Reflections on the World Meeting of Families Congress and Papal Visit

Phoebe McDonald, from All Saints Parish in Ballymena was one of the thousands who traveled to Dublin to attend the World Meeting of Families Congress and Papal visit. She has penned some personal reflections on her experience there for The Church Page:

Phoebe writes:

“Having just returned a week ago from the World Meeting of Families Congress and Papal Visit, I’ve been asked to share my experience of taking part. But first, let me go back to a few memories of Pope John Paul’s visit to Ireland in 1979 when I was eleven years old. My younger brother was to go to Drogheda with the Parish Scout group. But I awoke that morning to the hysterical wails of my brother, aged 10, (died suddenly aged 28), as both my parents had slept in and Leo had missed the bus! And so, without any preparation of any kind, my dad told us all to get up out of bed and get into the car because we would all be going to Drogheda to see the Pope. Unfortunately, my memories of that time were not of a very spiritual nature. It was a six hour car journey, our car broke down twice, and the six of us spent the night in the car in a field in the middle of nowhere! Though what I do remember clearly was the theme of peace, a plea from Pope John Paul II for the paramilitaries to lay down their weapons and the heartfelt call for all citizens, especially young people, to seek peace in our land. This time around, thirty-nine years later, I was hoping for a more spiritual experience!

Reflections on The World Meeting of Families Congress and Papal Visit

The theme on this occasion was “The Joy of Love” and would be based on the scripture from 1 Corinthians 13, on which Pope Francis has written a book entitled, “Amoris Laetitia”. The Papal visit was part of a five-day event, “The World Meeting of Families”, which takes place every three years in a different country, and always culminates in a Papal visit. But although this was the theme, this event could not take place without Pope Francis and the many other speakers addressing the issue of sexual abuse in the church.

Choirs from all around the country were invited to participate in the music and a few of us from All Saints Parish, Ballymena, took up the offer. This involved practices in Belfast, Armagh and Dublin. We sang on the first day of the Congress in a choir of about three hundred and then at the closing Papal Mass on the Sunday as part of a massed choir of over three thousand. Spiritually and musically, this was a deeply moving experience, and certainly one I will never forget.

Thousands attended the World Meeting of Families Congress.

The first three days of the Congress which took place at the RDS in Dublin, and was attended by about eight thousand people each day, consisted of presentations by speakers from across the globe on a wide variety of issues relating to family life. While the overriding theme was of joy, the reality of family life with all its difficulties, trials, disappointments, hurt and pain was always present. The speakers from every walk of life, including clergy, did not try to paint a picture of a garden of roses, but looked at God’s vision for family life, based on scripture, in particular, 1 Corinthians 13, and then addressed the reality. A kids’ and youth programme also took place each day, and there was a celebration of the Eucharist in the afternoons followed by evening entertainment.

Reflections on The World Meeting of Families Congress and Papal Visit

Pope Francis arrives.

Pope Francis arrived on Saturday 25th. He first met with officials and dignitaries, then met with the homeless at the Capuchin Day Centre, and also addressed a group of young people recently married or preparing for marriage in St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral. He then met with a group of survivors of clerical abuse for two hours before attending the Festival of Families in Croke Park, where eighty thousand people had gathered to hear personal stories of family life experiences, interspersed with entertainment from the Riverdance Troupe, Daniel O’Donnell, The Priests and Andrea Bocelli, to name just a few. This festival certainly captured the theme of joy and love. On Sunday morning, Pope Francis visited the shrine at Knock in Co. Mayo before heading back to Dublin’s Phoenix Park to celebrate the Eucharist with an estimated 300,000 people.

For those attending, this was to be a day of pilgrimage, involving a very long walk from the coach/car parks to get to Phoenix Park and another long walk through the miles of the park in squally winds and lashing rain to where the altar had been erected. As part of the choir, we had to arrive at 10.30am for a rehearsal and then had a long wait, (in the pouring rain), for the start of Mass at 3pm. I never envisaged a plastic poncho would be so appreciated! It was much too windy for umbrellas. The massed choir was sitting on either side of the altar and so we had a great view of everyone arriving over the next few hours. Mixed with a sense of anticipation was also a subdued excitement at times as the heavens opened and the wind nearly blew us off our seats.

Reflections on The World Meeting of Families Congress and Papal Visit

At. 2.15pm, Pope Francis arrived in his “Popemobile” to do the standard “preamble” through the drenched, waiting crowds. The rain stopped, the sun came out and the culmination of the five-day event began. The choir began to sing, the crowds cheered and smiles appeared on the faces of cold, wet and tired pilgrims who now had a renewed energy. There was joy all around.

The Mass began at 3pm and the mood changed to one of a much more reverend tone. There was a heavy, sombre atmosphere as Pope Francis, clearly moved very deeply by what he had heard the previous day from the survivors of clerical abuse, begged God for forgiveness for the sins of the Church. As he spoke each prayer, clearly articulating the atrocities of what had happened over many years, the silence was palpable. Peoples’ hearts were heavy at the enormity of the wrong-doing and there was an overwhelming sense of deep sorrow and shame.

The Mass continued and the mammoth task of distributing Communion to this throng of pilgrims which stretched as far as the eye could see in front, to the right and the left, began. But like all aspects of the Congress, the organisers had done a great job. Everything went smoothly and before long we were singing the final hymn with great joy and gusto, before heading back to the coach park, through the lashing rain which had started again, with a great sense of satisfaction that we had been given the privilege of taking part in this momentous event.

“For me, it was about being a part of a gathering of people of faith.”

Some may ask why I chose to be a part of this gathering when many others had chosen to stay away or even protest. For me, it was about being a part of a gathering of people of faith, worshipping God in music and song so that his name would be glorified, praying for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon those present as well as the universal church. These are difficult times for the Church, not only the Catholic Church but for all Christians as we live in a world that is becoming more and more secular with each passing day. The Catholic Church in particular is going through a process of pruning. It is painful and will, I believe, get much worse before it gets any better. But I also believe that God is the gardener. The hand of the Master is the hand doing the pruning, the hand of the Sovereign God in whom we trust. The Church, especially the hierarchy, must continue to do everything it possibly can, in total transparency, honesty and humility, to eradicate all that is wrong within the Church, and to make amends for the sins of its past. But I know from my own personal life experiences that total healing can only take place at the foot of the cross. To those in pain Jesus is calling, “Come to me. Look upon the One who poured out his life for you, that you might be healed, body, mind and soul, and find peace, joy and love in its place.”

My prayer for the Church and all people is that everyone will accept that invitation to come to the foot of the cross, receive the Lord’s mercy, know his tender compassion, and find a peace which only he can give, a peace that passes understanding, a peace given freely by the Prince of Peace himself.’

Further information on the Congress and Papal Visit can be found on the World Meeting of Families website.