“What John Paul did is he truly identified the family as the pathway to holiness,” Bollman said. “In this letter, it's the family that's placed at the heart of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that's opposed to love.”
In his letter, John Paul II wrote that men and women, particularly in their roles as fathers and mothers in the family, are key to building up a “civilization of love,” in which families are able to give and receive love at individual and societal levels.
“If the first ‘way of the Church’ is the family, it should also be said that the civilization of love is also the ‘way of the Church’, which journeys through the world and summons families to this way; it summons also other social, national and international institutions, because of families and through families. The family in fact depends for several reasons on the civilization of love, and finds therein the reasons for its existence as family. And at the same time the family is the centre and the heart of the civilization of love,” John Paul II wrote (LTF 13).
Bollman said that by telling families that they were at the heart of the Church, it called them to holiness in a way that hadn’t yet been articulated.
“The vast majority of people become holy as a husband and father and wife and mother, not in spite of that,” Bollman said. John Paul II’s teachings on the family are at the foundation of Bollman’s work at Paradisus Dei, which includes a couple’s ministry, and That Man is You, a ministry for men that particularly focuses on their roles as husbands and fathers.
“Our tagline is, "Helping families discover the superabundance of God." That's what we are is we're all about family and finding God within the family,” he said.
The family in crisis
Staudt called John Paul II’s letter “prophetic”, because it addresses not only the crucial importance of the family’s place in society, but some of the key ways it is under attack.
And if attacks on the family were urgent in 1994, they are all the more so today, Staudt said.
“John Paul's famous line from the letter: ‘The history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family,’ is actually chilling at this point,” Staudt noted, “because what we're seeing is that we don't have hope for the future, we're not investing for the future of society or for the Church. We're just living for the present moment, and for our own selfish desires. So I think John Paul was already recognizing that the foundation of society itself is already in jeopardy, if people are not getting married, if they're not having kids. They're saying no to the future.”
According to Pew Research, the marriage rate in the United States is currently hovering at around 50 percent, meaning half of U.S. adults aged 18 and older are married, a steep decline compared to the peak rate of 72 percent in 1960. The fertility rate is also at a 30-year low in the United States, and sits below replacement levels. As of 2014, less than half of children were living in a traditional nuclear home with their married mother and father.
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By many measures, marriage and family life today are in crisis, in ways that are perhaps even more pronounced than when John Paul II wrote this letter.
“I think the ‘crisis of concepts’ that John Paul II speaks of is an enormous challenge for the family today,” Sr. John Mary, S.V., of the Sisters of Life, told CNA.
“Who can deny that our age is one marked by a great crisis, which appears above all as a profound ‘crisis of truth?’” John Paul II wrote. “A crisis of truth means, in the first place, a crisis of concepts. Do the words ‘love’, ‘freedom’, ‘sincere gift’, and even ‘person’ and ‘rights of the person’, really convey their essential meaning?” This crisis now seems to be even more profound than when the Pope first wrote these words, Sr. John Mary, S.V., a Sister of Life, told CNA.
“Even more so today than when the Letter to Families was written, modern culture does not recognize the truth of who the human person is, what we are made for, what constitutes a family, what freedom and human rights are,” she said. “So to truly live Christian family life becomes more and more radically countercultural. John Paul II addresses this in the letter by proposing the anthropology that corrects this crisis of concepts and allows for a civilization of love to grow by way of marriage and family,” she noted.
Another major challenge faced by families is the “radical individualism” present in current culture, Sr. John Mary said, which is something else John Paul II addressed in the letter.
According to John Paul II, radical individualism is “based on a faulty notion of freedom and proposes personalism as the antidote,” Sr. John Mary said. “The family is the first place where love is given and received. But if parents do not model authentic, self-giving love to their children, families become groups of persons pursuing their own selfish ends,” she said.