Breda O’Brien: Work gets under way for papal visit to Dublin

The World Meeting of Families will reflect Pope Francis’s focus on family

Pope Francis: there was surprise and delight when he announced that the next meeting would be in Dublin.  Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Pope Francis: there was surprise and delight when he announced that the next meeting would be in Dublin. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

 

Pope Francis has promised that either he or his successor will attend the World Meeting of Families in Dublin in August 2018 and, naturally, the organisers would be delighted if the pontiff who insisted that the meeting be in Dublin was there to enjoy it.

There was both great surprise and delight when Francis announced that it would be in Dublin. Then, when Archbishop Diarmuid Martin met Pope Francis on the first day of the 2015 Synod on the Family, the pope said: “Remember, Dublin starts today.”

In other words, the upcoming world meeting will reflect Pope Francis’s relentless focus on family as central not only to Christianity, but to life on this planet. Francis did not coin the expression he often uses, the ecology of the family, but he has made it very much his own.

His encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, is subtitled “Care for our Common Home”. 

For him, humanity is inextricably entwined with the environment in which we live. Home implies family – and we need to treat the environment as if it were a much-loved family home.

Every family also has its own ecosystem, which also supports life. For Francis, strong families are at the core of a strong society, and without care and respect for those micro-climates, everything begins to break down.

Many people assumed that Francis’ first synod of bishops would look at poverty, or care for the environment. Instead, just like Pope John Paul, who convened the very first World Meeting of Families in Rome in 1994, Francis chose the topic of family.

Perhaps that is because if we were truly to treat each other as family, and our world as our family home, so many other problems such as poverty and inequality would be tackled at the same time.

This is the first of these world meetings to happen since Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’ document on the family, which portrays families in all their complex light and shade.

How to best accompany each other in all the situations that our human, messy fragility inevitably cause will no doubt be the subject of many conversations.

Celebrate

The aim of the world meetings is to celebrate, strengthen and support family life. The last one was in Philadelphia in 2015. More than 20,000 people attended, with a million also attending a Mass in the same city that was part of the official papal visit to the US.

The formal launch for the preparations for World Meeting of Families happens this Saturday in DCU, St Patrick’s College. Almost 700 have booked to attend.

Such is the level of oversubscription for this preparatory event that organisers have had to warn people not to turn up unless they have booked, because there will not be space for them.

Hosting a world meeting in less than two years’ time is an immense undertaking and daunting for anyone, even someone as widely respected and as competent as the secretary general of this enterprise, Fr Tim Bartlett, who has been appointed by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin to co-ordinate the event.

Although Archbishop Martin is the official host, it will be an all-island event and Archbishop Eamon Martin will play an important role, particularly since it is hoped that the pope will go to Northern Ireland.

The event will require the hard work of thousands of volunteers if it is to be a success. Part of the problem is explaining to people exactly what a World Meeting of Families is.

Naturally, the spiritual elements will be vital. But previous world meetings have also encompassed everything from concerts to intergenerational co-operative games to family-friendly film festivals.

The mingling of people from very different cultures is central. The world meetings have always focused on the real experiences of families, and the preparatory event this weekend will emulate that by having an asylum-seeking family from Syria tell their story.

Lifeline

When they arrived in Belfast, the church was a lifeline for this Syrian family. They are grateful for the sense of safety they now feel, but cannot forget for a moment their families left behind them in desperate situations. Other families will speak of the reality of homelessness or of drug addiction.

The organisers are anxious that there should be a real conversation about family in the culture, and not just internally in the church. Families affect everyone, for good or ill, and not just committed Christians.

For example, one focus of the Dublin meeting will be how families are affected by technology. At the moment, technology and social media can have an isolating, fragmenting effect on families, when everyone is absorbed in their own screen and oblivious to others.

With a little imagination, technology could bond families rather than divide them. What would a more family-inclusive internet look like? How could we achieve it?

Homeless families are a big problem in Ireland and elsewhere. What new initiatives could help them?

The world meeting could really invigorate the Irish church, not in any kind of silly, pointless attempt to return to the triumphalism of the past, but by showing that a smaller, humbler church still has much to offer contemporary culture.

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