What is the World Meeting of Families? We break it down

 IHM Sisters William Catherine and Sister Mary Grace practice for the Swing with the Sisters Dance Party, which will be part of the World Meeting of Families youth events. (Courtesy of the WMOF)

IHM Sisters William Catherine and Sister Mary Grace practice for the Swing with the Sisters Dance Party, which will be part of the World Meeting of Families youth events. (Courtesy of the WMOF)

What, exactly, is the World Meeting of Families?


As you may have heard, Pope Francis is coming to town at the end of the month to as the culmination of the World Meeting of Families. Known as the WMOF, the triennial event is the main reason the pope is journeying to the U.S.

The visit to Philadelphia as part of the international celebration was on his itinerary well before stops to Washington, D.C., and New York were pencilled in.

But what, exactly, is the World Meeting of Families?

It can be broken into three distinct parts.  There’s the congress, the family festival and the papal Mass for more than a million people on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

And this iteration of the gathering is expected to be the biggest event of its kind, said Lizanne Magarity Pando, WMOF director of marketing and communications.

“The last conference was 7,000 attendees, and we are already up to 15,000, so we are delighted to be more than in Milan three years ago,” she said. “It’s really going an exciting, dynamic piece.”

And all those visitors will be in Philadelphia in the name of family.

“Talking about the family, strengthening the family, helping people stay together and not splintering apart,” Pando said. “It helps your family. It helps your faith. And it helps the world around you.”

Events for adults, kids

The first part of the event will be broken down into events for adults and youth. Dozens of breakout sessions are planned with the aim of helping strengthen the family unit, said Mary Beth Yount, WMOF director of content and programming for adults.

“The congress happens in the Convention Center, the papal events are on the Parkway,” Yount said.  “At the Convention Center, we’ll have probably almost 140 speakers from around the world, talking about how to improve your relationships.”

That includes how to keep the family together during trying times, as well as looking at emotional and financial issues from Catholic and interfaith perspectives.  The sessions are designed to offer practical skills to make life better. They cover dating; the blended family; honoring the elderly; the role of women in the church; and even the benefits and obstacles of being an “online family.”  

The speakers will not just present Catholic perspectives, Yount said.

“We have presenters from all different denominations, from all different countries, coming to help people get practical skills for ways that they can grow in their life, in their relationships within their household, within their neighborhood and as a global community,” she said.

Children’s events are designed for youth from 6 through 17.  Maria Richardson, the head of the youth congress, said the goal is to entertain while educating.

Younger children will be putting their creative talents to work, she said, in the form of arts and crafts.

“They will be making pope puppets, Pope Francis out of paper bags, so expect to see many Pope Francis puppets on the Parkway when he arrives,” she said.

Older kids will interact with nuns, priests-to-be and even bishops.

“We have a ‘Swing with the Sisters’ dance party that the sisters are providing with hula-hoop contests and line dancing,” Richardson said. “We have ‘Shooting Hoops with the Seminarians,’ so that the young men can just interact with them.   We have ‘Wii Bowling with the Bishops.’  The bishops will be playing the Wii games with the high school students so that they can have some interaction there.”

More serious endeavors

Service programs are scheduled to focus on the concept of sharing and caring about those who are less fortunate.

“One is ‘Helping Hands,’ where they will be packaging rice and soy and food that will then be sent overseas to Africa,” she said. “There’s another one called ‘Fill a Bag, Fill a Heart,’ where they will be decorating a paper bag and then filling it with toiletries, wash cloths, socks … They will be delivered to some of the homeless around the Philadelphia area.”

Once Pope Francis arrives, a festival on the Parkway will begin and two papal Masses are set. The first, by invitation only, will be celebrated at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul on Saturday. The other, will an expected crowd of at least a million, will take place on the Parkway Sunday afternoon. 

To help handle the multitudes coming to Mass or the other papal events, the WMOF is recruiting 10,000 volunteers.  

It is up to Suzanne Kinkel to coordinate all those voluntary workers.  The WMOF is relying on co-sponsors to give them the best trained and personable people to deal with what could be some very trying issues with the massive crowds.  Think about all those people waiting to go through metal detectors or the crowds all looking to leave after the Parkway Mass is over.

“We have certain corporate sponsors that we know will help us, and they know their people really well,” Kinkel said. “We will put them in some of what I call key areas where they will help us manage the events.”

But don’t think signing up as a volunteer is your ticket for getting close to the pope, she said.

“So we’ve make it clear from the beginning that the role of the volunteer is to assist the 1.5 million guests that are coming, and we are working on a deployment plan as we speak that will place volunteers in key areas.”

The WMOF is relying on volunteers to help international visitor.

“We capture the fact that are they bilingual and what languages do they speak, so we have all that information and we can really place them where that need is,” she said.

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