‘Enhancing Our Appreciation of the Beauty of Families’

An interview with Father William Donovan, the liaison of the archbishop of Philadelphia for the preparation for the 2015 World Meeting of Families.

Father William Donovan (l) with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and his wife, Susan Corbett, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in Rome.
Father William Donovan (l) with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and his wife, Susan Corbett, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in Rome. (photo: Courtesy of Father William Donovan)

In anticipation of the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, scheduled for Sept. 22-27, 2015, the Register spoke with Father William Donovan, a Philadelphia native and Italian-speaking scholar who has been tapped to serve as the liaison of the archbishop of Philadelphia to the Pontifical Council for the Family. On Nov. 17, Pope Francis announced that he would attend the meeting.

Father Donovan, age 55, is the fifth of eight children of a Havertown, Pa., family, all of whom went to local Catholic schools. After working for a “Big 8” international accounting firm for eight years, Father Donovan says he decided to follow his priestly discernment and entered St. Charles Borromeo Seminary outside of Philadelphia in 1988. He was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in May 1994 and served in a variety of educational roles before being sent to Rome for further graduate studies.

Subsequently, Father Donovan returned to serve as a professor and formator of seminarians at St. Charles Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. During these teaching years, he also served as a weekend assistant in parish ministry. He was assigned to Rome in his present post last year. Currently, Father Donovan is living in Rome and working at the Vatican.


What are your responsibilities in the planning of the World Meeting of Families? How are you managing this when you are in Rome and the meeting is in Philadelphia?

As liaison of the archbishop of Philadelphia to the Pontifical Council for the Family, I am working in Rome as Archbishop [Charles] Chaput’s representative to the Vatican for the VIII World Meeting of Families. This international triennial event, which celebrates Christian marriage and family and which was founded by Pope St. John Paul II in 1994, is being co-sponsored by both the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Vatican.

So, among various responsibilities, I serve as a bridge between these two great cities, sharing information between the sponsoring partners.


What is the World Meeting of Families?

The World Meeting of Families consists of three principal moments: the Theological-Pastoral Congress, which will run from Sept. 22-25, wherein experts and practitioners from all over the world will offer presentations designed to deepen our understanding of the truth of families, enhancing our appreciation of the beauty of families and strengthening the goodness of families; the Festival of Families, which will be celebrated on Saturday evening, Sept. 26, in the presence of the Holy Father, will include a cultural celebration of the family in music, song, theatrical performances and dialogue between one family from each of the five continents and the Holy Father, wherein the joys and challenges which families face today will be discussed.

The concluding solemn Mass with the Holy Father on Sunday morning, Sept. 27, will be a summarizing moment wherein we will bring together all our experiences and sharing of the week into one unified moment of thanksgiving to our Triune God, author of life and love.


How will this meeting relate to the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family this fall in Rome?

Pope Francis has made the family the cornerstone of his young papacy. He has called his closest collaborators, the College of Cardinals, in his February 2014 consistory to reflect on the family. He has called two Synods of Bishops, to be held respectively in October 2014 and October 2015, to reflect upon the family.

While the World Meeting of Families will be a precious jewel in this crown of family celebrations, the World Meeting of Families will be a unique moment for the Holy Father to directly encounter families from all over the world, listening, speaking and sharing. In this way, the World Meeting of Families will have a special place in the heart of the Pope over and above the three meetings with his brothers in the Consistory of Cardinals and Synods of Bishops.


How was the Archdiocese of Philadelphia chosen as the site for the meeting?

This is perhaps part of the mystery of God’s plan. The Pope must select a city to celebrate the international triennial event. His collaborators at the Pontifical Council for the Family narrow the list down to three cities, which are presented to the Pope. The Pontifical Council had the responsibility to investigate the possibility of cities hosting the World Meeting of Families in North America. It has already been celebrated in Europe, South America and Asia. I may be a bit partial, but Philadelphia, with its rich historical, cultural and ecclesial background, seems to me the perfect choice.

In March 2014, Archbishop Chaput led a delegation of distinguished guests and key organizers of these papal events, including Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison, among others, on a visit to the Vatican for a series of high-level meetings, which included a personal audience with the Holy Father for each member of the delegation.

Archbishop Chaput has been quoted as saying that a papal visit would be a boon for the Church in Philadelphia and that, everywhere he has been where the Pope has gone, such a visit has been a moment of grace for the local Church. He particularly commented on how Pope John Paul II’s visit to Denver in 1993 changed the face of that city and diocese.


Father Donovan, how were you chosen for this incredibly exciting assignment?

I think they were looking for someone who knew Philadelphia and spoke fluent Italian.


What kinds of fruits would you hope to see in Philadelphia and the archdiocese as a result of a visit from Pope Francis?

Our Holy Father, with his simple style of engagement and extemporaneous communications, has captured the imagination of many in the world, especially those who seem dissatisfied with organized religion. But, wonderfully, his message is stirring up something in those who have been distant from God and the Church and who find themselves thinking anew about these important matters.

Many who seem disaffected with formal religion and many people of diverse faith traditions seem genuinely interested in what the Pope has to say. His message of challenging us to live the Gospel with simplicity seems to resonate with many. So, initially attracted to him, men and women are invited to open their minds and hearts to hear the full message of God’s gracious plan for humanity.

When each of us as individuals and as families reconsider our circumstances, our relationship with God and the world, an opening or an opportunity presents itself for transformation to take place. This transformation, this regeneration begins in the sanctuary of the human heart and then goes out to others: first in the family, then in the neighborhood, parishes, schools, churches and to the ends of the world.

Marion Fox writes from Philadelphia.