As part of his preparation for the Synod on the Family starting on Sunday, Cardinal Vincent Nichols made the wise choice of reading with care the address given by Pope Francis at his meeting with families on 22 September in the Cathedral of Santiago in Cuba.
It is, as Cardinal Nichols says, a remarkable address. Equally remarkable was Francis’ address to the bishops taking part in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia five days later, on 27 September.
If anyone wants to know why Francis really called this two-part Synod, and what he hopes will be its fruit, then the guidance is here.
Amid all the difficulties for families today, that Francis freely acknowledges, he stressed in Cuba that “families are not a problem, they are first and foremost an opportunity”. The opportunity for the Church is to “care for, protect and support them”. “Once you begin to see the family as a problem, you get bogged down, because you are caught up in yourself”, he said.
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In Philadelphia he developed this idea further. The pastoral challenge for the Church, he said, is to recognise that the family is “the Lord’s gift”. It is the “fundamental locus of the covenant between the Church and God’s creation”. Without it “not even the Church would exist”. In other words, she (the Church] could not be the two things she is called to be: a sign and instrument of communion with God, and a sign and instrument of the unity of the entire human race.
Francis identifies the contemporary assaults on the family. “The family saves us from two present-day phenomena, two things which happen every day: fragmentation, and uniformity. In both cases, people turn into isolated individuals, easy to manipulate and to rule,” he said in Cuba. And in the US, a culture entirely focussed on “the tastes of the consumer” means many young people “have yielded to a form of unconscious acquiescence. They are afraid … Many put off marriage while waiting for ideal conditions, when everything can be perfect.”
Moreover, “changes taking place in contemporary society, with their social, culture – and sadly also legal – effects on family bonds” are, he says, unprecedented. This looks like an oblique reference to same-sex marriage, recently imposed by the Supreme Court on the whole of the United States. “Until recently,” he goes on, “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 … mutually supportive. This is no longer the case.”
Bishops and cardinals pray as Pope Francis celebrates the opening Mass of the Synod of bishops (PA)
So what must the Church do? Clearly on his US visit Francis rejected the confrontational approach adopted by some of the bishops. But he accepts there is a cultural chasm that needs to be bridged.
One can hardly blame young people for having grown up in this kind of society, Francis says. And he is explicit about what the Church and its pastors must do: “We need 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”.
He is silent on same-sex relationships, but says: “Young people have to be encouraged to take this risk [of starting a family], it is a risk of fruitfulness and life”. A pastor “will enable his brothers and sisters to hear and experience God’s promise … Which can expand their experience of motherhood and fatherhood”.
In the debates ahead of the Synod, many have argued for what they call a “pastoral approach” that is seen by others to be a dilution of the Church’s teaching. If anyone wants to know what Francis means by a pastoral approach, however, it is right there.
The pastors have to “sow in crooked furrows”, he says, but the evangelical fruits will come tumbling.
“Our ministry needs to deepen the covenant between the Church and the family,” Francis said in Philadelphia. Then he repeated the sentence, word for word, in case anyone had missed the point. “The family is a school of humanity,” he said in Cuba. The two tasks of the bishops at the Synod are to learn from it, and learn how to defend it.
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