NEW YORK — When Pope Francis visited the United States in 2015, his time in Washington, D.C., where he became the first pope to address the U.S. Congress, and in New York, where he visited the United Nations, largely eclipsed his swing in Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families — which was, in fact, the official reason for the trip.

For most such World Meetings, the pope’s presence overshadows the actual programing of the event that draws thousands of participants before his plane even touches down.

That familiar scenario is likely to play out in Dublin, Ireland too when the pontiff arrives August 25, as much media attention will focus on how Francis addresses the country’s history of clerical sexual abuse, inclusion of the LGBT community in the event, and how he’ll respond to a recent referendum in which the country voted overwhelmingly to legalize abortion.

Yet for organizers of this year’s three-day pastoral congress, which takes place ahead of Francis’s weekend appearance, a carefully crafted program will strive to ensure that the pope’s 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, not only serves as the touchstone, but that it marks a turning point in intra-ecclesial debates that organizers believe have distracted from its full embrace.

While such a story won’t immediately dominate headlines, it’s one which, over time and depending on how it plays out, could prove critical in reshaping the Church’s pastoral approach to family life.

Overshadowed by controversies 

Since the release of Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”) in April 2016, controversy has swirled around Francis’s cautious opening to communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.

Critics of the document argue that such a move risks jeopardizing Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage that could have further consequences across a range of issues, whereas defenders argue that Francis is upholding the Church’s tradition while pioneering new ways to more mercifully accompany couples in difficult or irregular circumstances.

According to Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Vatican’s office for Laity, Family, and Life — whose office is responsible for overseeing the World Meeting of Families — the sheer number of families registered for the pastoral congress is proof that the pope’s approach, and Amoris, in general, is gaining traction.

In an interview with Crux in late June, Farrell said registration for the event filled up quickly, reaching capacity at 37,000 attendees — more than double the approximately 15,000, he said, who attended the 2015 meeting in Philadelphia.

“This indicates a high interest in Amoris Laetitia” said Farrell, adding that it’s not just the number of attendees that’s striking, but that nearly 30 percent of couples attending will be under the age of 40.

“That is, for any Church event — including Sunday Mass — a phenomenally high number,” he added.

Pastoral Implementation

Among the 200 speakers at the pastoral congress, American Cardinals Blase Cupich of Chicago, Sean O’Malley of Boston, Joe Tobin of Newark and Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. — all of whom are among the pope’s most vocal champions in the United States — represent obvious heavyweights.

Farrell told Crux part of the reason for the all-star turnout from the States is the predominant number of English speakers who will be attending the Congress. Yet it’s also hard not to notice that these particular prelates have also expressed unwavering support of Amoris.

Earlier this year, Cupich organized a series of Amoris workshops for bishops to interact with lay theologians, discussing how to implement effectively the exhortation in reality. The workshops, titled “New Momentum,” took place at several different universities throughout the country and brought together nearly 50 U.S. bishops.

In March, Wuerl introduced an Amoris Laetitia pastoral plan for the Archdiocese of Washington, the most extensive of its kind to date, providing explicit directives for priests and laity alike to integrate the document and coordinate its rollout with a special Mass in anticipation of the World Meeting of Families.

In interviews with Crux, both Cupich and Wuerl made it clear that they see their participation not as a chance to litigate finer points of theology, but to reenergize the Church’s commitment to families using the tools Francis has provided.

“One of the reasons I’m so pleased to be a part of this is that I think there is a sense that there’s a need for a renewal of family life, not just within the Church but in society in general,” Wuerl said.

Wuerl said there’s widespread recognition that the breakdown of family life has been of great detriment, and he’s eager to use his energies to do “whatever can be done to restore in family life the importance in marriage, as well as care for the youngest and oldest generations within the context of families.”

“My hope is that the whole idea of renewal will bring us to the implementation of Amoris Laetitia,” he continued. “As I read it, it says two things: we must be clear in our teaching and we must be compassionately present in our pastoral ministry.”

“That may not sound very innovative, but, for some reason, in recent years it hasn’t been heard quite as clearly,” he added.

Cupich told Crux that this World Meeting of Families is “an opportunity not just to celebrate families but to experience what God is doing as they come together and to be attentive to that.”

He called the entire program an occasion to “reflect again on what the Holy Father is saying in Amoris, that if you look at salvation history — from Adam and Eve to the final banquet, God has decided that the privileged place for divine action to be revealed to the world is in family life.”

