When the woman came for our daughters, we were crowded around a small round metal table, eating damp French fries and day-old bagels. It was early evening, and we’d had a long day, and now another stranger was giving my wife a piece of paper. Was this yet another petition to sign? A cool Catholic app to download? I watched with increasing annoyance as Anna began chatting with her. Were they both somehow immune to the spill-and-tumble-filled dining of our four small children? Obviously I could have done something about that myself but, er, I needed to look something up on my phone first.
We’d just come from many hours of talks, about faith and family life, delivered by cardinals and lay experts at the World Meeting of Families, in Philadelphia. American law professor Helen Alvaré had emphasized the foundational importance of the family for the health and flourishing of society; and Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana had reflected on Laudato Si and the “difficulty of recognizing the humanity of another person in a throwaway culture.”
Great stuff, amen to it all, but we were hungry and we were tired. And after we finished eating what we could get from a bare-shelved and crowded Panera, along with a tub of fries I’d grabbed at the equally crowded burger joint next door, our night was far from over. As a family—we are a father and mother in their late thirties, and four daughters aged nine, seven, five, and two and a half—we still had to get back to the hotel, along with our heaving, listing, overstuffed stroller. There, we would have to pause for four to eight sets of cartwheels to be performed along the enclosed walkway that ran between the new and old parts of our hotel, and then we would debate who would press the buttons in the elevator, and who would use the room keycard, and whether we’d go swimming or watch a movie in our room, and if the latter, what movie, and regardless, we’d eventually go through the concluding circus maximus of our daily routines as a young family: baths, pajamas, teeth-brushing, bedtime stories, high-stress negotiations about who gets to sleep in which bed beside which sister and with what combination of blankets and pillows and dolls . . . and oh yes, right, of course, we’d finish with thoughtful nighttime prayers for the Holy Father, for all priests and religious, and for our family and all others gathered in Philadelphia.
And all of this absolutely had to be done by an hour reasonable enough that Anna and I could watch a little Francis coverage on cable. He was in Washington to address Congress: Was he going to talk about marriage and the unborn, or about the economy and the environment? We knew he would criticize our throwaway culture, but would he do it from the right or the left? After our own ensuing punditry and prayer, we would prepare for an early wakeup. And then, on the hopeful assumption that everyone slept through the night, or at least until dawn, next would come breakfast, six-way debates over what to eat for breakfast, a belated but grandly sung Latin grace (the girls went to Gregorian-chant camp in the summer), and then backpack-packing, hair brushing that featured much wailing and gnashing of small teeth, and finally back to the elevator-button wars before a race-walk over to the convention center. The goal was for all of this to happen well enough and fast enough that we could be only moderately moody and uncharitable with each other and just slightly late for the massive multilingual morning Mass for delegates. And then we six would fan out for another grueling day of joy.
Having only just arrived at the World Meeting of Families, here we were at Panera, already impatient with our children, overwhelmed by the crowds, and angry with ourselves for failing to live up to the ideal of Catholic family life. As far as I was concerned, anyone who watched us eating dinner that first night in Philadelphia would have seen an ugly cliché confirmed: Look at that glum couple with all of those little kids. Look at how messy and annoyed and tired they all seem to be. Yuck. Who wants a big family if that’s what it’s like?
Well, not everyone felt this way. Later, as we walked and cartwheeled back to our hotel room, Anna told me that the woman had approached us regarding marriage prospects for her grandsons, not a usual topic of conversation with total strangers. But we were obviously in town for the World Meeting of Families, and she loved her grandsons. She worried for their futures. Surely they will need good Catholic wives! And so in hopes that we might someday be near New York City and maybe looking to arrange good marriages for our daughters, albeit approximately twenty years in advance, she’d given Anna her name and address. This was audacious, absurd, somewhat unbelievable, and completely understandable, all at once. Welcome to Philadelphia and the 2015 World Meeting of Families.
