Sister Mary Soher, the co-executive director of the Hilton Sisters Project, recently returned from the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, where she was an exhibitor, spreading the word about National Catholic Sisters Week.
Held every three years and sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Family, the World Meeting of Families is the world’s largest Catholic gathering of families. This year’s took place Sept. 22-25 in Philadelphia, leading up to Pope Francis’ historic visit to the U.S. Sister Mary shared her impressions with SisterStory.
So how was the World Meeting of Families?
Overall, it was an incredible experience. The people of Philadelphia were so friendly and welcoming, helping visitors find the right bus stop or train station. I was taking the train in on the first morning and asked this couple behind me if Jefferson Station was the best one to get off at. They walked me all the way from the train station to the conference and checked in throughout the week, "Hey, Sister, how's it going?" There was this sense of a worldwide family looking out for each other.
There were people from all across the United States and even from around the world: Pakistan, Nigeria, Zambia, the Congo, Central and Southern Americas. It really was a worldwide gathering of families. And there were children of all ages -- toddlers in strollers, teens -- plus grandparents and older people. There was this sense of coming together to celebrate family.
Where did you stay? Philadelphia must’ve been totally booked!
It was. The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia took me in, and it was just a wonderful experience of sisterhood. I stayed in one of their local houses in Elwyn [a township near Philadelphia]. One of the sisters there was Sister Nora Nash, who was profiled in Jo Piazza’s book “If Nuns Ruled the World.” [Jo came to St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn., in March to speak at the discern. conference and is a wonderful NCSW ambassador.]
What kind of response did you get to NCSW?
There was great interest. People kept saying, ‘Oh, what a great idea!” I had all ages responding with interesting – grandparents who had been taught by sisters and are still in relationships with them, high-school students who were like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is such a great idea! I have to tell my religion teacher!’ or ‘I want to talk to my principal!’”
It was humbling to witness their openness to it.
Also, we were able to put a full-page promotion in the program booklet that went to the 15,000 people registered [for the World Meeting of Families] and I gave out thousands of NCSW buttons.
There must have been this mounting anticipation of Pope Francis’ arrival.
Oh, yes! As the week went on, you could see people were really excited about his address Saturday for the Festival of Families and to be able to be there for the big liturgy on Sunday – and boy, he didn’t disappoint!
Of course it was thrilling to hear his recognition of the work Catholic sisters have done. It was one of those moments – ‘Oh my gosh, we’re getting recognition!’”
How did it make you feel?
The recognition gives you the encouragement that you’re on the right track. Francis challenged everybody by your baptism to be engaged. If people don’t know how to respond, one of the things that we’re able to do as sisters is offer them an invitation to participate with us in all our ministries and missions. There are so many sisters doing so much good in so many ways that there are always ways to get involved!
People don’t have to reinvent the wheel. It’s more about asking: “Well, who’s asking doing something in this area?” All you have to do is ask a sister and she’ll tap into her network and give you direction. Sometimes I don’t think people realize that we’re all in this together.
And it all relates to NCSW. Religious vocations are nurtured within the family. It’s important not only for young people to know about religious life but for parents to learn more so they can encourage this as a vocation.
What were your takeaways from Pope Francis?
I really enjoyed his talk Saturday night at the Festival of Families. I watched it with my sisters. When he gave his script away and talked from his heart, it was amazing. He is a very human being who understands mothers-in-law and family dynamics, but above all, he preaches God’s goodness, love, mercy, beauty – things we all long for – and he gives us words of encouragement while acknowledging that life is messy. He’s just an authentic man.
You’ll have another opportunity to attend a huge gathering of Catholics next month, at the National Catholic Youth Conference in Indianapolis.
That’s right! Nov. 19-21! If you’ll be there, be sure to look for the NCSW booth and come say hi!