Francis' Address to Bishops at World Meeting of Families

by Michael Sean Winters

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The defense of traditional marriage in the past few years has created a nomenclature and ideological focus all its own: Same sex marriage is a “civilization threat,” we have been told, the divorced and remarried are living in adultery, there are two cultures of marriage, one for the upper middle class, where marriage is thriving, and one for the poor and working poor where it is abysmal, with the strong implication that if those poor people just lived better moral lives (like us!), they would not be poor as well. If they really get their moral lives together, they might even aspire to becoming Republicans!

The Holy Father, in his speech to the bishops attending the World Meeting of Families, apparently does not see it this way. He brings a different focus. We are now in the last day of his visit and has anyone else noticed that he has yet to so much as utter the words “same sex marriage”? If it truly were a civilizational threat, don’t you think it might have merited a mention? To be clear, Pope Francis is not an advocate of same sex marriage, indeed, given the Church’s theological understanding of marriage, I suspect the concept of same sex marriage baffles him, it simply does not fit into our theology. Sadly, those in the Church who advocate for same sex marriage have so far failed to present anything that even resembles an adequate theological framework for addressing the issue of same sex love.

The Holy Father began his remarks with some comments about the meeting he had with sex abuse victims this morning. These remarks were not part of the transcript I have, so I will comment on them later, when we get a transcript..

Pope Francis focused his talk on the ill effects of consumer mentality on the institution of marriage. I quote the relevant passage at some length because it demonstrates just how differently, and more accurately, the Holy Father sees the challenges to family life:

Until recently, 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 interrelated and mutually supportive.  This is no longer the case.  To describe our situation today, I would use two familiar images: our neighborhood stores and our large supermarkets. 

There was a time when one neighborhood store had everything one needed for personal and family life.  The products may not have been cleverly displayed, or offered much choice, but there was a personal bond between the shopkeeper and his customers.  Business was done on the basis of trust, people knew one another, they were all neighbors.  They trusted one another.  They built up trust.  These stores were often simply known as “the local market”. 

Then a different kind of store grew up: the supermarket.  Huge spaces with a great selection of merchandise.  The world seems to have become one of these great supermarkets; our culture has become more and more competitive.  Business is no longer conducted on the basis of trust; others can no longer be trusted.  There are no longer close personal relationships. 

Today’s culture seems to encourage people not to bond with anything or anyone, not to trust.  The most important thing nowadays seems to be follow the latest trend or activity.  This is even true of religion.  Today consumerism determines what is important.  Consuming relationships, consuming friendships, consuming religions, consuming, consuming…  Whatever the cost or consequences.  A consumption which does not favor bonding, consumption which has little to do with human relationships.  Social bonds are a mere “means” for the satisfaction of “my needs”.  The important thing is no longer our neighbor, with his or her familiar face, story and personality. 

The result is a culture which discards everything that is no longer “useful” or “satisfying” for the tastes of the consumer.  We have turned our society into a huge multicultural showcase tied only to the tastes of certain “consumers”, while so many others only “eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Mt 15:27).  This causes great harm.  I would say that at the root of so many contemporary situations is a kind of impoverishment born of a  widespread and radical sense of loneliness.  Running after the latest fad, accumulating “friends” on one of the social networks, we get caught up in what contemporary society has to offer.  Loneliness with fear of commitment in a limitless effort to feel recognized.

Regular readers of this blog will recognize why I heartily agree with the pope’s analysis! We train our children, from a very early age, to seek their happiness in some new product or gadget, which is usually designed to be replaced with a yet newer product in three to five years. I just got Windows 10, but truth be told, I still miss WordPerfect. Why are we surprised when children grow in such a culture and grow to think of spouses as one more product, preferably new, always replaceable. Last night, in the remarks the pope set aside to speak extemporaneously, the original draft dwelt at length, and with precision, about the economic pressures on families as well. I was delighted with what he did say, but I hope attention will be given to the text he did not speak as well.

This trenchant cultural critique is not followed by a “woe is me” despair. The Holy Father proposes, as he has throughout this trip, an ecclesial approach and method, one modeled after the Master: Encounter, dialogue, accompaniment and inclusion. He told the bishops:

Should we blame our young people for having grown up in this kind of society?  Should we condemn them for living in this kind of a world?  Should they hear their pastors saying that “it was all better back then”, “the world is falling apart and if things go on this way, who knows where we will end up?”  No, I do not think that this is the way.  As shepherds following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, we are asked to seek out, to accompany, to lift up, to bind up the wounds of our time. To look at things realistically, with the eyes of one who feels called to action, to pastoral conversion.  The world today demands this conversion on our part.  “It is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear.  The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded” (Evangelii Gaudium, 23) 

We would be mistaken, however, to see this “culture” of the present world as mere indifference towards marriage and the family, as pure and simple selfishness.  Are today’s young people hopelessly timid, weak, inconsistent?  We must not fall into this trap.  Many young people, in the context of this culture of discouragement, have yielded to a form of unconscious acquiescence.  They are paralyzed when they encounter the beautiful, noble and truly necessary challenges which faith sets before them.  Many put off marriage while waiting for ideal conditions, when everything can be perfect.  Meanwhile, life goes on, without really being lived to the full.  For knowledge of life’s true pleasures only comes as the fruit of a long-term, generous investment of our intelligence, enthusiasm and passion.  

As pastors, we bishops are called to collect our energies and to rebuild enthusiasm for making families correspond ever more fully to the blessing of God which they are!  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.  Here too, we need a bit of holy parrhesia!  A Christianity which “does” little in practice, while incessantly “explaining” its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced.  I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle.  A pastor must show that the “Gospel of the family” is truly “good news” in a world where self-concern seems to reign supreme!  We are not speaking about some romantic dream: the perseverance which is called for in having a family and raising it transforms the world and human history.  

The phrase “incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings” jumps off the page, does it not? Only with accompaniment, can the beauty, truth and love about which the pope spoke last night when he went off-script shine forth. The pope’s obvious and deep concern for the state of family life does not lead him to propose a political or legal program, but a pastoral method: encounter, accompaniment, dialogue, and inclusion. That is how he discussed moving to more sustainable environmental action, how he spoke about the crisis facing migrants, how he speaks about the poor and, now, how he speaks about the family. There are no bumper stickers, no lawsuits, no “harsh and divisive language” in his proposal. Only the beauty, the incarnate, messy, “plates flying” beauty of family life. “A pastor watches over the dreams, the lives and the growth of his flock,” the Holy Father told the assembled bishops. “This ‘watchfulness’ is not the result of talking but of shepherding.  Only one capable of standing “in the midst of” the flock can be watchful, not someone who is afraid of questions, contact, accompaniment.  A pastor keeps watch first and foremost with prayer, supporting the faith of his people and instilling confidence in the Lord, in his presence.  A pastor remains vigilant by helping people to lift their gaze at times of discouragement, frustration and failure.  We might well ask whether in our pastoral ministry we are ready to “waste” time with families.  Whether we are ready to be present to them, sharing their difficulties and joys.”   


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