In the lead-up to our going, I discovered that many Catholic friends had no idea what a World Meeting of Families actually is. A few asked if the event had something to do with Pope Francis’s coming to the United States, or with the Synod on the Family. Yes, but also not entirely. Neither Francis’s whirligig visit to America nor October’s tumultuous synod fully accounts for the meeting itself. In its genesis, purpose, and reputation, the World Meeting of Families, founded in 1994, complements the better-known World Youth Day. St. John Paul II created both to be international events defined by their combination of sacramental celebration, high-profile Catholic speakers, and faith-filled festivities, all crowned by a papal visit and vast Mass celebrated by the pope alongside dozens of cardinals, bishops, and priests.
World Youth Day and the World Meeting of Families bring together Catholics from around the world to embolden them in their vocations—as young people, as families. With them come priests, religious, and laypeople, all of whom want to strengthen those vocations. The other purpose of these immense get-togethers is to provide a chance for Catholic young people and families to be dramatic, real-time witnesses and instruments of evangelism in the city they’re visiting. The thousands who descended on Philadelphia were there to encourage the local faithful and catch the attention of the fallen away, the antagonistic, the indifferent.
Philadelphia is a historic East Coast archdiocese still in the comparatively early stages of a renewal led by Archbishop Charles Chaput. It’s also one of the great and founding cities of the United States itself. Given that we’re living in a time (as ever) where religion’s place in American public life seems confused and controversial, if not gravely imperiled, the World Meeting of Families happened at exactly the right time, in exactly the right place. Twenty thousand committed and excited Catholics came to Philadelphia in late September, to be joined four days later by many hundreds of thousands more, who came for Sunday Mass with Pope Francis. It was quite a scene—an irreducibly, undeniably Catholic scene.
We joined it on Day One by making our way through the crowds (we were always making our way through crowds in Philadelphia) to the registration booths, which were staffed by volunteers from all over the place, but most memorably by sharp-tongued older ladies from local parishes. In dealing with everyone mashed up against their stands, all keen and grabby for their conference swag—lanyards and laminated ID cards, clear plastic backpacks full of conference paraphernalia brought to you by the Knights of Columbus, World Meeting of Families–branded water bottles and T-shirts, green for mom and dad, blue for the kids—the parish ladies were understandably harried. They were also harrying and not averse to stage-whisper muttering, mostly about each other, but also a little at us and at seemingly unseen forces, never mind about the waves of people coming at them.
All of which made me want to get out of their way as soon as possible. Our own loudly sobbing toddler offered further incentive. But suddenly, we couldn’t leave. One of those parish ladies commanded, “Wait right there.” Of course, ma’am! Having stopped everything, she pulled out an extra blue T-shirt and with a magnificent brusque sweetness gave it to our youngest, who had just been crushed to watch her excited older sisters each get one because they were formally registered for the meeting. She was not; she was too little. The story of her life. No longer! Just like that, she was beaming and triumphantly pushing her head through an armhole.
Duly outfitted, we reached a bright white pietà set up near one of the lobbies. Like others, we stopped to get our bearings, such as we could. People were moving all around us, multitudes upon multitudes. Outside the convention center, hawkers and conventioneers wandered here and there in the brilliant bright sun of a warm fall afternoon in mid-Atlantic America. “Get your pope shirts here! Pope shirts here! We got cigarettes too! All brands!”
A vacant-faced Asian priest walked by us. He stopped to read the banner of a group gathering itself together just behind the pietà. He rushed over and began shaking hands. It was all Vietnamese to me. Just then, I felt someone tugging on my own hand.
“Wait,” Olive said. “All of these people are Catholic?”
