Pope Francis is in the midst of his first-ever visit to the United States. Ostensibly, this visit is for the Holy Father to join in the World Meeting of Families being held in Philadelphia, where he will, among other things, preside at the closing Mass. The simple fact that the pope is journeying to the United States for this event speaks volumes about the importance he attaches to it. As we have seen in the 30 months of this pontificate so far, the family is near and dear to the heart of the pope, and in the coming months we will see this to an even greater degree.
The World Meeting of Families
The World Meeting of Families is a conference of sorts, held every three years, and sponsored by the Pontifical Council for the Family. This year’s Meeting is being held in Philadelphia, meaning the host is Archbishop Charles Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Philadelphia. Chaput is widely recognized as one of the most prominent and vocal figures in the American hierarchy, probably one of the most prominent without the cardinal’s red hat. Additionally, he has been invited to participate in the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops this October, on the topic of pastoral challenges to the family (more on that later).
Archbishop Chaput is an outspoken critic of the liberalizing tendencies of American culture today, and a profound preacher of the Gospel of the Family, the Gospel of Life. The announcement that Philadelphia was to host this year’s World Meeting of Families was made during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI, and was a further sign of the favor that Chaput held in Benedict’s eyes, following on the heels of his being moved from Denver to Philadelphia (a traditionally cardinalatial see). Pope Francis has expressed his support of Archbishop Chaput, and their status as men cut from the same cloth has become increasingly clear as time has gone on.
About 20 years ago, concerns regarding the family moved to a greater prominence on the world stage, perhaps culminating in 1994 when the United Nations declared the International Year of the Family. Additionally, on the Feast of the Holy Family in 1993, the Church began its Year of the Family as part of the preparation for the Great Jubilee Year 2000. In 1992, Pope St. John Paul II had first conceived of the World Meeting of Families, and the first such Meeting was held in Rome in 1994. Earlier that year in February, the pope released his Letter to Families, in which he continued his broad and beautiful teachings about marriage, the family, and life. In the tradition of his Familiaris Consortio, Veritatis Splendor, and Human Love in the Divine Plan, this Letter prepared the Church for the first World Meeting of Families, and encouraged continued and re-invigorated theological reflection on the family.
We are currently in the midst of this year’s World Meeting of Families, and the response has been phenomenal already. Prominent speakers such as Cardinals Luis Antonio Tagle, Robert Sarah, Sean O’Malley, Deacon Harold Burke-Sivers, Dr. Scott Hahn, Bishop Robert Barron, and Dr. Helen Alvaré, among many others, are leading the way in the Meeting’s exploration and discernment of the role of the family in today’s world.
Synod on the Family
In October 2014, an Extraordinary Synod on the Family was convenes at the behest of Pope Francis, with the theme “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” It was also made clear that, one year later in October 2015, an Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops would follow, to focus on the same topic with the benefit of the previous year of discussion and discernment. The announcement of these assemblies came scarcely a year into the pontificate of Pope Francis, which helped to cement the impression that the topic of the family (particularly in the context of evangelization) was something of paramount importance on his heart.
The Extraordinary Assembly held in 2014 passed not without a great degree of controversy, and in the run-up to the impending Ordinary Assembly, the controversy has not abated, but rather has seemed to increase.
The heated debate on matters of the family is truly encouraging, in the sense that it reflects the recognition of the family’s importance. It is a sign that all parties feel passionately that the issue at hand is critical, and are willing to engage each other in lively, public discourse. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn described the two camps that developed as like a mother saying “watch out, be careful” and a father saying “no, that’s fine, go ahead.” Perhaps even this assessment can enlighten us to the fact that, at its heart, the debate truly is about what is best for the family qua family, and in the larger world. While consensus is certainly the preference, and the ideal situation would be a charitable discernment followed by universal agreement, this is not the case right now. And there is good that God can bring out of the heated debate.
I do not think it is fair to say that anyone in the Church – least of all, senior members of the hierarchy – is “attacking” the family, or trying to undermine the Church’s teaching on marriage and family life. Certainly there are disagreements in the theology of marriage, the theology of family; perhaps there are some who seem to value psychology over Sacred Tradition, Freud over Fathers; maybe there are even some who explicitly and publicly scoff at the traditional teaching of the Church. However, I think it is important to recognize that all of these are trying their best to be loving and merciful pastors, trying to lead their flock to the Good Shepherd, the merciful Father of the prodigal son.
In the Roman Curia, matters of the family are largely overseen by the Pontifical Council for the Family. In recent days, Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal advisors has recommended combining this Pontifical Council with the Pontifical Council for the Laity and the Pontifical Academy of Life into a new congregation, the Congregation of Laity, Family and Life. Elevating the concerns of the family from the purview of a Pontifical Council to that of a Congregation – should Pope Francis take the suggestion of his cardinal advisors – would only serve to further emphasize his recognition of the fundamental importance of the family, and his commitment to strengthening and elevating the family in today’s world.
The family is called the “domestic Church” (Lumen Gentium 11). It is society in miniature. The family is the closest-to-perfect representation of the Blessed Trinity that we have in our earthly lives. As the Father loves the Son, and that perfect love is so perfect that it is literally personified in the Holy Spirit, the manifestation and expression of the love between the Father and the Son, so goes the family: the husband and wife participate in some small way in this act of begetting, as an incarnation of the love they share. And this is part of why the family is acknowledged as being of such fundamental importance: it is a dim reflection of the Blessed Trinity, the Three-in-One, distinct but not separate. If we were to abandon the truth of what the family is at its heart, we would also lose sight of the truth of the Trinity.
We must also bear in mind that the family goes beyond the husband-wife-child model. Family includes grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. Pope Francis has continually called the Church to better and more deliberate care for the elderly, who are unfortunately often shoved to the peripheries, treated as a problem about which no one wants to deal. The beauty of the elderly is absolutely a concern of the family, and we should strive not only to ensure that they are physically cared for, but also emotionally and spiritually. This care has a profoundly positive effect on children, as well as adults, when they have the benefit of the elderly in their lives.
Finally, let us not forget that we have been given an example to follow, as families. The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is the supreme example of what families are called to be, and we have been given a great gift in their example. Perhaps the first thing we should notice is that the dynamic of the family was absolutely centered around their complete abandonment to the will of God, and their utter trust in His providence.
The moment of the Holy Family’s creation comes with Mary’s fiat, her assent to the call of God. Although she did not understand, Mary declared “Let it be done unto me according to your word,” and the child Jesus was conceived in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, although certainly frightened and confused, fulfilled his duties as the head of the family, protecting and supporting his wife, and raising the child Jesus. The Holy Family is a paragon of unselfishness, the prime example of the gift-of-self that we are all called to be for each other, first and foremost in the context of family.
The family is under attack in our world. There is no question of that. However, the Church is striving as always to defend the truth, the beauty of God’s gift, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.