“God is already active, and our job as leaders is to reflect that revolutionary approach that Pope Francis is always pressing,” he said.

A Revolutionary Approach

Francis’s “revolutionary approach” to the question of communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics has been much debated in the English-speaking world, but this mega-event in an English-speaking country is where the pope’s defenders hope it will be cemented.

For Farrell, he believes that controversies are already starting to quiet as more Catholics are better educated on Amoris.

“My feeling is that it certainly has changed, and it’s changing in the U.S., which is probably the country that’s had the most opposition,” he told Crux.

Wuerl and Cupich concurred, maintaining that most Catholics are merely seeking to try and understand how to apply the teaching in their own lives.

“[Blowback] is not very widespread in my opinion. It has been vocal. It has been repetitive,” said Wuerl. But it does not seem to have much resonance among the episcopacy or the faithful who live according to the teaching of the Church.”

“Given that there is a paradigm shift, it is going to take some time to adjust and a real conversion has to take place,” Cupich said. “The opposition is more loud than it is large.”

Yet despite such confidence, undaunted critics of Amoris, and hence, the World Meeting of Families, have organized their own separate conference to take place in nearby Ballsbridge, Ireland.

Dubbed the “Catholic Conference of Families,” the parallel event will feature Father Thomas Weinandy, a former advisor to the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine, who resigned his post last fall after openly questioning Amoris, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the four cardinals who submitted dubia, or questions, to Francis asking for clarification, who will appear via a live-video feed.

Farrell told Crux he’s undeterred by such efforts, noting he “didn’t pay much attention to it.” He insists that just because this World Meeting of Families is priding itself on not shying away from the difficulties of family life, that doesn’t mean it’s watering down the Church’s vision. Instead, he insisted, it’s merely recognizing there are competing realities with which the Church must reckon.

“We are promoting — and we’ve said this since day one — that this is about the Church’s vision for family in the modern world. Does that mean there aren’t different interpretations of what a family means? No, and we accept that,” said Farrell.

Letting the Laity Lead

While questions over pastoral approaches have dominated internal debates over Amoris and the World Meeting of Families, organizers insist that laity will do the real work of implementing the vision of Amoris both in Ireland and in the years ahead.

One of the facts that Farrell is proudest of is that of the 200 speakers at the pastoral congress, only 40 are members of religious life. He told Crux that in the past, nearly 80 percent of the sessions were led by clerics.

“For the first time ever, lay people are in the far majority of the speakers,” he said.

Cupich also echoed the importance of that fact, noting the primary reason he organized workshops around the United States on Amoris is so that bishops could have greater opportunities to interact with lay theologians, particularly younger ones, to grapple with its implementation from their perspective.

One of those young lay leaders that will be speaking in Dublin is Julia Dezelski, assistant director for Marriage and Family, Laity at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), who will be on a panel discussing “Love made Fruitful: Amoris Laetitia on Cherishing the Gift of New Life.”

For Dezelski, who was recently married in 2016 and has a young baby, she intends to discuss how “marriage as an institution has been attacked and undermined, but it deserves to be protected, privileged and promoted because it is the wellspring of family life.”

When she started at the USCCB last fall, she said plans were already underway to develop a comprehensive pastoral plan for Amoris in the United States and that part of her work is helping to develop that resource to assist dioceses, parishes, and marriage and family ministries in their own pastoral planning and outreach, and that she’s looking forward to having a chance to bring that experience to Dublin.

“On a personal level, I am encouraged by Pope Francis’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation. The title alone, “The Joy of Love,” sets a hopeful tone. It recognizes that love is joyful and homes that foster love, foster joy,” she told Crux.

Moreover, the topics and themes that the exhortation explores demonstrate the Church’s understanding of and concern for the numerous challenges faced by families today. The family is the bedrock of society. Strong families make for a strong society and ultimately, a strong Church.”

Working to build a strong Church through families is what Wuerl believes Amoris and Dublin are all about — and that next month’s congress will add steam to the approach Francis has set in motion.

“Dublin can be a great shot in the arm to the whole faithful, especially where it really matters in families that are struggling to live out and put the Church’s teaching into practice,” Wuerl told Crux, but to do so in a way that is “fully aware of the challenges of the secular order in which we live, and also fully aware that this is a fresh moment to reexamine the wonder of the Church’s teachings anew.

“I hope what Dublin will do is to re-energize the rest of the Church to that message,” he said.