You are loved. You are not alone. These are the most important things a child needs to know. These are the most important things any human being needs to know. Christ’s sacrificial act, witnessed to through the two millennia of teachings and traditions of the Church, carries us into the divine love that reveals and encircles this knowledge. My children already know God loves them. Bringing them to Philadelphia alongside thousands and thousands of others, I wanted them to know that they are also far from alone. The seriousness of our family’s commitments to the faith isn’t merely an idiosyncrasy of our own artisanal making in the secular bourgeois splendor of leafy East End, Toronto. Yes, most of the people we encounter wear Blundstones and Lululemon and carry iPhones and eat an astounding amount of kale these days, as do we. But also, and never forget, dear children: We are intended and formed to be more than that, we believe in more than that, we live knowing there is more to life and more to what we’re called to do in this life than simply to get more of all of that (though getting less kale would be OK). And as Catholics, we are not alone! A billion-plus people around the world are trying to live with Christ as their Lord and the Church as their mystical home upon the earth.
How better to prove this to my children than to take them to a world meeting of Catholic families? It’s a great idea, right? But then why did it have to be so difficult? Why were our five days in Philadelphia so often draining, and at times discouraging, even demoralizing? Why does family life have to be so hard, especially when you’re doing your best to make it so good, so winsomely Catholic?
Thank God, I suffer from no grave struggles as a husband and father. By both religious and secular standards for a good and happy marriage and family life, I am abundantly blessed. The worries and struggles I face must seem luxurious to those who are up against far greater challenges in their family lives than I am. What’s my problem? My cup overflows, and I’m annoyed by all the spills. My wife has observed, more than once, that the only thing I tend to be ideological about is my own family. I want us to be perfect, perfectly presentable witnesses of joyful and thriving Catholic family life in the midst of barren secular-progressive plenty. I want us to out-joy and out-thrive the competition, and I’ll grit my teeth and bear down to make sure that happens. To paraphrase a good line from a stupid movie, I want us to be American Catholic Winning Machines. And when we’re inevitably less than perfect, less than victorious on my own terms, I feel as though we’re failing in our call to be prophetic signs of contradiction for our culture and instead affirming less than flattering images people have of couples with small children and big families. Kids complaining and crying. Mom exasperated and exhausted. Dad annoyed and angry. Mom annoyed with Dad for being angry but not actually doing anything to improve the situation. Repeat.
In Philadelphia, there were a lot of us, earnest and ambitious Catholic families trying to live our faith. Every time a speaker’s talk ended, a few thousand people had fifteen minutes to move from one session to another, using the same hallways and escalators and elevators, and inevitably with great numbers going in opposite directions. If you were lucky enough to fall in behind religious sisters who’d spent time in St. Peter’s Square and know how to move quickly through the crowds that gather there, you just followed those habited running backs as they broke through lines and found impossible holes. Otherwise, you moved very slowly, which meant you had time to look around and see the tired faces: the many mothers and fathers lining the walls, nursing babies, charging phones, calming a child in meltdown or rousing a child from the despair of just learning he has to go with his parents to another talk. Another? Come on! We just heard one! We made eye contact and exchanged sympathetic, knowing smiles.
I am not alone.
Day Two in Philadelphia: We went to pray at the green-domed and great dark-pillared Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul. The city’s mother church is a short walk from the convention center, but going there took somewhat longer owing to the ever tighter security cordon closing in on the downtown core as Francis’s arrival neared, and also because city streets cleared of traffic make for amazingly wide and dramatic spaces for cartwheeling. By nightfall, the cathedral itself was closed because of the larger security preparations, but next door was a grotto dedicated to Our Lady, Undoer of Knots. It was packed with people making petitions to Mary for assistance with difficult situations, which they wrote onto white paper ribbons that they then tied, or knotted, to the ribbing of a large arched wooden structure. Each of us wrote out a petition and then we processed into the stark and beautiful space and marveled at the papers hanging everywhere, looking for a spot to tie our ribbons.
