The world arrives in Philadelphia

I did not expect the flags.

If I thought things got real Monday, as people arrived and began registering for the World Meeting of Families, I was wrong. Things got really real Tuesday, as the opening ceremonies officially got the Congress underway, and the halls of the Convention Center became packed with pilgrims from all over the world.

Families have come to this gathering from Argentina and Canada, Australia and many nations of Africa, totaling more than 100 countries — and all 50 states — in record-breaking numbers.

In his remarks during the opening ceremonies, before a wide, red ribbon was cut in the Grand Hall to officially open the World Meeting, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia said, “This moment is an historic and exhilarating one for all of us to share. I look out at this blessed crowd, filled with faces representing the great diversity of our Faith, and I’m instilled with excitement for the power our shared conversations will generate this week, renewing our faith in each other and our families. Thank you all for being here today, whether you came from a great journey or nearby, may God bless us all.”

Newly appointed Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron delivered the first keynote address of the week, speaking about the need for strong families, the freedom found in a disciplined life and the countercultural notion that human beings actually crave rules and order. "Does anyone find it puzzling that when the family breaks down, society breaks down right behind it?" Bishop Barron said. "It shouldn't puzzle us if the family is the basic building block of civil society." Applause rolled around the immense room in agreement.

At an earlier news conference, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, appeared with Archbishop Chaput and struck a positive note in his remarks. “It’s a blessing from God to be with all of you today in the wonderful city of Philadelphia, a city renowned for its spirit of independence and religious freedom,” he said. “The best is truly yet to come, and I’m overjoyed to join with such an eclectic group of pilgrims, called together from all over the world to embrace the power of family, a sacred bond that enriches all our lives.”

He was not kidding about the “eclectic group of pilgrims,” and that brings us back to the flags. People were wearing flags, waving flags, holding flags overhead as they led groups of pilgrims from one venue to another. I saw a woman wearing an amazing jumper made of the Mexican flag, Greek flags tied around the shoulders of another group, and a half-dozen Americans in jackets of red, white and blue.

I made a joke to someone that it was a little like being at Disney World, when you stand in line at Space Mountain and hear three or four different languages being spoken around you. But of course, this is a place that, while full of light and laughter, has a more serious and spiritual foundation, as the official Family Guidebook states, “because we are created in God’s image, out of love and to be loving, we come to fulfillment through being loving in our families and communities.”

After a joyous afternoon Mass concelebrated by dozens of priests, accompanied by soaring music and with a homily by Archbishop Chaput, a reproduction of Michelangelo’s Pietà was blessed by Auxiliary Bishop John J. McIntyre of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The statue of Mary holding a crucified Jesus in her arms is a life-size marble casting of the original Pietà, one of 100 authorized by The Vatican Observatory Foundation. It resides in the Atrium area of the Convention Center, near the registration desks, where all the pilgrims pass through.

The blessing was a fitting way to draw the first day of the World Meeting of Families to a close and a good time to remember the words of Pope Francis from his October 2013 address to families: “Here, then, is the first thing I would like to share with you this evening, and it is a saying of Jesus: Come to me, families from around the world, Jesus says, and I will give you rest, so that your joy may be complete. Take home this word of Jesus, carry it in your hearts, share it with the family."

Cathy Dee is OSV’s social media editor. Follow her on Twitter @CathyDeeOSV.