The true blessings of a pilgrimage often are the unexpected experiences – and the scheduled highlights of a trip often make way for glimpses of love and holiness in little ways. The World Meeting of Families, like other major conventions, includes all the various components of such gatherings – large keynote talks, breakout sessions in smaller groups, an exhibit hall with vendors selling their products and talking-up their programs, and as a Catholic conference, daily Mass and the opportunity for Eucharistic Adoration and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. All of those have really been great here in Philadelphia this week, from very inspiring keynote presentations to some innovative and exciting programs to support family life among the exhibitors. But my highlights so far have come from none of these things.
Tuesday evening, I gathered with about a dozen friends who I went to college with at La Salle University here in Philadelphia. We graduated 15 years ago this past May, and we unfortunately don’t get to see each other too often. We all feel like we’re starting to get old – while at the same time college doesn’t seem too far in the past. Our old friendships are still strong, even as our lives have changed – as most have gotten married and had children, as houses have been bought and jobs changed. We’re really just an ordinary group of people – but in that ordinariness, I saw on Tuesday night glimpses of what good family life can be like. We laughed and shared stories and caught up on each other’s lives, and I left with the overwhelming sense that life is good, even when it’s not easy, and especially when we are surrounded by loving family and friends. Those bonds go across the years and the miles to keep us connected in amazing ways.
One of the patrons of the World Meeting of Families is St. Gianna Molla, a wife, mother, and doctor from Italy who died just 53 years ago after having been diagnosed with a malignant tumor while pregnant with her fourth child. Her doctors urged her to remove the tumor – which would necessarily result in the death of the child – but she refused, carried the child to term, gave birth, and died a few days later. She sacrificed her own life for the life of her daughter. On Wednesday afternoon, I met that daughter – Gianna Emmanuela Molla. She is here in Philly to give a workshop today, but yesterday she was just hanging out in the exhibit hall, near a booth with information about her saintly mother. I overheard someone saying that she was there, looked around, recognized her from pictures I had seen, and just walked up to her. She was extraordinarily kind and humble – a simple, ordinary holiness radiated from her. She doesn’t speak much English, but we communicated fairly well, and she asked me to pray for her. I asked her to pray for me and for all of the seminarians I work with. Then we took a selfie!
St. Gianna Molla has been held up by the Church as an example for marriage and family life. While people often focus on the manner of her death as a sign of her holiness, it was her entire life that we can learn from. And what’s so remarkable is that this life continues on in her children – so that today, it is possible to shake hands and take a picture with the daughter of a canonized Saint. Holiness – especially in the family – does not require extraordinary deeds, but simple acts of love, sacrifice, generosity, and mercy. We easily get caught up in the visible, high-profile leaders of the Church and witnesses to holiness – just watch all the attention being paid to Pope Francis this week. But holiness should be ordinary, not extraordinary. We are all called to become holy. This week, we can see all around us here in Philadelphia glimpses of ordinary holiness in family life. And that should be our lasting memory of these days as much as the impending visit of Pope Francis.