home page links quotes statistics mission statement success stories resources Lighter Side Authors! Search Page

October 16, 2015

The "how" of pastoral action for couples and families -
Speaking a language the young understand -
Real families are imperfect families

In this edition:
1. Marriages, families and the church.
2. Real families are imperfect families.
3. Pastoral action in changed times.
4. The "how" of family pastoral action.
5. Quotes from Synod of Bishops:
a) Being taught by families.
b) Speaking with families.
c) Nontraditional families.
d) Living what the church teaches.
e) Mercy and Gospel proclamation.
6. A language the young understand.

1. Marriages, Families and Today's Church

The reason families are "true domestic churches" is that "they are the right place for faith to become life and [for] life to grow in faith," Pope Francis told the World Meeting of Families in a homily during its Sept. 27 closing Mass.

Marriages and families stood at the center of the church's pastoral concern during the last week of September and the first weeks of October. Two major events in the church's life accounted for that: the World Meeting of Families, which took place in Philadelphia and in which Pope Francis participated, and the three-week world Synod of Bishops, which opened Oct. 5 in Rome.

The synod seemed to focus an entire world's attention on the realities and challenges of family life today. Of course, the synod remains in session as I write this, so readers of this newsletter can expect to hear more about it in our next edition. And just in case you missed it, lengthy coverage of Pope Francis' September visit to Cuba and the U.S. appeared in this newsletter's Sept. 24 edition.

Pope Francis exclaimed during an Oct. 4 Mass for the opening of the Synod of Bishops that "for God, marriage is not some adolescent utopia but a dream without which his creatures will be doomed to solitude!" He called it "paradoxical" that people "who often ridicule" God's plan for marriage "continue to be attracted and fascinated by every authentic love, by every steadfast love, by every fruitful love, by every faithful and enduring love."

Two ways the church is called to encounter marriages and families were described by Pope Francis during the synod's opening Mass. He said:

The church is called to carry out her mission in truth. This truth, unchanged "by passing fads or popular opinions," is one that "protects individuals and humanity as a whole from the temptation of self-centeredness and from turning fruitful love into sterile selfishness, faithful union into temporary bonds."

"The church is called to carry out her mission in charity." This means "not pointing a finger in judgment of others." It means that the church, "conscious of her duty to seek out and care for hurting couples with the balm of acceptance and mercy," must serve as a "'field hospital' with doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support." It means "even more to reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer, to include them and guide them."

Thus, said the pope, the church "teaches and defends fundamental values," while not neglecting "her mission to be a good Samaritan to wounded humanity." He cautioned the synod delegates that "a church with closed doors betrays herself and her mission, and instead of being a bridge becomes a roadblock."

The weeks of September and October when marriages and families uniquely occupied center stage for the church became a time of intense focus on the characteristics of pastoral action in these times. These were weeks when the need for the church to engage and interact directly with couples and families was accented and when new ways of doing this in changed times were examined closely.

2. Real Families Are Imperfect Families

"Perfect families do not exist," but people should not be discouraged by this, Pope Francis said in remarks prepared for the Sept. 26 prayer vigil in Philadelphia during the World Meeting of Families. For "love is something we learn; love is something we live; love grows as it is 'forged' by the concrete situations which each particular family experiences."

Speaking, as he often does, in a down-to-earth manner about the workings of family life, Pope Francis stressed that "love is born and constantly develops amid lights and shadows." He said:

"Love can flourish in men and women who try not to make conflict the last word, but rather a new opportunity -- an opportunity to seek help, an opportunity to question how we need to improve, an opportunity to discover the God who is with us and never abandons us."

Pope Francis told participants in the prayer vigil that "families always, always, have crosses," though it also is true in families that "the cross is followed by resurrection." Thus, he said, "the family is -- if you excuse the word -- a workshop of hope, of the hope of life and resurrection."

Little things mean a lot in family life, Pope Francis commented during the Sept. 27 Mass for the closing of the world meeting. "Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home," he said.

