers and sisters. Sure, we know that love hurts, we know that love is painful. But amidst that pain is a force that cannot be reckoned with! It’s a force that the gates of hell will not overpower (Matthew 16:18
Perfect families do not exist. This must not discourage us. Quite the opposite. Love is something we learn; love is something we live; love grows as it is “forged” by the concrete situations which each particular family experiences. ~Pope Francis, The Festival of Families, September 26, 2015