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Families at heart of Pope Francis' farewell Mass in America
A member of the Secret Service hoists a child up to receive a blessing from Pope Francis along the parade route on Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015. - photo by Lois M. Collins
PHILADELPHIA Eldon and Christine Matte loaded six kids ages 5 to 17 into a van hauling a 30-foot trailer and drove more than 3,000 miles over the course of nine days from Prince George, British Columbia, to attend the World Meeting of Families and to see Pope Francis in his historic visit to the United States.

They were among the earliest of the horde streaming into Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the pope's final Mass on Sunday.

The point the past week for the Mattes, for the pope, for the dozens of speakers at the four-day meeting and for hundreds of thousands lining parade routes and huddled around Jumbotrons has been family.

The pontiff announced months ago he was coming to America in conjunction with the World Meeting of Families, a triennial gathering that has been held in different countries since 1994, when Pope John Paul II first gave the Pontifical Council on the Family the charge to organize the event. The next one will be held in Dublin, Ireland.

There were 18,000 who registered for the World Meeting of Families, which had separate sessions for the adults and for the kids and lots of occasions to come together across generations for fun and education. It was targeted primarily for Roman Catholics, but like the pope's visit, it brought in those of other faiths, as well, to be part of the massive event. Officials said as many as 1.5 million to 2 million gathered in the vicinity for Sunday's events.

The entire trip has been family living their faith. It is not, Eldon Matte said, something theoretical. He has really focused on teaching his kids three things the pope has discussed since his papacy began in 2013: May I? Thank you. And pardon. They cover a lot of parenting ground, from consideration to gratitude to making amends and offering forgiveness. It is "the training ground to be in greater society," Matte said. Families entire societies, even that master those are strong.

"Family life is messy. God works within that," Matte said.

'Factory of hope'

The Mattes home-school Austin, 17, Raina, 15, Joel, 13, Jacinta, 10, Gianna, 8, and John-Paul, 5, so they turned the ride into a classroom on wheels, with readings, stops that were educational, spiritual and simply fun, from a dinosaur museum to visiting eucharistic adoration chapels.

Sometimes, they read aloud the official book prepared for the international meeting. The theme for 2015 was "Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive." When John-Paul and Gianna fussed at each other several hours into the long wait to see the papal parade, their mom comforted and kissed them, but also asked them, "What is our mission?"

It was right in line with the homily Pope Francis would later offer during Sunday afternoon Mass.

"These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different," he said. "They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion."

Saturday night, during the Festival of Families, he had referred to family as a "factory of hope."' During the Mass, he said he would leave all with a question: "In my own home, do we shout or do we speak to each other with love and tenderness. That's a good way of measuring our love."

Pass the baby

Viviana Barreto, an Argentine native who now lives in Dunellen, New Jersey, wanted desperately for the pope to kiss her baby, year-old Tiago. She and her husband, Frederico, and son Gael, 8, had arrived early to secure a spot along the parade route, where they patiently held their ground as crowds started to smash in behind them.

She watched the pope's progress on the Jumbotron across the way and when she saw him kiss a baby's forehead, her hand fluttered to her heart. A state trooper standing facing the crowd noticed and smiled. "I can try," he pantomimed as the pope circled the other side of the parade oval. Frederico handed Tiago over; he fussed a little in the trooper's arms. Still, they were going to try. But when the pope was opposite them, he was facing the other way and it was another child whose face was caressed as her own mother beamed.

"Parents just want the world for their children, don't they?" a woman in the crowd commented to the friend beside her. "We want it all. For them."

Keeping faith alive

That's a desire that brought some of the families to the conference and then to the parkway hours and hours before the pope arrived.

"I want to show enthusiasm of our faith to my kids," said David Seuss of New Milford, Connecticut, who stood with his arm around his daughter Maria, 8. His group included several young men training to be Franciscan friars. The job of parents, Seuss said, is to hand their faith to their children to keep it alive.

Don Bell and his wife Angela brought four of their kids, ages 4 to 6, from Middletown, Ohio, "because we wanted to expose our kids to this conference and the energy of being around a Christian community. We didn't know the pope was coming when we signed up."

The lesson that will stick with him from Philadelphia, he said, came from the pope, who spoke of not letting division rip families and communities apart. Bell summarized it as "making sure you come to agreement and try to be, 'not my way, but our way.'"

Bill and Jean Campbell of Westchester, Pennsylvania, said they will remember the pope speaking of "the value of and respect for families."

The couple starts their day with prayer together, just the two of them, they said. And at night they pray with their children. They brought Grace, 15, and Will, 12, with them to the papal Mass not just to see the pope up close, but to feel the spirit of acceptance moving through the crowd, strangers hugging and steadying each other in a wave of humanity that marked a bigger family unit.