NEW YORK — Children will be the focus of the Jubilee for Families this fall because “at the heart of the family are children,” said Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo during a visit to the United States.

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, sharply criticized efforts in Europe and America to extend the legal protections and benefits of marriage to cohabiting couples and those in same-sex unions.

He added that he was pleased by the rise of new apostolic movements within the Church and society that are helping to check the passive acceptance of these trends.

The Colombian-born cardinal was in New York March 6 and Washington March 7 to encourage U.S. Catholic families to travel to Rome for the Oct. 14-15 Jubilee of the Family with Pope John Paul II.

The two-day public celebration and a preceding three-day congress of scholars and experts at the Vatican have as their theme “Children: Springtime of the Family and Society.”

The cardinal also used his American visit to announce that the statue of Our Lady of Loreto will be brought from her own shrine in Loreto, Italy, to the Vatican for the first time in history so the Holy Father can present “Our Lady of Loreto as Queen of the Family.” The popular Loreto shrine is where, it is believed, the home of the Holy Family was miraculously transported centuries ago.

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo said highlights of the public celebration Oct. 14 will include special Masses for families in churches throughout Rome, followed by a gathering in St. Peter's Square for prayer and testimonials with the Holy Father.

At a Mass Oct. 15, the Pope is to witness 12 marriages and preside over a renewal of wedding vows by tens of thousands for married couples who come to Rome for the occasion.

But the most important moment of the Jubilee for Families will be the Third Worldwide Meeting of the Holy Father with Families, and hearing his Message to Families. “He is very interested in your witness in this Jubilee, that you may give the world a powerful, enthusiastic message of prayer.”

In Washington the cardinal met at National Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters with conference staff and with diocesan and parish marriage, family and pro-life officials.

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo observed that, in today's atmosphere of widespread separation and divorce and disregard for marital commitment, “children are often the victims in society and the family.”

He described legal and societal “confusion about the truth of the family” as a “very dangerous” threat to humanity, especially to children.

Through the Jubilee celebration in Rome and related programs “we hope to put the children again at the center of the concern of families.”

Cardinal Lopez Trujillo said the removal of children from the center of the family's mission and “the separation of love from procreation” is harmful to all of society.

“One common problem in some countries of Europe is the demographic collapse, a ‘demographic winter’ because of a fear of motherhood and fatherhood.”

Like Pope John Paul, Cardinal Lopez Trujillo finds hope in the rise and spread of new Catholic movements that are trying to restore “a basic sense of ethics” in reaction to the permissiveness and “systematic demolition of the family in the legislatures” that they see around them.

He urged members of the movements to come to the Rome celebrations themselves and to encourage others in their parishes and communities to make the pilgrimage.

In New York, Cardinal Lopez Trujillo met some 75 members of various movements and others who are active in family apostolates at the parish and diocesan level.

Some of the movements represented included Marriage Encounter, Focolare, Regnum Christi, Legion of Mary, LAMP Ministries and Cursillo de Cristiandad. A number of them spoke at the meeting with the cardinal.

Marriage Encounter's Jim and Nancy Rizzi recalled their participation in the international gathering of families in Rome in 1995. Nancy Rizzi said she was awestruck by Saint Peter's Basilica and “overwhelmed” by the gathering of so many Catholic families.

People were “gathered in the square as far as the eye could see,” she remembered. They included Christians “from all over the world trying to live family life as the Church conceives it.”

Jim Rizzi marveled at how the Holy Father could “receive such adulation and still be so humble, to come out to the cheering crowd and then show such profound and genuine humility when he spoke.

“Children had no problem running up to him to give a big hug, and the Pope gave a big hug right back,” Rizzi said.

Gary Cronin recounted his experience of the 1997 Gathering for Families in Rio de Janeiro. “There were two million people at Mass from 160 different countries,” he said. “To be there and to look up to see the great statue of Christ the Redeemer, to be with millions of people all united under Christ, that is what we're all about.”

(Catholic News Service contributed to this report)