About the time I was entering sixth grade, my home parish, St. John Vianney in Brookfield, built a long needed new church. The large, contemporary, fan-shaped layout was fitting for a parish in a booming suburb. But, I think my mom was a little shaken by the design.

Oh, she was fine with the new altar, baptismal font, and eucharistic chapel. What required some getting used to was that the pie shaped seating sections meant that the usual third pew from front on the right side, where the Hartmann family always sat, was now too small to accommodate mom, dad, seven kids and (for a few months every year) Grandma.

I am sure that many families had their Sunday morning rituals. That process of getting everybody up and ready for Mass was as formative to an 11- year-old as anything preached in the homily.

Little things taught me the importance of Sunday Mass — from the line-up by the kitchen counter checking for combed hair and clean fingernails to Mom determining the order for filing into the pew. Only after you properly genuflected and made the Sign of the Cross were you sent by Mom into the pew – first two kids, then Dad, three more kids, Mom, and then the last two kids. A sort of zone defense for monitoring behavior at Mass.

There is no question in my mind that while I learned the information I needed about the Christian faith and the Catholic Church during years of Catholic schooling, the first place I learned how to be a good Christian, how to be a good Catholic was at home.

In the last few months, as our country prepares for its first apostolic visit by Pope Francis, there has been lots of speculation and many predictions about what the Holy Father will say and do while he is here. Questions have been raised about who he is going to most challenge or who he is going to most please. Sadly, the commentators and prognosticators usually miss or ignore the essential reason for the pope’s visit – the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.  

Initiated in 1994 by Pope St. John Paul II, the triennial World Meeting of Families is seen by some as a variation on the global spectacle and youthful enthusiasm of World Youth Days.

But there are some very important differences, and they have to do with more than just the ages of the participants or the activities offered. Youth days are about vitalizing young people to be enthusiastic members of the church and evangelists for Christ. WYD is about an experience which participants will continue to externalize for years.

The World Meeting of Families may have spectacle and many exciting activities, but its focus is on the sacrament of marriage and the classic truth that the family is the domestic church. It is about a globally expressed affirmation aimed at revitalizing the setting in which faith has its most intimate and fundamental beginning. 

Highlighted at the Second Vatican Council, being the “domestic church” means that it is in the context of the family that we first learn to pray, where we are first taught about the creative love of God, and how we are first challenged the be Christ-like toward others.

Anyone who has journeyed through life with family and faith to buoy them, knows well that prayer, creative love, and exemplary Christian living are just the beginning for both.

Two years ago, Pope Francis reminded us “in the family, a person becomes aware of his own dignity, and especially if his education is Christian, recognizes the dignity of every human person.” (Address to the XXI Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family, October 2013)

Next week, whatever he might say, however the media might see it or the politically minded might hear it, we should understand that this is the context from which the Holy Father speaks. Equally important, this is the context from which all of us should commit ourselves to strengthening and revitalizing the family.

Pope Francis will likely remind us that the world presents many challenges to the dignity and sanctity of the family. At the same time, there are so many voluntarily chosen demands on the time and experiences of children and parents alike that the very rituals of family life are at risk.

We need not lament the excesses of teams and clubs, activities and careers; we need only reclaim some of the rituals where family life and faith life intersect.  

So much of the ministry and teaching of Pope Francis has been focused on a merciful, loving, and embracing church recalling and welcoming so many back to it. The mandate flowing from the World Meeting of Families will be much like that – calling us all back into the arms of merciful, loving and embracing families.

How will we know that we are fulfilling the mandate given at the World Meeting of Families? When we can say, as it is written in the Book of Joshua, “as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.”

And, as we add today, we will be Heralds of Hope.