Catholic parishes across the region, preparing for the arrival of Pope Francis and the World Meeting of Families in September, are learning that the often heartrending challenges families face will be the focus of the gathering.
"You may think it's all going to be theology - a succession of speakers just telling us what to do and how to live the perfect life," the Rev. Richard Napoli told a group one recent night at St. Albert the Great parish in Huntingdon Valley.
"It's not. It's also about how to deal with the challenges families face. It looks at abuse and addiction and adultery and divorce . . . raising kids in a single-adult family, homosexuality, finances . . . and helps people deal with the reality of family life from a church perspective."
Napoli, a deacon at St. Andrew's parish in Huntingdon Valley and a software engineer by day, is among 25 presenters the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has trained to educate lay Catholics about the world meeting in the months ahead.
The meeting Monday night, which drew about 50 people from the 7,000-member St. Albert's, was Napoli's first presentation.
"Bear with me," he said. "Hopefully you'll see this world meeting represents exciting things."
Napoli first presented an overview of the "congress" of the world meeting, explaining that it will feature six plenary sessions, 90 speakers, and dozens of breakout sessions at the Convention Center.
Expected to draw 15,000 people from around the region and the world, the four-day congress begins Sept. 22.
He went on to share what's known of the pope's two-day visit to Philadelphia. Francis is to arrive Saturday, Sept. 26, and appear for about 90 minutes that night at a massive "street fair" on Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
Called the Festival of Families, "there'll be lots of singing and dancing," he said, "and it should be fairly lively." Instead of Gregorian chant, he reassured them, organizers are looking to bring in "major" pop music groups.
Francis will then say public Mass on the parkway Sunday afternoon, he said, before flying back to Rome.
After marveling at the massive crowds expected for Pope Francis' appearances, Napoli offered a quick overview of the teaching materials parishes are using to get ready for the congress.
"There are no glib answers to why we [the Catholic Church] teach what we teach," he said, holding up a copy of a 125-page booklet created by the archdiocese called Love Is Our Mission . Its 125 pages serve as the primary teaching aid for adults.
With titles such as "The Meaning of Human Sexuality" and "A Home for the Wounded Heart," its 10 chapters serve as themes for regular discussions that pastors such as the Rev. Joseph Duncan, pastor at St. Albert's, have organized or are contemplating.
"We got the themes in front of some of our people," Duncan said afterward. "Now we'll follow with more sessions." How many sessions will depend, he said, "on what the interest is."
One parishioner who gave her name as Linda said she was "very excited about seeing the pope coming," but "not sure" about the world meeting. Napoli's presentation had intrigued her, however, and she planned to explore the world meeting website for more information.
In the pew behind her, parishioners Gail Craddock and Linda Thomas said they were already planning to attend the congress. "We came to learn more," said Thomas, "and see how we might volunteer."
The Diocese of Camden, meanwhile, has declared 2015 "The Year of the Family" in recognition of the World Meeting of Families.
It's also using a Vatican questionnaire to start laypeople talking about how their parishes can better serve families.
With Mass attendance and priestly vocations in decline, "so many people these days say the [Catholic] Church is dead," the Rev. John O'Leary, pastor of Our Lady of the Angels parish in Cape May Court House, told a gathering of 17 parishioners Sunday.
"But the Pope says, 'I'm overseeing a church being reborn,' " he said.
Over the next two hours, parishioners used the questionnaire to share stories of joy and frustration with their Catholic experience.
With tears in her eyes, one middle-aged woman told how a parish priest had failed years ago to engage her 18-year-old son when he voiced doubts about Christ's presence in Holy Communion - a core doctrine of the Catholic belief.
"He ended up joining a nondenominational church," she said, and is now raising his children as Protestants.
But Bernice St. Germain countered with a different story. Weeks ago, she said, she spied a man kneeling on the sanctuary floor "in front of the Eucharist, looking really distraught."
After a long while, she said, he knocked on the rectory door. One of the priests invited him in, "and spent 45 minutes talking with him. He left a different person."
At the same table, Michelle Dooley spoke proudly of "the tons of ministries we have, and our Bible study and food pantry. But do people know about them?"
The Catholic Church and the parish "both have to do a better job getting its message out," said parishioner Mary McWilliams. "We need to get out a picture of the church opening its doors to people."
More than a dozen other Camden Diocese parishes have hosted similar discussions in recent weeks, said Mary Lou Hughes, codirector of the diocesan Office of Faith and Family Formation. She said more than 300 members had answered the questionnaire on the diocesan website.
Called a "consulation," it invites Catholic clergy and laypeople around the world to contribute ideas to the Synod on the Family that Francis will convene in October in Rome. That synod, or gathering of bishops, begins two weeks after the World Meeting closes.
"We've never had these kinds of discussions, with this scale and consistency," O'Leary said afterward. He is contemplating "more small-group sharing sessions like this" in the months ahead.
Thanks to Francis, he added, "people are starting to get the feeling somebody's listening to what the people have to say."