Seventeen thousand people from across the United States and more than 100 countries will converge on Philadelphia this week for the World Meeting of Families, a weeklong event of prayer, religious instruction and celebration of the Catholic faith.
Capping the meeting will be a visit from Pope Francis, who will lead a Mass expected to draw more than 1 million people to the home of the Liberty Bell.
Begun in 1994 by Pope John Paul II, the World Meeting of Families is held every three years and traditionally ends with a papal Mass. It was founded as a way to help families succeed in their faith.
"The whole idea of it was just to bring people and the world together to talk issues," said the Rev. Michael Rock pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Philadelphia.
Like all big gatherings, it can be overwhelming but will ultimately be exciting, he said.
"You have the different languages," Rock said. "You see the different dress. You see the different customs, but everybody has the same faith. When it comes to faith, there's still a unity no matter what."
More than a quarter of the attendees will be from outside the United States, and nearly as high a percentage are from other faiths, said Mary Beth Yount, the meeting's director of content and programming in an email.
"The Catholic Church is trying to reach out," said John S. Grabowski, a speaker at the conference and associate professor and director of moral theology/ethics at The Catholic University of America in Washington. "Pope Francis is very interested in dialogue both with other Christian traditions and other religions as well."
This is the first year the meeting of families has been held in the United States and will be the largest since its inception, double the size of the Milan meeting in 2012. The meeting gets under way Monday.
More than 400 New Yorkers have registered to attend World Meeting of Families, Yount said.
Nineteen people from the Diocese of Rockville Centre will attend the conference during the week and hundreds more plan to be a part of the papal visit, said Deacon Francisco Cales, director for new evangelization and propagation of faith and mission.
"It's going to be exhausting in a really positive way," he said. "Truly, you renew your faith. You reawaken your faith. You give it a new lift."
Nearly 900 people in 16 buses from the Rockville Centre diocese will ride down Saturday to attend a morning event with speakers and then head to the Festival of Families with hopes of seeing Pope Francis, said Veronica Reyes, a Bay Shore resident who organized the trip for International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Services, based in Rome.
"A lot of people want to go but we don't have any more space," Reyes said. "They're excited. They feel they are going to be so close to the person they believe God chose to be in front of the church. They want to be close to him. They want to hear what new he says."
Another 29 buses will make the same trip from the New York and Brooklyn dioceses, said the Rev. Msgr. Joseph Malagreca of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Christian Meert and wife Christine, who are co-directors of the Office of Marriage for the Diocese of Colorado Springs, will talk about saintly couples and bringing their beliefs into modern lives. Some tips from these couples of long ago: No gossip in the house. Look for the positive. Avoid attacks from the outside.
"In sickness and health, in richer and poorer -- that's the goal for everybody for all the centuries," Meert said. "It's not impossible even if it's harder today."
Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers plans to talk about Mary of Nazareth. "She accepted when the angels came to her and told her God's plans -- she said yes," said Burke-Sivers, a speaker and author who is also a deacon at Immaculate Heart Catholic Church in Portland, Oregon. "We're so surrounded by technology and noise . . . and distraction that often we don't take the time to listen to what God is saying."
Local parishes, ministries and other groups are also hosting events during the week in Philadelphia and surrounding areas. They include music festivals, all-night vigils, workshops, movie screenings, panel events and prayer Masses.
The St. Maria Goretti Church in Hatfield, Pennsylvania, for example, will have the relics of St. Maria Goretti on display for people to pray to and honor. Goretti was 11 and living in Nettuno, Italy, in 1902 when she was fatally injured by a neighbor and she used her last breaths to forgive her killer. She is currently the youngest saint.
"For a young girl to have that strength and fortitude is a great thing for the church," said Angela McClellan, the church's director of adult faith formation.