Small gestures "get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different," said the pope. What he had in mind were "the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children, by brothers and sisters" - all the "little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion."

He mentioned, for example, "the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work" or the "blessing before we go to bed" and the "hug after we return from a hard day's work."

Jesus, the pope insisted, "asks us to go through life, our everyday life, encouraging all these little signs of love as signs of his own living and active presence in our world."

3. Couples and Families in Changed Times

Pastoral action on behalf of families cannot be reduced to words alone or to restating the church's teaching again and again, Pope Francis suggested Sept. 27 when he addressed bishops taking part in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. "The family is our ally, our window to the world," the pope said.

What is needed, he proposed, is "to invest our energies not so much in rehearsing the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family."

Pastoral ministry should attempt "to deepen the covenant between the church and the family," Pope Francis said. Otherwise, he warned, "the human family will grow irremediably distant, by our own fault, from God's joyful good news."

Pope Francis observed that "until recently we lived in a social context where the similarities between the civil institution of marriage and the Christian sacrament were considerable and shared. The two were interrelated and mutually supportive." But, he concluded, "this is no longer the case."

Contemporary culture "seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust," the pope told the bishops. But he thought it would be "mistaken" to view present cultural attitudes "as mere indifference toward marriage and the family, as pure and simple selfishness."

The trap to be avoided, he said, is that of thinking that young people today are "hopelessly timid, weak, inconsistent." Deep down, many of the young "are afraid" and "paralyzed before the beautiful, noble and truly necessary challenges," and "many put off marriage while waiting for ideal conditions, when everything can be perfect."

Pope Francis asked: "Should we blame our young people for having grown up in" the kind of society they indeed grew up in? "Should we condemn them for living in this kind of a world? Should they hear their pastors saying that 'it was all better back then' [or] 'the world is falling apart, and if things go on this way who knows where we will end up?'"

He responded to his own question, saying: "No, I do not think that this is the way. As shepherds following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, we are asked to seek out, to accompany, to lift up, to bind up the wounds of our time - to look at things realistically, with the eyes of one who feels called to action, to pastoral conversion."

4. The "How" of This Pastoral Action

Pastoral leaders, the pope indicated, ought to accompany young couples and help them "grow toward the commitment of marriage." He said:

"A Christianity which 'does' little in practice, while incessantly 'explaining' its teachings is dangerously unbalanced. I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle. A pastor must show that the 'Gospel of the family' is truly 'good news' in a world where self-concern seems to reign supreme."

A pastor will proclaim the word of God "serenely yet passionately" and encourage "believers to aim high," Pope Francis said.

And a pastor will watch "over the dreams, the lives and the growth of his flock." However, "this 'watchfulness' is not the result of talking but of shepherding." Pope Francis commented that "only one capable of standing 'in the midst of' the flock can be watchful, not someone who is afraid of questions, afraid of contact and accompaniment."

He challenged the bishops to ask "whether in pastoral ministry we are ready to 'waste' time with families" and "whether we are ready to be present to them, sharing their difficulties and joys."

Prayer and preaching are basic to a bishop's lifestyle, the pope made clear. In addition, he said, "by our own humble Christian apprenticeship in the familial virtues of God's people, we will become more and more like fathers and mothers . . . and less like people who have simply learned to live without a family."

The pope explained that "a good pastor renounces the love of a family precisely in order to focus all his energies and the grace of his particular vocation on the evangelical blessing of the love of men and women who carry forward God's plan of creation, beginning with those who are lost, abandoned, wounded, broken, downtrodden and deprived of their dignity."

He added, "This total surrender to God's 'agape' is certainly not a vocation lacking in tenderness and affection."

