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'The school of love which we know as family' gathers to learn, celebrate ties in Philadelphia
Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, greets Simon Bonenfant, 13, and his mother Maria Ceferatti of Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015. - photo by Lois M. Collins
PHILADELPHIA Family is a vehicle for transforming the world and making it better and when the family thrives, society thrives. When it breaks down, so does society.

That was the message Tuesday as the World Meeting of Families 2015, organized by the Roman Catholic Church, kicked off in Philadelphia with speeches, music, art, mass and other events designed to strengthen and celebrate familial bonds, including a separate congress for the kids. The theme is "Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive."

"Every family must dream of a better world," said Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of The Pontifical Council for the Family, which is co-sponsoring the event with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

There is no religion, no philosophy, or social theory that holds up human beings higher than Christianity, Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said during a keynote address. Bishop Barron is also an author and evangelist best noted for his Word on Fire ministry. He said humankind is "imbued with divine mission" to share in God's divine nature and to help others do the same.

"Our deepest task is to lead all of creation in the great chorus of praise. The whole cosmos finds its voice giving praise to God," he said, adding worship of a true God leads to peace, while worship of a false God loving and seeking money, power, pleasure and respect leads to pain.

Humankind was God's last creation and therefore his finest, he said. The human job is to praise God, seek his truth and "to bring God's good love to the whole world."

The event marks the first time the triennial gathering has been held in the United States since it first met in 1994 at the behest of Pope John Paul II. In conjunction with WMOF, Pope Francis is making his first visit to the United States, stopping first in Washington, D.C., and New York and ending with weekend activities in Philadelphia. His visit is timed to coincide with and raise interest in the international family congress.

More than 17,500 people from 100 countries are attending the gathering. It is, noted Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, "the largest world meeting of families in history," with a goal to affirm commitment to family as the key to a fruitful life, he said.

For some attendees, the gathering and the papal journey are very personal.

Pope Francis' visit "is God revealing his love for me even though I will be in a crowd of 1.5 million," said Sister Faustina Ferko, a nun from Chicago, Illinois.

A gathering for masses

Believers from every state and nearly every continent are attending the event. In an opening media briefing, Archbishop Chaput said that a quarter-million tickets have been distributed for events involving the pope in Philadelphia, including a mass, the Festival of Families and other activities.

Kenneth and Linda Bowers of Tiffin, Ohio, brought three of their children, ages 16, 19 and 23. He said he believes the pope's visit will be a "breath of fresh air to the church" that will kindle new interest in God across a wide audience.

"Faith is a major portion of our lives," said Linda Bowers, who said she believes that there will be children, perhaps even hers, who stay strong in faith because of it. The Bowers also noted that Pope Francis has a great view on both church law and "total compassion" that is needed today.

Zsanic Carle brought her two little girls, 1 and 4, with her from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. They were part of a busload arriving from the Charleston Archdiocese. Carle used to be a nun with a break-off of the Catholic Church called Acente Vacante, which means "the chair is vacant" and that has not recognized recent popes as valid. She left the group eight years ago. She said she has struggled with faith in the past, but feels the Holy Spirit when the pontiff speaks and acts. "He will reunite the church in many ways," she predicted.

Besides faith, the conference topics include advice on religious freedom, managing a familys online life, domestic violence, same-sex attraction, marriage, dating, finances, strengthening relationships and more. Sessions are offered in various languages and some of them are being translated.

Although many of the speakers are Catholic, other experts and noteworthy individuals from other faiths are also featured. The Rev. Rick Warren, pastor and founder of the evangelical Saddleback Church, a megachurch in Lake Forest, California, is joining Cardinal Sean Patrick O'Malley of Boston for a keynote address Friday focused on being living witnesses in a suffering world.

Murals, gifts and toys

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said Philadelphia has been known as a place of religious tolerance since its founding in 1682 and that fact and its diversity make it a fitting place for the meeting and the papal visit. It's also a "city of innovation," he noted, citing famous firsts that include the first organized fire department and university in the United States.

A mural project that's part of the event will vie to be included in the Guinness Book of World Records. Participants have been asked to help with a paint-by-numbers project that will ultimately be mounted on a former public school that is being restored. The paper panels will be treated with chemicals to adhere it and then, as the sun bakes the walls, transform it into a permanent part of the brick, said artist Cesar Viveros.

Nutter, the mayor, also presented gifts to Archbishop Chaput that will be given to Pope Francis, including a locally made commuter bicycle and a china bowl handcrafted by Lennox. Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, which was drafted several blocks from the conference site, it features 24-carat gold borders and old lithograph-style images of Independence Hall and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

The conference formally concludes Friday as the pontiff's visit kicks off with parades, a festival, masses and other events.