In a matter of weeks, Pope Francis will be speaking at the same lectern from which President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address in 1863.
He will be the first pope to address a joint session of Congress and will canonize Blessed Junípero Serra at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. After his time in D.C., he will travel to New York and then on to Philadelphia for the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families; held every three years since its inception in 1994 by St. John Paul II, it is the world’s largest Catholic gathering of families.
Bishop Thomas Paprocki of the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., will be present for the congressional address, the canonization and World Meeting of Families, and he is looking forward to their impact on U.S. Catholics and Americans in general.
“The World Meeting of Families will to be a wonderful opportunity for the Catholic Church in the United States to focus on the true meaning of family life,” he said in a mid-August interview.
“The Supreme Court’s recent attempt to redefine marriage makes it particularly relevant,” he said, noting the theme, “Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive,” which emphasizes the impact of love and life on families and society.
The culture is challenging married life, he said, particularly the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing for people of the same sex to legally marry. “It was an attempt to redefine marriage,” he said. “I said ‘attempt,’ because they can change the legal reality, but they cannot change reality.”
According to the Chicago native, “The state has no moral authority to change what God has created. We are being called to put God above all else, even above our country’s laws.”
The other big challenges to marriage and family life, Bishop Paprocki said, are the high divorce rate, an increasing number of young people cohabiting instead of marrying and the large number of children being born out of wedlock. “It’s important for people to understand that true marriage is a lifelong, exclusive relationship to share love and to raise children according to God’s plan,” he said.
Although Bishop Paprocki said he expects that most of those attending the World Meeting of Families will already be faithful to Catholic teaching, their example and testimony can impact the culture. He explained that we are all called to let the “bright light of truth shine forth to overcome the darkness of error” and that everyone is called to love others, not by condoning their sins, but by helping them to live virtuous lives and remain faithful to the commandments.
“The faithful Catholics attending the meeting will be a witness to others,” he said. “People will be influenced also by reading about it and the messages of the Holy Father himself, who will be speaking there.”
However, he offered words of caution: “The secular media has a tendency to pick and choose the things they are interested in and not what the Holy Father is actually saying, so people need to read or listen carefully to what he actually says.”
Bishop Paprocki pointed out that young people especially need help understanding the lifelong commitment between a man and a woman in marriage because culture has bombarded them with messages that contradict the Church’s teaching about the meaning of human sexuality and marriage.
Comparing it to the pro-life movement, he explained that the Church is only at the starting point of adjusting people’s thinking to the proper understanding of marriage and family. “We’ve done well reaching young people with the respect-life movement,” he said.
“Many of them are with us in understanding Church teaching on the sanctity of life, but they are not with us on the teaching of family and marriage. We’ve been working on the sanctity-of-human-life issue for 40 years,” he said. “There is more work to do, but we’ve made progress; not necessarily in changing laws, but in changing hearts.”
On the topic of contraception, Bishop Paprocki said it is an important issue that has affected many marriages, and “as people grow more deeply in their understanding that authentic love and marriage is self-giving, then they are in a better position to understand why the Church teaches against the use of artificial contraception.”
A focus on America’s Catholic roots is also timely, according to the bishop.
He is looking forward to the historic canonization of Blessed Junípero Serra, an 18th-century Spanish Franciscan missionary who founded nine of California’s 21 missions and was dedicated to spreading the Gospel and administering to the American Indians. Blessed Junípero will be the first saint to be canonized on U.S. soil.
Bishop Paprocki made a personal visit last month to the tomb of the missionary at the Carmel Mission in California and celebrated Mass there. He said this canonization could help highlight who the missionaries were and what they did.
“The missionaries were just trying to bring the message of Jesus Christ and to care for the poor and the sick. They were such a strong influence in the area that many of California’s key cities bear Catholic names, such as San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Cruz and others.”
Through the Pope’s message about the life and influence of Blessed Junípero Serra in spreading the faith, Bishop Paprocki said that he hopes people can see the positive effects that the missionaries brought to this country.
“Our current culture sees talking about faith as coercing people,” he said. “The approach we take in the Catholic Church does not have a pejorative sense, but it is about witnessing. The missionaries proposed the faith and tried to show people the happiness and the beauty it offered. I am sure that is the message that Pope Francis will be sharing.”
Register correspondent Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.