5. Quotes From the Synod of Bishops

On Being Taught by the Family: "The family is what people treasure most, care about most passionately. Despite all the difficulties they face, most people want to speak, again and again, of the love they have for their family, which gives meaning to everything they do. We must do the same. If our focus becomes fixed on problems, we miss the most important message: that every family is a light in the darkness. At the heart of the work of this synod must be this: the joy of the family. Many families give a powerful witness to the church. We must both learn from this witness and bring it to the great stage of the church and the world. We must be taught by the family especially about how to face difficult problems. Most families never withdraw a loving welcome home, even when dismayed by certain behavior. We, the entire church, must learn this pathway of 'tough love,' a love that is compassionate, honest and always seeking to find and nurture all that is good, as illuminated by the Gospel." (Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, speaking to the October Synod of Bishops in Rome)

Speaking With Families: "The way we speak is important. We must not speak only about the family, but also to and with the family. . . . Families face challenges and are wounded, yes, but they also possess incredible vitality and strength." (Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., speaking to the October Synod of Bishops in Rome)

Nontraditional Families: "While we must continue to advocate for traditional marriage as identified in the Scriptures, I believe that we also intentionally should reach out to those families that do not fit into traditional categories. We must help them to see the benefits of following Jesus Christ. That requires that we welcome them, be open to listen to their needs, walk with them and be courageous in inviting them into the fullness of the truth of the Gospel. That will not be easy because they and we will disagree on certain issues of morality. Nonetheless, as difficult as it may be, I do not think we can be faithful to the Gospel and allow these new families to continue to be alienated from the church." (Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio, speaking to the October Synod of Bishops in Rome)

The Ability to Live What the Church Believes: "The work of this synod needs to show much more confidence in the word of God, the transformative power of grace and the ability of people to actually live what the church believes. And it should honor the heroism of abandoned spouses who remain faithful to their vows and the teaching of the church." (Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia speaking to the October Synod of Bishops in Rome)

Mercy and Proclamation: "How can the church's teaching and discipline in the often contentious and challenging lived experience of marriage, sexuality and family be understood through the lens of mercy and love? This is a critical question at the heart of our efforts, especially for our priests, who work each day not just with the doctrine in abstract but with individuals in broken situations. The question is not about a change in the doctrine but rather to make sure that pastoral care takes account of the limitation of real, actual, concrete situations and of what each person is able to do, capable of doing. It has been the long-standing practice in the church to present her teaching in its entirety while at the same time to accompany, pastorally and with mercy, those, all of us, who struggle to live out as best we can the fullness of the teaching. The proclamation of Christ's Gospel and the welcoming embrace in Christ's mercy are two equally valid and intrinsically related aspects of church life and should be reflected in good pastoral practice." (Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington speaking to the October Synod of Bishops in Rome)

6. Speaking a Language the Young Understand

In an early October intervention to the world Synod of Bishops in Rome, it seemed almost as if Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, was summing up the reflections Pope Francis presented in Philadelphia to bishops participating in the World Meeting of Families. Speaking of the culture in which today's church encounters couples and families, Archbishop Martin said:

"Our young people make their decisions on marriage and the family within the context of a flawed and antagonistic social culture. It is, however, not enough to condemn that culture. We have somehow to evangelize that culture.

"The synod is called to revitalize the church's pastoral concern for marriage and the family, and to help believers to see family life as an itinerary of faith. But simply repeating doctrinal formulations alone will not bring the Gospel and the good news of the family into an antagonistic society.

"We have to find a language which helps our young people to appreciate the newness and the challenge of the Gospel."

Archbishop Martin's synod intervention was devoted to "the social culture of marriage, as that is the culture in which our young people grow up and the culture which influences their understanding of almost every dimension of marriage and family life."

Speaking about faith in a language that everyone can understand is a goal often discussed these days. Archbishop Martin asked, "Where do we find that language?" He said that "certainly, it cannot be a language which reduces the fullness of the church's teaching." Nonetheless, "we have to find a language which is a bridge to the day-to-day reality of marriage -- a human reality, a reality not just of ideals but of struggle and failure, of tears and joys."

He commented that "even within a flawed social culture of the family there are those who seek something more, and we have to touch their hearts."