My older daughters, small mouths agape, speculated about the petitions hanging high, high above us. Who could have reached way, way up there? Are there Giant Catholics in Philadelphia? How could we not have seen them? Meanwhile, far from a giant herself and, anyway, incapable of tying her own ribbon, our youngest, not yet three, decided instead to take handfuls of gravel and dump these into the serene pool in the center of the enclosure. Other little ones noticed and joined her. Parents looked back and forth at the pattering pool and each other. Do we stop them from clouding up the beauty and serenity of the place, or pretend it’s not happening so we can finish tying our ribbons and help our older children with theirs? Eventually, I persuaded our youngest that we should go look at something else. She dropped just one more handful of gravel in the pool and was ready to go. Then she dropped another handful, then another—that was absolutely the last one, she promised—and then gathered a few stray pebbles near her feet and dropped those in too, and then, then, we left.
My patience almost as depleted as my phone battery, we approached the grotto proper to kneel before a large bright painting of the Virgin depicted in red robes and untying knots handed to her by nearby angels. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of my older daughters pick up a stray Sharpie. There was a nice blank-faced stone right beside her. So she took off the cap and leaned in and . . .
I swooped in and grabbed her arm. She dropped the marker and tried to explain. I didn’t want to know what she was going to write. I didn’t care. “Were you really about to vandalize a church?” I asked as I marched the entire family out of the grotto. “No,” she moped, her spirit crumpled, the petition she was planning to write now forgotten. She nodded her head along mechanically to an only too familiar righteous-angry-dad lecture, this one about behaving respectfully and reverently in sacred spaces. Anna listened in stony silence nearby. I imagined what she was thinking. “Why does Randy have to be so harsh?” I imagined my counterarguments. “I’m not harsh, I’m a father. It’s important the children learn what it means to be reverent. Right?” I imagined hers. “Randy’s right, but why does he have to make us all so miserable in being right?”
The actual argument would all play out after the kids went to bed, with frothing cable news commentators barking in the background about whether or not Pope Francis inspired John Boehner to resign from Congress.
But why was I so overwrought and dire as I lectured my daughter? I full well knew she wasn’t about to vandalize a church, for goodness’ sake. Why did I even say that? She was just trying to pray for someone else and she couldn’t find a ribbon. There was no malice, no mischief in any of this. She’s a child. And I want to encourage her prayerfulness, especially for others, and also to encourage her mindfulness in all things, especially religious matters. And why did I have to frog-march my whole family away from that moment of prayer?
We lingered around a nearby public fountain, in a vague collective funk. The kids half-heartedly teetered along the rim. Anna half-heartedly told them to stop, be careful, help each other, whatever. Quarter-heartedly I knew I’d been absolutely correct to prevent Olive from writing on the church wall. I also knew that I was wrong to ascend to such heights of self-assigned correctitude in how I lectured my little girl. I struggled over this, but not for very long. Instead, I took a little twenty-first-century cigarette break from the stress and difficulty of ordinary family life. I pulled out my iPhone and googled the latest on Francis in America.
I took a lot of those iPhone breaks during those days and nights in Philadelphia, and berated myself for doing so—and kept doing it. Sigh, the treadmill of sin when you’re not worried about roaming charges. In fact, wherever I am when family life gets to be too difficult, I give in to sullen self-accusation and hasty retreat into my iPhone, while half of my brain makes half-hearted plans to start a fresh novena to St. Joseph one of these days. Isn’t there an app for that? I’ll look it up! Anna’s tendency is less techno-escapist. For her, sincere and frustrated self-accusations of maternal failure lead to late-night reading of Catholic parenting manuals and an increased devotion to St. Gianna Beretta Molla.
