A glance at the topics to be presented at next year’s World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, including premarital sex, homosexuality, infertility and celibacy, might give the impression it’s all about sexuality and the Catholic Church’s teaching on it.
But Mary Beth Yount, a theology professor at Neumann University in Aston and director of content and programming for the World Meeting of Families, believes it is much more than that.
“It’s not all about sex,” she said. “We’re pulling in the larger context, not just human sexuality and not just family relationships. This is for all people in all walks of life: married, dating, single by choice, celibate.”
Organizers of the meeting that is expected to draw some 12,000 individuals and families from around the world have posted the Preliminary Congress Agenda on the worldmeeting2015.org website, displaying the daily schedule of official congress events held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
The congress will examine “how best to be in human relationship with God and each other,” Yount said. “What are the ways we can live fruitful lives?”
Sexuality, she said, “doesn’t just mean people having sex. That is a fundamental expression that includes married people, but it also means engaging the world in other ways. It’s a self-giving love: married people, people single by choice, and celibacy.”
The congress doesn’t shy away from topics such as divorce, interfaith marriage, dealing with disabilities and addictions in families, and the emotional pain caused by damaged relationships.
In developing content for the World Meeting of Families, Yount believes it is as important to acknowledge “the pain and brokenness of life” as to emphasize the positive message of Catholic teaching.
“We’re focusing on the positive, from the beginning,” she said. “Church teachings aren’t oppressive dictates. The focus is on the faith, (exploring) what is our ultimate relationship with God and its richness, and how do we live it out? How can we support each other to live the lives we want to live, in our family, our parish and our wider church?”
At this point specific biographies of presenters and session descriptions are still being worked out. But already the line up presents an impressive array of speakers, many of whom are well-known advocates for the topics they will address over the four days of the congress.
The first keynote address of the congress will be “Living as the Image of God: Created for Joy and Love,” delivered Tuesday, Sept. 22 by Father Robert Barron. The rector of the Chicago Archdiocese’s Mundeleine Seminary and host of the landmark DVD series “Catholicism,” Father Barron is one of the most popular Catholic speakers in America today.
The next day will begin a pattern to be repeated in each of the following days – two keynote sessions per day followed by a choice of 13 to 14 breakout sessions, each accommodating between 700 and 1,000 people.
Each hour-long keynote talk, translated for participants into at least four other languages, takes as its theme a portion of the World Meeting of Families’ preparatory catechesis, “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.”
The document was edited by Philadelphia resident Christopher Roberts and approved by the Pontifical Council for the Family at the Vatican. It presents Catholic teaching on the family and its vital role in society.
“We want (people) to know Catholic teaching is not burdensome or confusing, but rather it is helping them find who God calls us to be,” Yount said.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley, archbishop of Boston, will deliver the keynote talk Wednesday morning, Sept. 23. His theme of “The Light of the Family in a Dark World” will draw from the catechism’s teaching of the family as a “school of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, mutual respect, patience and humility in the midst of a world darkened by selfishness and conflict.”
While his talk will tend to be more theological and abstract, the 14 hour-long breakout sessions to follow will cover a range of topics relevant to his theme. Yount estimated that 75 percent of the breakout sessions will offer practical skills related to the keynote’s topic.
For instance, in the breakout session titled “Where is this Relationship Going? Dating as Discernment,” a team of three lay speakers will give a 10-minute presentation along with workbook materials to engage the audience with activities and study for the topic of dating in the context of Catholic teaching.
At the same time in the convention center, Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez will speak on poverty and immigration issues in “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor…” and French author and theologian Yves Semen will speak on his specialty of Theology of the Body and its intersection with politics and economics in “Can Society Exist Without the Family?”
Meanwhile, a talk on the concerns of the family in the inner city will be delivered by Rev. Terrence D. Griffith, pastor of First African Baptist Church of Philadelphia and president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity.
He is among the 24 percent of speakers at the congress who are not from the Catholic tradition – including Protestant Christian, Mormon, Jewish and Muslim — but who nonetheless offer experience and expertise to the congress’ content, even if many speakers are not household names.
All that and more takes place just in the morning of the first day of the congress. The afternoon session will feature Catholic lawyer, feminist and pro-life advocate Helen Alvare, a dynamic speaker who will deliver the keynote speech “Creating the Future: The Fertility of Christian Love. “
An afternoon of breakouts will cover topics such as blended families as a result of remarriage, the fostering of vocations, how to handle technology in the family, providing for needs at parishes, political but not partisan activity, and the roles of the elderly, especially grandparents, in the family.
On Thursday , Sept. 24, the keynote and many of the breakouts deal with the topic of sexuality, with such as issues as the “hook-up” culture of premarital sex, a study of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humane Vitae” (“On Human Life”) as well as infertility and homosexuality.
The World Meeting of Families wraps up on Friday, Sept. 25, but not before the keynote talk on the “The Joy of the Gospel of Life” by African Cardinal Robert Sarah of Guinea, president of the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” for Human and Christian Development. Another 13 breakout sessions follow and pick up the theme of reaching out to the world with acts of love and hope, especially with a session by Philippine Cardinal Luis Tagle.