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Pope before Congress, families at Philadelphia meeting focuses on meaning and value of family
A group of sisters and friends from the U.S. Virgin Islands take a break after attending the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. - photo by Lois M. Collins
PHILADELPHIA Pope Francis concluded his historic address before a joint meeting of Congress Thursday speaking about family, and his remarks drew sustained applause.

"I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day's work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and one step at a time to build a better life for their families," the pope said.

Pope Francis' visit coincides with the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, a triennial event co-sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for the Family and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Its theme is "Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive."

The conference will conclude with papal visit to the "city of brotherly love and sisterly affection" over an event-filled weekend. The pope has said several times that he hopes his six-day visit to the U.S. would focus on "family."

The conference and the pope's remarks before Congress (which many WMOF attendees did not hear because they were in sessions organizers hope will strengthen families) both put a priority on family life. The 18,000 participants from all over the world have attended sessions on topics as diverse as helping a disabled family member to nurturing the bonds between husband and wife or coping with addictions within the family.

"I'll hear him on Saturday when he's here, I hope," said Patti Hammer, who came from Houston, Texas, with three friends. "It means the world to me that he is here and that he cares about what happens within families."

She was particularly interested in sessions on building faith within her children, while her friend Amanda Beckton said she felt the conference was breathing fresh life into her desire to be a good wife and mother.

In his speech to a packed House chamber, the 78-year-old pontiff described the elderly as a "storehouse of wisdom forged by experience." They use tools like volunteering to share what they've learned, he noted. And he addressed "all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations, who are not led astray by facile proposals, and who face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults."

At a book launch luncheon shortly after the pontiff spoke, sponsored by Humanum in conjunction with the WMOF, Helen Alvar noted that the first group the pope discussed was the elderly, then the young. "All of them suffer when family life is fractured," said the professor of law at George Mason University and a consultant to the Pontifical Council for the Laity in the Roman Catholic Church.

She noted the role of family in "building up human ecology" and said the "poor are suffering from a retreat from family."

"How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without," the pope said, according to a transcript. "Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life."

He called attention to children, whom he called "the most vulnerable" in a family.

"For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions," he said. "At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family."

Another contributor, Rick Warren pastor of the Saddleback Church, an evangelical megachurch in Lake Forest, California, and best-selling author of "The Purpose-Driven Life" said one of the ways to counter the deterioration of family and life and marriage is to celebrate within parishes, churches and synagogues the marriages that have endured over time.

Genma Felix said she traveled to Philadelphia from the U.S. Virgin Islands with her priest, her daughters and several dozen others because family matters to her.

"I want more love, unity and peace among family," she said, when asked what she wants for her family.

Tamra Thomas, who was with Felix's group, put her arm around her 7-year-old son, Immanuel, and gave him a hug. She'd attended sessions on various topics, including one addressing the roles and complementarity of men and women. They were surrounded, outnumbered even, by children as the group waited for a bus.