Aside from the need to deepen our prayer life and increase our devotion, the problem with both of us, of course, is that we’re so intentional in our efforts to be better parents and, in this way, very brittle and too easily broken. We strain in ways that are exhausting, even soul-sapping. But we need to be this intentional! We are immersed in a thoroughly secular bourgeois culture, and so we have to will ourselves, again and again, to recall our religiously formed and religiously ordered rights and responsibilities as parents, as families. This always difficult effort gets little support from our immediately surrounding secular milieu. Some of our friends and acquaintances put a great deal of effort into holding creatively themed birthdays and getting their kids into the right dance classes and sport programs, identifying peanut allergies and purchasing BPA-free water bottles, and having endless conversations about the negative effects of too much technology in the home, frequently interrupted by pinging phones and debates about which phone plan is best. We do all of this too, more often than we should, probably. But we also hope to do something more. We try and try and try to live out the complexly demanding and joyful idea of Catholic family life.
Day Three at the World Meeting of Families: Manila’s electric young archbishop, Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, made the best case I heard in Philadelphia for what this trying means, what it really takes for a family to live up to its calling to be a little church. Of necessity, given his popularity, I was sitting near the back of the giant main hall when he spoke. That was fine: There was enough space for our youngest to spread out a little and play (in non-syncretistic fashion, of course) with some Frozen figurines and her Pope Francis foldup fan. From the lectern Tagle was grinning and kibitzing. He immediately, easily drew me in along with everyone else.
We were loving it, we were loving him—and he knew it, he really knew it—and he smoothly put aside his sacerdotal standup and instead began preaching plainly, plaintively, about the many wounds to be found within all families. He knew he did not need to fill in the details very much. We all had enough to supply. And then Tagle said something unexpected. He told us that the Church does not come to the aid of wounded families. He reminded us that the Church herself is made up of wounded people and therefore is already present with families in their very wounds. Her sacraments and community bring healing and solidarity to our wounds and lonely failures. After all, the Church herself began with the Holy Family. And who could deny the many wounds that marked the earthly lives of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph?
I know those wounds. I especially felt them in Philadelphia when, the afternoon of our third day, my daughter really, really wanted to show me what she had written and drawn on the Holy Spirit shield she had just made during a youth programming session.
She wants to show me even though I’m in the middle of moving her and her three sisters out of a chaotic child-filled lobby. She wants to show me while my toddler and five-year-old are fighting over who gets to sit in the stroller and who gets to stand on the back of the stroller, which is a war of the purest possible attrition and principled fury, because each wants to be wherever the other currently happens to be. She wants to show me even though Anna is on the phone and yelling over her own surrounding chaos that the exhibitor’s hall is closing a day early and we should hurry upstairs because they’re beginning to discount everything. And my oldest daughter picks this moment to ask if we can go to the big fancy candy store in Reading Terminal Market afterward. Wait! The warring little ones just overheard something more important than the stroller. Did someone just say . . . candy store? We’re going to a candy store? We’re going to a candy store!
And in the middle of all of this, there’s my joyful little girl bouncing around in front of me, holding a cardboard shield decorated with crosses and flowers and a butterfly and a shooting star and self-exhorting words about listening in Mass, and though it feels like it takes all of my very being to answer this unexpected and demanding and difficult call to love, I do it. But I do it only because I know that’s what a loving and thoughtful parent is supposed to do or, in religious terms, is “called” to do. So I answer the call. Catholic Father of the Year!
I stop and marvel at her Holy Spirit shield. I do so at least in word and deed, but I hold back a little bit of my heart, which might as well be all of it, because she can tell. The bright light in her big brown eyes goes dim, just a little. She sort of drops the shield limply to her side and walks on. I try to ask her about it and she smiles at my effort. My lukewarm marveling is too practiced, too dutiful, and it wounds her. It wounds me. In time it wounds her mother and her sisters even if they never know the details, because they feel it later in the evening, during a cold-toned, businesslike visit to the candy store.
