The Pope stressed that a priest's first concern is that of "bearing witness to the grace of the sacrament of marriage and the primordial good of the family" by proclaiming that "marriage between a man and a woman is a sign of the spousal union between Christ and the Church."
This witness is also shown when accompanying young couples on their journey "with care," showing them how to live in times of "light and darkness, in moments of joy and those in fatigue," always showing the beauty of marriage.
Francis told the priests that while bearing witness to the beauty of marriage, they must also care for and support "those who realize the fact that their marriage is not a true sacramental marriage and want to leave this situation."
Because of the "delicate" nature of this type work, the Pope said priests must do it "in such a way that your faithful recognize you not so much as experts in bureaucratic actions or judicial norms, but as brothers who place themselves in an attitude of listening and understanding."
He told them to imitate "the style" of the Gospel by meeting with and listening not only to engaged or married couples, but also youth who prefer to cohabitate rather than getting married.
People in these situations "are among the poor and little ones toward whom the Church, in the footsteps of her master and Lord, wants to be a mother who never abandons but who draws near and cares for them," Francis said.
"Even these people are loved by the heart of Christ," he said, telling priests to "have a gaze of tenderness and compassion toward them."
This type of care and attention "is an essential part of your work in promoting and defending the sacrament of marriage," the Pope said, adding that the parish is the place "par excellence" for the "salus animarum (salvation of souls)."
Pope Francis then pointed to a recent speech he gave to the Rota in which he told them to implement "a true catechumenate" of future spouses which covers all stages of the sacramental path, from the time of marriage preparation, the celebration of the sacrament and the first years immediately after.
"To you pastors, indispensable collaborators of the bishops, is primarily entrusted this catechumenate," he said, and encouraged them to implement it "regardless of the difficulties you could encounter."
Francis closed his speech by thanking the priests for their commitment to announcing "the Gospel of the family."
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He prayed that the Holy Spirit would help them "to be ministers of peace and consolation in the midst of the holy faithful people of God, especially the most fragile and those in need of your pastoral support."
Elise Harris was senior Rome correspondent for CNA from 2012 to 2018.