Yesterday well over 4,000 people gathered at Punchestown Racecourse for the first ever Diocesan Family Picnic Day as a preparation for next year’s World Meeting of Families. My abiding memory of the day will be the smiles on the faces of so many, here was an event that was free, an event open to all ages and all family sizes. I met a bereaved woman from Newbridge who came with her friend to share a picnic, they were family. I met another family from Rathvilly who had three generations sitting around the blanket strewn on the parade ring grass at Punchestown, they were family. I met a group from Clonalsee gathered around a wooden picnic bench with their priest, they were family. The Philippino Community Couples for Christ came in great numbers from Naas, they were family. The Polish community were there, as were the African families of the diocese, all family.

For some it was an opportunity for a family reunion; for more a chance to meet old friends from a previous parish; for other’s an occasion to engage with families from another culture, another country, another faith tradition. 101 Syrians came from the Monasterevin Refugee Reception & Orientation Centre; thirty came from Newbridge Direct Provision Centre and two busloads came from Direct Provision in Portlaoise. There was a very warm welcome for these families, many who have suffered horrifically in their home countries. Families came from every parish in the Diocese. I met them; families from Kiltegan to Kilcock, from St. Mullins to Staplestown-Cooleragh, from Mountrath to Mountmellick and from Killeigh to Kill. Priests were everywhere mixing and mingling with parishioners. Some people saw the picnic as a chance to have a reunion of our recent Lourdes pilgrimage and brought pilgrimage photographs to share.

The young people of Meitheal and Young Paul II awards were everywhere in their blue tee-shirts and multi-coloured baseball hats, they came from Graiguecullen, Cathedral, Askea, Naas, Two Mile House, Sallins and Allen parishes. Their presence at face-painting, water-carriers during the 4km walk and assisting at the parking of cars was a most welcome addition. The music and entertainment, arranged by Margaret Connaughton kept the day at all times moving. While Celine Byrne (from Caragh Parish) and Derek Ryan (from Myshall Parish) might have seemed to be the headline acts and they certainly excelled, the Declan Flanagan dancers, the Academy Stage School, the Kilkeel Ceilí Band and many others meant that the entertainment never waned or lagged. Who will forget the voice of Sean Kenny from Caragh who performed some of his own compositions, Sean whose interest in music stems from his involvement in the monthly Family Mass at Caragh Church. As I said in my own thanks at the end of the evening, I have no doubt one year soon Sean will play on stage at Electric Picnic!

But our Diocesan Family Picnic Day was all about gathering together as families, bringing our own picnic with us and something extra for the wider family in need of our support that day. The picnic baskets were taken down from attics and storerooms, they came in every colour, shape and size. Some had cooling boxes, more had bags carrying all their condiments and utensils. Of course as promised there would be prizes for the most elaborate picnic display, all a good bit of fun. In fourth place the Phillippino Community; in third place the Holden family from Carlow; in second place the Kavanagh/Moran family from Stradbally and the winner was Catherine Harney and her group from Cooleragh/Staplestown with their Teddy Bear Picnic theme. While among the prizes was afternoon tea at Bishops House, the winning family also won a pass to the complete events at next August’s World Meeting of Families. The pass includes the three day Festival of Families, the Vigil on Saturday Night and the concluding Mass on Sunday August 26th 2018.

It was great to welcome Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, the President of the World Meeting of Families 2018 who reminded us that this time next year, Pope Francis will be on the plane back to Rome, what will we be left with after the World Meeting of Families has ended? And that was the purpose of our afternoon at Punchestown, celebrating family and the many things family means in 2017. Often Archbishop Diarmuid has described the World Meeting of Families as a gift to the Irish church, how we as a diocesan family, how we as a parish family, how we as a family of families engage with the programme of preparation around this mammoth once in a lifetime event will determine how we unpack that gift and utilise it to the full. A cornerstone of our diocesan preparation will be The Amoris: Let’s Talk Family; Let’s be Family programme which will be offered in three centres around the diocese in the coming months. Those centres are geographically well spread out: in Mount St. Anne’s, at Carlow College, St. Patricks and in the Focolare Centre in Prosperous. Following the invitation of Aid to the Church in Need the Diocese will twin with Maidugori Diocese in north east Nigeria. A diocese that has been traumatised by the savagery of the Boko Haram. In hosting these families in Kildare & Leighlin, we will have a great opportunity to share our story of faith and family and hear theirs told in music, drama and prayer.

The presence of the Defence Forces from the Curragh at our Diocesan Picnic Day was so important. Through the generosity of General Brigadier Joe Mulligan and Captain Marie Piggott the Defence forces were most accommodating to the many requests we asked off them. Their assistance setting up the picnic tables and chairs in the early part of the day was invaluable. Their presence at different Defence Force stands and display of some vintage UN vehicles was a welcome added dimension. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the small committee chaired by Francis Monahan of Kill Parish who tirelessly worked to ensure all areas were addressed in the planning of the day. To Francis, Imelda, Fr. Joe, Anna-Mai, Margaret, Julie, Maria, Ciaran, Mgr. Brendan, Fr. Liam, Brenda, Sr. Catherine and Capt. Marie many thanks. Our most entertaining MC was Pat Costello from KFM.

A final word to thanks to the most welcoming team behind Punchestown Racecourse who could not be more helpful and encouraging towards the diocesan family picnic day, the Chief Executive Dick O’Sullivan; the Chair of the Board David Mongey; the Events Manager Conor O’Neill and the Racing Manager Richie Galway.

A final moment of the day was the releasing of balloons in memory of absent family friends. And after that poignant moment it was the return journey home to our own family and friends. Together let us journey towards the World Meeting of Families 2018. Many thanks to all again for their support and encouragement of this very memorable and enjoyable first ever Diocesan Family Picnic Day.

+Denis