While the others traded tastes of their treats, I stood off to the side, near a tattooed counterman who was trying to explain a cheesesteak to some Italians. They looked confused, alarmed, even a little offended. Meanwhile, I was trying to remember Cardinal Tagle’s talk, which hadn’t helped at all in my moment with my daughter and her Holy Spirit shield; that moment only proved his point. The members of the Holy Family bear wounds, as do the members of my family, as do I. And how does that little domestic church around Jesus respond? With love, mercy, sacrifice, and forgiveness. What about our own families? We too often respond with more wounding instead of the Holy Family’s love.
It’s easy to talk about wounds that come from the outside. They encourage us to insulate ourselves. You know, it’s the culture, technology, and popular entertainment we need to protect against. We’ve created whole ministries and industries to do so, and can appeal to the flight into Egypt as an example from the Gospels to inform and justify our efforts. But what about all of those wounds that families inflict on themselves, on each other? The only hope for love’s failures is love’s repairing work: mercy, sacrifice, and forgiveness.
We need not shuttle back and forth between Edenic ideals and infernal failures. Cardinal Tagle’s remarks renewed and deepened my sense that God neither promises nor wants either of those for us. Instead, he calls us to be more like the Holy Family amid our wounds and wounding. To love like the Holy Family loved is the good to which God has pointed me. He calls me to seek a more perfect love, not to fixate on having a perfect Catholic family.
Shout out to @taylorswift13 and her friends: With their help, we approached this more perfect love during one blessed hour at the World Meeting of Families, when Randy, Anna, Mira, Olive, Ever, and Imogen were as one in thought, word, and deed. We’d signed up to pack emergency meal packets for Catholic Relief Services to take to Burkina Faso as part of a program to feed poor pregnant women and single mothers. The auditorium was filled with hundreds of others, divided into teams of six. Being six as a family, we were assigned our own station. The task: to pack ten thousand lunches in one hour. At our station, we had bins of soy, rice, dehydrated carrots, vitamin and flavor sachets, and a simple funnel for pouring all of this in right proportions into sturdy plastic bags that would then be boxed and sent off to another station to be sealed. Classic Michael Jackson boomed, and the latest Taylor Swift, and songs from Frozen, and everywhere you looked, you saw moms and dads and kids and priests and religious sisters and single people foot-tapping and swaying and singing along, everybody pumped up and laughing and working hard. A cowbell rang out, marking every thousand lunches packed. Everybody cheered.
CRS staff and volunteers were everywhere, taking pictures, carrying off boxed sets of meals, refilling bins from giant paper sacks that roared with rice. We spilled a lot; we helped each other out a lot. The kids fought over who would get to pour what, and then, with their own versions of magnificent brusque sweetness, gave way to each other. We laughed at each other’s pouchy white hairnets. No one’s gloves fit right. Being an uptight dad keen to follow specific instructions, I was way too worried about making sure we were following the method precisely, until I conceded that absolute precision wasn’t the point here. And being way too patient, Anna let our toddler take her time and make mistakes while pouring her cup of rice into each bag. And it worked, it all worked! Not one of us ever let up. We needed each other. We love. We are loved. And look around. We are definitely not alone! Through it all our heads were bopping and we looked up from our work and cheered every time that bell rang out. It rang out ten times that hour. That’s a lot of wonderful and rightful full-throated cheering. Messy high-fives and kisses all around. Only, I’m not so sure about giving everyone little chocolate bars as they exited. There must be something better for overexcited and exhausted small children than fresh hits of sugar. Not that the girls complained.
And then the pope came. Day Four, we lined up for an hour to enter a closed-off section of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for a concert celebrating faith and families. After we carved out a spot on the balding lawn for our blanket, I went off on a foraging expedition with my eldest daughter. We came back with big pretzels and shriven souls, having wandered into an impromptu confession line near the snack stand. I asked the young priest set up there how this had started. “I don’t know,” he shrugged. Behind me, a sheepish cop was waiting, either for his turn or to tell Father he had to move his lineup somewhere else. Maybe it was both.
