September 5, 2014

Rejoice in the Lord

The challenges that face families today

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinI suppose it would be true to say that families have always faced challenges. Sacred Scripture describes an unending series of family problems from the moment our first parents sinned until Mary, the mater dolorosa (sorrowful mother), held the body of her crucified son in her lap. All families have their troubles. Some are of their own making or choice, but certainly not all of them.

And yet, we treasure the family as the most fundamental human institution. We celebrate the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) as the model for Christian families. We say that the family is the most basic social unit. And we regard the family as a “domestic Church,” which is no less truly an ecclesia (sacred assembly or gathering) than our parishes, dioceses or the Church universal.

The fact that the family is so basic, and so important, to our way of life means that challenges facing the family affect every individual human being and every aspect of human society. If it’s true to say that the family is “in crisis,” then we also have to say that all of human life and society are in crisis.

Nearly a year ago, on Oct. 8, 2013, Pope Francis announced that the third extraordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops would meet next month to treat the topic “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”

Preparation for this gathering of Church leaders began by sending out to all the world’s bishops a set of questions concerning the current state of marriage and family life worldwide. Responses to these questions were received from “the synods of the Eastern Catholic Churches, the episcopal conferences, the departments of the Roman Curia, and the Union of Superiors General,” as well as from “a significant number of dioceses, parishes, movements, groups, ecclesial associations and families” and “academic institutions and specialists, both Catholic and non-Catholic.”

In short, the Vatican received thousands of very detailed responses to its questions about the challenges facing families today.

During the next eight weeks, I want to share with you some reflections on the major subjects treated in these questions. My purpose will be to introduce the issues, offer some thoughts in the light of the Bible and Church teaching, and then to ask you to reflect prayerfully on “God’s plan for the family” as it is expressed in our own families, our parishes and our archdiocese.

Is today’s family in crisis? The responses received by the Holy See to its questions list challenges that can seem overwhelming: the influence of media and technology, relativism, secularism, selfishness, the refusal to make long-term commitments, widespread divorce and remarriage, blended families, same-sex unions, a “throwaway mentality” that too often includes unborn children, the sick and the elderly, combined with what Pope Francis has called “the culture of waste,” and a “culture of the moment.”

These are not all new challenges, but there does seem to be an urgency and immediacy that are new to us. We certainly have our share of troubles today, but as Pope Francis reminds us, we are a people of hope, and we have great trust that the Holy Spirit will help us all discover “the truth about conjugal love and the family and respond to its many challenges” (cf. “Evangelii Gaudium,” #66).

The same Scriptures that illustrate the presence of family problems throughout human history also reveal God’s plan for marriage and the family. In the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, we learn that man and woman are created in the image and likeness of God and are, in fact, made for each other (cf. Gn 1:24–31, and Gn 2:4–25).

In the New Testament, the letters of St. Paul describe “the great mystery” that makes marriage and family a most profound sign of the love between Christ and his Church (cf. Eph 5:31–32). Church teaching consistently tells us that God’s plan for the family is rooted in God’s very being, the Holy Trinity, and in the Love that is who God is.

In his encyclical “Deus Caritas Est” (“God is Love”), Pope Benedict XVI emphasizes that “marriage based on an exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love” (#11). When the family is based on God’s love, it can survive all challenges. As Pope Francis teaches, “this love is trustworthy and worth embracing, for it is based on God’s faithfulness, which is stronger than our every weakness.”

Please join me in praying for families and for the success of next month’s extraordinary synod on the challenges facing families today. †

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