Guest Columnist Family, the Synod and the Pope

The ever-popular Pope Francis received a rock-star welcome in the United States recently, doing what he usually does: challenging entrenched opinions and blithely crossing political lines which seemed impassable.  It was in Philadelphia, where his focus was the needs and pastoral care of the family, where he was at his most charming and endearing.

In his musically accented Spanish, he went happily off-script during one of his speeches, clearly energized by the enthusiasm of the thousands of exuberant faithful. A large percentage of them were Latino, which was obvious from their delighted appreciation of his colloquial, gentle jokes about the normal difficulties that beset all of us: "Y no vamos a hablar de la suegra!"(and let's not speak about mothers-in-law!)  His topic, the centrality of the family to human development and to society, was obviously close to his heart.

This topic is also the theme of the Ordinary Synod of Bishops convening in Rome this month.  The bishops are discussing the situation in which the family finds itself today, seeking to find concrete ways to support and protect her.

It is clear to anyone paying the slightest attention that the family is battered and demoralized.  Added to the age old difficulties that bedevil families-the material and spiritual poverties that divide brother from sister and wife from husband-are the cultural forces that downplay her importance and seek to rewrite her identity.  The very concept of the family has become vague and amorphous.

It's not surprising that these days it takes a special courage, a special faith, to leap into the commitment and hard work of marriage and family.  Young people are putting it off for later and later, and sometimes permanently, afraid of the sacrifice and permanence it entails, no longer believing it's worth it or even possible.  The Christian message counters that all the beauty and bounty of creation was given as a gift to the first family, that God himself came to earth to live in one.  It is a testimony that "it is worthwhile to live as a family, that a society grows strong, grows in goodness, grows in beauty and truly grows if it is built on the foundation of the family."

We know all of this, of course, even from a perfectly secular perspective.  There is no future for any country if young people can't find the audacity to fall in love and form strong permanent unions in which children are welcome and then brought up safely. The classic scenario, and the Christian ideal, is mother and father, united for life, each equipped by nature to work beautifully together to give the fruit of their love the best possible start, the best possible direction and formation.

We know how different are the outcomes for children when the family is broken. But it's not just children that suffer. The whole social fabric is frayed when the family is in disarray.  That is because the family is a "factory of hope" where members learn to put the good of the others first.  Instead of individuality and egotism, it promotes self-sacrifice and commitment, the ability to live for others. These are virtues that fit men and women for success in all spheres of life, whether work, school, or even citizenship in a democracy.  Poverty, crime, loneliness, and the excesses of radical individuality can, to a large extent, be blamed on the contemporary crisis of the family.

The pastoral challenges for the Synod fathers are huge.  The family must be attended to, in whatever state it's found, accompanied and fortified.  Church teachings that exalt the beauty and centrality of the family must be communicated confidently and clearly, with generosity and compassion. It is compassionate to offer a confused culture a sure way to lasting happiness that, along with other teachings like the dignity of the human person, promote the common good and safeguard the most vulnerable among us.

Encouraging families to keep persevering against the cultural currents will be key.  In Philadelphia the Pope encouraged the faithful to do this by reminding us that God knocks at the doors of our hearts, and that there's one kind he likes best- "To knock on the doors of families and find families that are united, to find families that love each other, to find the families that bring up their children and educate them and help them to keep going forward and that create a society of goodness, of truth, and of beauty."

What a lovely encouragement for all of us, whether we have a family, or hope to form one one day.  It's encouraging to hear from him, in his infectious simplicity, that it is the most important project possible, and the fountain of endless joy and satisfaction.  Even, as he says, when the "plates are flying!"

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