Eventually the pope came to “Francis Fields,” so named by some organizer with a weakness for cults of personality. We tracked Francis’s movement around the dark pilgrim-filled parkway as successive segments suddenly came alive with screams and the tiled white glow of so many phone screens. The pope was led around by a parade of motorcycles flying papal and American flags, their engines revving the whole time like the start of a NASCAR race. As we waited for him to come our way, another stranger inquired about our daughters; this time, about our youngest specifically. The woman told us she had a front-row spot, right up against the metal barrier by the road. “He likes the little ones,” she explained. “I’ll lift her up and who knows? He might stop and talk to us!” Imogen was all for it—all week she had been praying for “Pope France and his oatmeal,” toddler-talk for Francis and his pope-mobile. It didn’t work. The Holy Father rode past, smiling and waving and blessing (as ever), but didn’t stop. We all cheered and waved and tapped away on our phones.
The next day, our fifth and final in Philadelphia, we lined up for hours and hours and hours to return to the same place for Sunday Mass. After a standing lunch of discounted Starbucks sandwiches (they’d both overstocked and undersold), we were still in line. The toddler fell asleep, thank God, but then that sweet sleeping child peed on Anna, and on the ground beneath all of our feet. Once it was clear to the people surrounding us that Anna’s water hadn’t just broken, that it was just some child’s urine, everyone shrugged and kept waiting. I texted with friends, comparing locations and the speed of lines. People in the short brick apartment buildings around us watched through windows, mugging faces and waving and taking pictures of us taking pictures of them. Once we finally made it past the metal-detectors and the beaten-down bag checkers, everyone else in our family plugged noses and used the well-used portable toilets. Making our way to Mass very, very slowly, we met some nice people from Texas, Delaware, Ecuador. We bought overpriced and flimsy Vatican flags from an old guy who looked sad that no one wanted any of his goods.
Francis drove past us again, but this time we were at a distance. Everyone cheered, of course, and then everyone began asking the police to open up the barriers. Seeing the pope was exciting, sure, but it was Sunday. We had to get to Mass.
And Mass was Mass as it always is, only much bigger. Everybody was dusty, dirty, disheveled. There was at least one peed-upon mother from Toronto in attendance, and probably others elsewhere in the vast crowd. We were tired and struggling to make sense of a lengthy homily in Spanish. Only all the many religious sisters around us were strikingly clean and composed and attentive, their plain oval faces radiating the joy we all felt at our differing frequencies.
Two hours later, following Communion, my daughter Olive asked if she could climb up an eight-foot-tall metal electrical box near us. She’d seen absolutely nothing but the grownups surrounding her the whole time we were there. Still, she knew better. She knew exactly what her precise Catholic father would say. No inappropriate behavior during Mass! One must be reverent on the parkway! But I was even more tired of parenting correctitude than of anything else, our last day in Philadelphia. I said sure, and asked if I could come, too. Her brown eyes popped. Seriously? Someone had already pushed a wooden construction pallet against the electrical box as an impromptu and tipsy ladder. Two strangers suddenly appeared and braced it as we climbed up and sat down.
Everywhere we looked, there were people singing and praying. Priests with emptied Communion chalices were headed back slowly toward the altar, led by volunteers sporting bright yellow umbrellas. Oh, I need to take pictures! What a fantastic home-screen shot this was going to be! But pointing and clicking, I felt myself flinch from that familiar sterile moment and abandon the consoling fiction that I’m capturing life as it truly is. For once I actually didn’t want my phone in my hand. So I put it in my pocket and took up Olive’s hand. Our legs dangled over the edge of the high metal box, swinging a little during the recessional hymn.
“Wait,” I said to Olive, with family sitcom seriousness, “all of these people are Catholic?”
She rolled her eyes. Dads.
Then her sisters saw us and rushed the metal box, so many small hands and feet and faces frantic to come up.
Randy Boyagoda is professor of American studies at Ryerson University. His latest book is Richard John Neuhaus: A Life in the Public Square.