The will to scrutinize the first acts of government of a new Pope is a comprehensible common mark of every beginning of a pontificate. It is difficult to avoid this behavior; however, in order not to fall into the trap of unbalanced interpretations, it must encompass two exigencies: there is no doubt that some initial choices always express a somewhat programmatic accent and can give a glimpse of some strong profiles of a way still to discover. At the same time, the complexity of a pontificate can be appreciated only a posteriori, so that it is useful to argue about these topics always with great caution, so as to avoid that the observer may substitute the desire to see the new distinctive guidelines to the claim of imagining a pontificate, as he would like it to be.
Looking to remain in the space traced by these considerations, it seems reasonable to give a special attention to one of the decisions accomplished by Pope Francis in these first months that can be read as a strong guideline of the incipient physiognomy of his pontificate. We refer to the choice of calling the extraordinary general Assembly of the Synod of bishops, that will take place from Oct. 5 to 19 of the next year and that will have as theme, “The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of the evangelization.”
It is interesting to remember that the first Synod of the pontificate of John Paul II (1980) had the same object. Historical documentation on this point shows that a meaningful inclination to the choice of the family as theme for the Synod of bishops, surfaced already in the preparatory consultations that took place in the last period of the pontificate of Paul VI. It was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla precisely the one to present this indication to the Pope in quality of President of the Consilium of the Synod in the audience of May 19, 1978. The proposal was received and then reconfirmed during the brief pontificate of John Paul I; at last, a month after his election John Paul II established definitively the theme of the synodal assembly according to this formula: De muneribus familiae christianae in mundo hodierno. (On the gifts of the Christian family in the modern world).
It has to be noticed in this indication the intention to assign to the work of the Synod a particular profile. In fact, the emphasis on the munera (gifts) of the family, concretizing the more generic theme proposed by the preparatory bodies (De familia christiana in mundo hodierno or 'on the Christian family in the modern world'), betrays the intention to privilege a better connection with the previous synods dedicated to the evangelization and the catechesis.
The Pope’s intervention at that time regarding the formulation of the title is significant and echoes in the choice taken by the present Pontiff which strongly underlines the pastoral profile of the Church’s concern regarding the family.
An expression, used by Pope Francis during his trip to Brazil, stimulates the reflection. He indicated, while – speaking to the CELAM on July 28, 2013– the way of a “pastoral conversion.” It appears a pastoral approach that not only it is delivered from the functional horizon of a taken for granted cura animarum, but it seems to reconnect with the more original profile of Vatican II, placing at the center “the behaviors and a reform of life.”
The very same Pontiff intended to put in guard against those temptations that can stop a path of pastoral conversion, indicating them in the ideologization of the gospel message, in the functionalism and clericalism. On the other hand – always in Pope’s Francis words – “concerning pastoral conversion, I would like to recall that ‘pastoral care’ is nothing other than the exercise of the Church’s motherhood. She gives birth, suckles, gives growth, corrects, nourishes and leads by the hand … So we need a Church capable of rediscovering the maternal womb of mercy. Without mercy we have little chance nowadays of becoming part of a world of ‘wounded’ persons in need of understanding, forgiveness, love.” (Meeting with the Bishops of Brazil, July 27, 2013)
In the open space between the pole of the temptations and the maternal figure of the pastorality, it seems to appear the possibility of a renewed and fertile interest for the family.
The attention to the threefold temptation may allow to isolate at least some of the reasons by which, even though the Church possesses an impressive patrimony of teaching about marriage and family, nonetheless it has not been always developed rightly all its potentiality in a fruitful way; while the reference to the “maternal entrails of mercy” demand to abandon whatever deprecatory form in front of the grave wounds that family life undergoes in our times, almost going back to the famous words of John XXIII: “we sometimes have to listen, much to our regret, to voices of persons who, though burning with zeal, are not endowed with too much sense of discretion or measure. In these modern times they can see nothing but prevarication and ruin. They say that our era, in comparison with past eras, is getting worse, and they behave as though they had learned nothing from history, which is, none the less, the teacher of life.
They behave as though at the time of former Councils everything was a full triumph for the Christian idea and life and for proper religious liberty. We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand […] Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.” (Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, October 11th, 1962)
It is undoubtedly early to imagine the forms and the contents of the eventual synodal deliberations. Certainly we cannot avoid a feeling of eager expectation and trustful hope. One of the most interesting marks of the Vatican II is exactly this: every time that the Church bows down to deepen a segment of her life and of her pastoral action, required at times dramatically by the here and now of the present history, it is always accompanied to regenerate – without any solutions of continuity – the awareness of the proper identity and of her constitutive missionary vocation.
Fr. Gilfredo Marengo was ordained a priest for the Diocese of La Spezia, Sarzana and Brugnato, Italy in 1979. He earned his doctorate in Sacred Theology under the direction of Cardinal Angelo Scola. He has served as a visiting professor at the Maryvale Institute in Birmingham, UK and Seat of Wisdom Catholic University in Lima, Peru and is a member of the Center for the Studies on the Second Vatican Council of the Pontifical Lateran University. He has published and edited several books, including his most recent, "John Paul II and the Council – A challenge and a task." Currently, he is a Professor of Theological Anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in Rome.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.