The ’Splainer: What is the World Meeting of Families?

The World Meeting of Families Philadelphia 2015 iconic image created by Neilson Carlin. Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Philadelphia

The World Meeting of Families Philadelphia 2015 iconic image, created by Neilson Carlin. Photo courtesy of Archdiocese of Philadelphia

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The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional online feature in which RNS staff give you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at a cocktail party.

(RNS) Unless you live under a rock, you know that this week (Sept. 22-27) marks Pope Francis' first papal visit to the U.S. After stops in Washington, D.C., and New York, he'll head for Philadelphia. The papal attraction? Not the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall nor even the cheesesteaks (though betting experts say he'll eat his share). The papal visit coincides with the World Meeting of Families, a gathering of Catholic clans from across the globe. Let us ’Splain ...

Q: "The World Meeting of Families." It's all there in the name -- but what is it, really?

A: The World Meeting of Families is a four-day international conference generally held every three years  and often in conjunction with a papal visit or appearance. It was initiated by St. John Paul II -- another popular pontiff -- in 1992 with the goal of strengthening family bonds. "As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live," John Paul II said.

Each World Meeting of Families has a theme. This year's theme is "Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive," and the gathering will feature international speakers in sessions titled "Saintly Couples: Models on the Road to Sanctity," "Can Society Exist Without the Family?" and "The Special Place of Women in the Family, the Church and the World."  A simultaneous youth conference for kids ages 6 to 17 has the much more fun-sounding "Bowling with the Bishops," "Pope Puppets" and "Swing with the Sisters Dance Party" (habits optional?).  It even has a theme song, "Love Is What We Need."

This is the first time the meeting will be held in the United States. Other meetings have been held in Manila, Mexico City, Rome and Rio de Janeiro.

READ: Don't expect church to change views on gay families, Chaput says

Q: What is the definition of "family" at the World Meeting of Families?

A: A very Catholic one. In the World Meeting of Families "preparatory catechesis" -- a kind of pre-game rulebook -- families stem from married people: “Marriage is a uniquely intimate form of friendship that calls a man and a woman to love each other in the manner of God’s covenant. Marriage is a sacrament. Married love is fruitful and offered without reservation. ... Marriage is meant to be fertile and welcome new life.” Families with two mommies or two daddies might not feel welcome here. Ditto couples with no children.

But nontraditional families will not be wholly off the program in the City of Brotherly Love. Several pro-LGBT Catholic groups will hold an alternative meeting at a Methodist church near the convention center, where the World Meeting of Families will take place. And one openly gay man -- celibate with no children -- will speak from the podium at the main meeting.

Other issues the church has struggled with recently are also getting a single session -- divorce, remarriage and dating will all be addressed for an hour or so.

READ: Gay and celibate, Ron Belgau is the official face of gay Catholicism

Q: What happens at the World Meeting of Families?

A: The meeting's goal is not to craft new policy or lobby the church for a particular agenda. Rather, it is to reinforce -- "strengthen," in its parlance -- the bonds of Catholic families around the world. There will be group prayer, singing and discussion.

But the climax of the meeting is usually a papal address. Sometimes, the sitting pontiff has visited the World Meeting of Families in person, as John Paul II did three times, offering Mass for the attendees. Pope Benedict XVI visited the 2006 meeting in Valencia, Spain, and the 2012 meeting in Milan. Attendees to the Mexico City meeting in 2009 had to settle for a satellite hookup to Benedict, who spoke to them twice.

On Saturday (Sept. 26) -- after the main meeting -- Francis will address an expected 1 million people at the outdoor Festival of Families. Forty Jumbotrons will broadcast events on two stages, including performances by soul queen Aretha Franklin, the singing group Sister Sledge and comedian Jim Gaffigan.

It will be a sort of American-style send-off for Pope Francis, who leaves the U.S. the next day -- after closing the Festival of Families with an outdoor Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

READ: 'The Jim Gaffigan Show' mixes the comic's humor and religion

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson

Religion News Service graphic by T.J. Thomson