Walking the halls of the Pennsylvania Convention Center, you can clearly spot them among the priests in their collars and nuns in their habits: parents pushing strollers or walking hand-in-hand with their children. They include Bill Spann and his toddlers, Monica, 2, and Martin, 4.
Spann’s family came from Rahway, New Jersey, along with 20,000 others from more than 100 countries to attend the World Meeting of Families. He’s looking for guidance on raising children as Catholics in a secular society. The most surprising thing he’s learned so far: to give them space to wrestle with their faith.
“There is a way to engage with the world, while at the same time keeping your faith and knowing who you are,” Spann said.
For James Bond, that means “not being afraid to show your faith in public.”
“That just means something simple like saying grace at meals in public, just like you do at home,” he said.
Bond and his wife, Rachel, traveled from Dayton, Ohio, with their two young daughters. While their 5-month-old won’t remember this experience, Rachel Bond wants their 3-year-old to see she’s part of a larger community.
“That word Catholic means universal and I would love if she could just get a physical feeling of being part of the universal church … of just belonging,” she said.
That sentiment was echoed by many other parents who, despite the difficulty of traveling with small children, are planning to take their families to the papal Mass on Sunday. It’s a moment Stan Gerten doesn’t want his four children, all named after religious figures, to miss. His youngest daughter was named for Pope Francis.
“Our little town of Leipsic, Ohio, only has 2,000 people in it,” Gerten said, holding his son John Paul’s hand. “So for them to see that this truly is a universal church, it’s people from all over the world all coming together of the same faith.”
Others at the World Meeting of Families are trying to figure out where they fit.
Tiana Tuncap was sitting on a bench, while four of her seven nieces and nephews were taking naps. Originally from Guam, Tuncap moved to Virginia to help her brother, Allen, care for his large family.
For Allen Tuncap, coming to this year’s World Meeting of Families was a no-brainer. Three years ago, when the Tuncaps just had four children, the family flew to Milan for the triennial Vatican-sponsored event. They had just a small budget and relied on strangers they met in Europe for places to stay. For their faithfulness, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput invited the Tuncaps to have lunch with Pope Benedict.
This time, the family loaded up their 12-passenger van and drove to a hotel in New Jersey. Tiana Tuncap came along for the ride.
Tuncap, who is in her mid-20s, recently returned to the church after many years away and feels comforted by what she’s heard at the conference so far.
“To hear that God is merciful, that he loves you all the time, that no matter how far removed you feel, he’s willing to be there for you and all you have to do is turn to him, that’s something that never gets old,” she said.
On Sunday, Tuncap will help push a stroller built for three babies as her family walks across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from New Jersey to attend the papal Mass in Philadelphia.