By Elizabeth Fisher Catholic News Service
PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — Marita Thomas was among those in the crowd at the Festival of Families Sept. 26 who were moved to tears as they listened to families selected to come onstage to tell Pope Francis how they coped with hardship by clinging to God.
The testimonials by six families from various countries were interspersed with the evening’s music. They told stories told of keeping the faith while enduring trials such as poverty, persecution, disabilities and political upheaval.
“This breaks my heart and now I see the need to help others here and overseas,” said Thomas, who lives in Philadelphia’s center city, in an interview with CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
One woman brought her two grown sons to the stage, one of whom plans to study for the priesthood and the other a 17-year-old who has cerebral palsy. The Ukrainian-born woman was a single mother who brought her children to the United States and struggled for years after her husband abandoned the family.
She clung to her faith for guidance and even now rejoices in that her afflicted son, who is in a wheelchair, refuses to be limited by his handicap, keeping up with his studies with an eye toward going to college.
“I am happy to have my two sons in my life. Holy Father, thank you so much for being with us today,” she said.
Following her comments, the pope rose to greet her and her older son, then embraced the younger teen.
A Jordanian father, mother and two daughters also ascended the stage and the father told the pope and the audience about the thousands of Christian refugees who have flooded his country, fleeing persecution in their own lands.
He said his family welcomed the strangers and he, along with his fellow Christians, work to provide food, shelter, medicine and education to the dispossessed.
For his own remarks, Pope Francis threw away a prepared text and, to the delight of tens of thousands of people on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, spoke from the heart about the challenges and love that come with being part of a family.
The chilly air caused some spectators to bundle up. Many had blankets that they wrapped around themselves or their children. But most were determined to stay until the end, near 11 p.m. (EDT).
“I will stay as long as I can make my train back home,” said Frank Jackson, who brought his wife, his mother and his four children to the festival from West Chester. “This is beautiful and it is a once-in-a-lifetime event. How many times can a whole family host their Holy Father?”
Many at the papal events had long walks from various train stations because SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, limited both fares and the number of stations where pilgrims could board the trains.
Mary Gabel’s journey from the Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia was a circuitous one, but worth the trouble, she said, because she wanted to see Pope Francis, Archbishop Chaput, and singer Andrea Bocelli, whose voice wafted through the audience as he performed “The Lord’s Prayer.”
The Festival of Families was free for those who had tickets, and for the many others who lined the parkway to hear the soaring music and inspiring words filling the night.
Three years of preparation went into the World Meeting of Families, which drew 18,000 to the Pennsylvania Convention Center and surrounding blocks in center city.
Organizers said the number far exceeded the 7,000 attending the last such gathering in Milan, Italy, making the Philadelphia event the most successful such World Meeting of Families since the event began in 1994. The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family sponsors the meeting every three years in a different city.
Catholics and non-Catholics came to Philadelphia from around the country and, as was evident by their traditional attire and a multitude of languages in the air, from more than 100 countries around the world, including those in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe.
On Sept. 22, before cutting a ribbon with other city and church dignitaries to open the congress officially, Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting, said that the pilgrims coming the farthest to Philadelphia were from the Philippines, at more than 8,500 miles away. Others traveling great distances were from Vietnam, Kenya and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Some came from practically around the corner — the Philadelphia suburb of Wayne, just 13 miles or a half-hour train ride away.
After Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter had welcomed all the attendees to “the City of Brotherly Love and sisterly affection,” Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said the week would be “a time of grace, a time when God moves among us. May God pour his courage, peace and joy into all your hearts.”
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Fisher writes for CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Contributing to this story was Matthew Gambino, the site’s director general manager.