Editor’s note: Gina and Joseph Loehr were part of a panel presentation, “How Precious is the Family: Advice from Pope Francis on How to Love,” at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia on Sept. 25.

Strangers became friends at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, according to Gina Loehr, pictured above, far right, holding her son, Anthony, and with her husband, Joe, center back. Also pictured in front of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul on Sept. 26, are the couple’s new friends, Victor and Annmarie Tedesco from Philadelphia, left to right, Lisa DiPietro from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania and Kim McDaniel from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. (Submitted photo courtesy Lisa DiPietro)“It was like Catholic Disneyland.”

That’s how my friend, Rachel Bond, described the exhibitor plaza at the World Meeting of Families which she attended with her husband and two young daughters.

Nearly 500 Catholic organizations, ministries, companies and communities set up booths at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Some 20,000 attendees visited these vendors between the densely packed schedule of Masses, keynote addresses and breakout sessions – close to 100 talks in the course of four days.

It was a whirlwind week of Catholic formation and celebration that culminated in the visit of Pope Francis to the Festival of Families Saturday night.

My husband, Joe, and I missed out on most of this. With a delayed flight that didn’t get in until Thursday night, our panel presentation during the final Congress session on Friday morning, and our flight home Saturday afternoon, we were only able to attend one talk.

We didn’t even get to step into the exhibitor plaza, which the Secret Service suddenly shut down just before we arrived, nearly 24 hours ahead of schedule.

We did get our World Meeting of Families “pilgrim packs,” complete with program booklet, hat, poncho, water bottle and a ton of advertisements and brochures. We also went through a lot of security measures as we moved among hotel, meeting spaces and the city center.

We even got to catch a glimpse of the Holy Father from about 30 yards away when he arrived at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul on Saturday morning. However, we missed the chance to participate in most of the week’s events.

But that didn’t seem to matter.

Just being there amid thousands of Catholic pilgrims, just experiencing the jubilant and faith-filled atmosphere, just witnessing the coming and going of so many families from so many places was worth as much as hearing any inspiring talk or participating in any special activity.

We were among friends – strangers, yes, but also friends. There was a spirit of fraternity and camaraderie among people that was like a little foretaste of heaven. Here we were together, the church universal, with all of our diversity beautifully melding into a true unity.

As the parents of five young children, Joe and I sometimes feel a bit countercultural. When I’m out and about with the kids, people are forever making wry comments about how I have my “hands full.” (“Full hands, full heart,” I like to reply.)
But in this crowd, nobody was astonished or exasperated by the sight of multiple siblings being together. On the contrary, even though not all the families present were “big,” even though many attendees were priests or nuns or interested adults on their own, the love and appreciation everyone had for the gift of family life was tangible.

Simply put, it was encouraging to be in Philadelphia. It was refreshing to be in the company of tens of thousands of people who agree with Pope Francis’ comments Saturday night that “the family is a factory of hope,” and that children “are the future, the strength that moves us forward.”

Perhaps the best part of the trip was coming home. The time we spent in the presence of our global Catholic family helped me to appreciate our little domestic family

Here in our home, we have the privilege of living out the noble mission of Catholic family life.

“How precious is the family,” says Pope Francis.

Indeed, being part of a family is one of the greatest blessings that God the Father gives to us, his beloved children.

(Joseph and Gina Loehr, parents of five children, are members of Shepherd of the Hills Parish, Eden. Joseph is partner-owner of Loehr Dairy, LLC, a 700-acre dairy farm that has been in his family for 130 years and Gina is an instructor of theology at Marian University of Wisconsin. A freelance author and speaker on topics including marriage, women’s issues, and spirituality, she has also served as a delegate for the Pontifical Council for the Laity’s recent study seminar during which she met Pope Francis.)