Groups from continents far and wide fill the streets of the city centre with a blaze of colours and voices rejoicing. A short distance away from the Quadrilateral of Fashion and the Teatro alla Scala, there’s a continual stream of banners, flags, rucksacks and caps. All around the buzzing and inviting city, the workers blend together with the faithful in subway stations. The posters of the Pope smiling and logo of the World Meeting of Families are everywhere and a display of contented faces marching side by side towards Fieramilanocity – the place where the curtain will be officially raised for this event can be seen.
The International Theological Pastoral Congress
At the entrance of the Conference Centre, a group from Zimbabwe improvises a dance with drums, turbans and multi-coloured plaits. Nearby, a Venezuelan couple gives a warm greeting to some Brazilians and Argentineans who they had met at last year’s World Meeting of Families in Madrid. Soon they are surrounded by their guest families from Milan and neighbouring areas who will host them during the event. Pilgrims from Sri Lanka to the United States, from the Philippines to Australia flow towards the Pavilion where the non-profit and trade stands, the bookstalls, pictures and memorabilia to commemorate the event are.
On the first floor, a wave of rejoicers move onto the Conference room. A grandmother attends her disabled granddaughter near the mosaic of the Sacred family, the icon of the event. Many familiarise themselves with the headphones for simultaneous translation. Italian priests invite African brothers to sit beside them while cameras flash and applauses given as a group of cardinals make an impressive entrance with their trail of purple. Then the time for mothers and fathers to accommodate pushchairs and give feeding bottles and latecomers to settle in the remaining seats and we are away. Or not quite. A prayer is said for the victims of the earthquake and their towns and cities, which were severely hit not so far away from us. It is the first of many appeals for solidarity to follow in the next few days.
The interval is both welcome and on time as always and a coffee is never to be refused. There are many of us: 7000 or so is the official figure. A Babel of languages and races but above all a “family of families”. I pass by the Gomez family with their four children, a pleasant Mexican couple who had just given a testimony and the Invernizzi family: mother, father and two children.
The reassuring white T-shirts of the volunteers with their red collars and sleeves are everywhere. More than 5000 custodian angels at disposition to assist and even entertain young children. A script which will be repeated for three days while 100 or more speakers discuss themes for analysis and reflection.
The visit of the Pope
In and around the centre of Milan, people are swarming. In Piazza Duomo the Pope is expected to arrive. In the meantime, bottles of water are being distributed and the air-conditioned conference centre is only a faint recollection.
Milan is hot but sentiments are full of fervour and enthusiasm. Thousands arrive early to wait for the Pope while others decide to arrive at the last minute. Even passers-by, businessmen and tourists are taken by curiosity. A small protest against the Church is also taking place but the rejoicing of 60,000 faithful can only be heard. When the popemobile arrives, a wave of flags, kerchiefs and banners welcomes the Pope. A token of affection but also of encouragement for the Successor of Peter at a time when the Church is undergoing difficulties. An immense crowd, (one of many to come) with a surprise ending to the evening with the famous song dedicated to Our Lady of the Cathedral in Milan “Oh mia bela Madunina”.
Emotions all around and so many appointments on the agenda. And not just for the adults. The meeting with the confirmation candidates at Meazza-San Siro Football Stadium, also known as “La Scala del calcio”. An occasion to embrace Pope Benedict XVI and shout out to the world the joy of being here: “We have come this far, we have come this far, to see His Holiness”. Parents and catechists, godfathers and godmothers, but above all the protagonists of the event are those brandishing multi-coloured vests as they stream through the turnstiles with freshness and spontaneity, all ready to set sail with Peter, the chosen theme for this year’s meeting.
The choirs, choreographies and music of this moment will leave a lasting memory and place in the hearts of those who also reach Bresso Park, the gateway of Milan for the Feast of Testimonies. 350,000 people will be there to engage in a direct dialogue with the Pope. Afterwards, there will be light entertainment for young and old. The first thing they will notice will be the majestic wooden stage surmounted by a transparent semi-dome shape: it looks like a church. The original aspect of the runway has long gone. For now, there are many families and young people who will pitch their tents and spend a night there. Before long, the waiting will be forgotten and music, singing and storytelling will prevail. A welcome bellow “Emanuel” has become the anthem at all the meetings of the young people with the Pope after the World Youth Day in Rome in the year 2000. And then bit by bit, all the rest, right until the arrival of the Pope. An hour long dialogue with eyes pointed straight ahead and emotions whirling. Just like when Nikos Paleologos speaks about the economic crisis in Greece or the charming seven-year-old Cat Tien, who manages to glean confidences from Joseph Ratzinger’s youth and family times.
At the end, many decide to leave when the Pope finishes in order to recuperate energy for the Holy Mass, the last of the meeting’s events.
The following morning, the alarm will ring early and on the field at Bresso, people will gradually wake and start to prepare breakfast with coffee and milk in their thermos while others will leave their sleeping bags more reluctantly.
The volunteers watch over, always ready to give help and assistance. The first groups begin to arrive in twos and threes. A joyful march though tiring for many as the day had started early. They will arrive in coaches and subway, on foot or by bike. In the space of a few hours the runway will be a multi-coloured coat of banners, pushchairs, flags and above all hope. Spanish, Portuguese, Italians and many South Americans will come. A million pilgrims from more than 150 nations will gather. Anthems, songs, and sound checks will spell out the time of the waiting. And finally, Holy Mass and the meeting with the Pope. Once again words of support reach everyone and the message to preserve at all costs the value of the family founded on the marriage between a man and a woman is given.
The last crowd for Pope Ratzinger. Tired yet happy, Erika and Mukuambi in their white tunics with black embroidered designs will return to Angola with a renewed faith in the future. And like them, all the participants will wait for the next meeting to celebrate the VIII World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, US in 2015.