Vatican City — The "indissoluble bond" of the Catholic church with its members, including those struggling to live up to church teaching on family life, "is the most transparent sign of the faithful and merciful love of God," Pope Francis said.
While many people today struggle to live the Christian ideal of marriage and family life, the chief task of the church's theologians and pastoral ministers is not to point to failures, but to draw close to people "so that grace can ransom them, reanimate them and heal them," the pope told staff, faculty and students of the Rome-based Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.
Formally opening the institute's 2016-17 academic year Oct. 27, Francis paid tribute to the "farsighted intuition" of John Paul II who, in 1981, founded the institute of graduate studies focused on Catholic teaching about the family. In addition to the main campus at Rome's Pontifical Lateran University, the institute now has branches or affiliates in the United States, Benin, Brazil, India, Mexico, Spain and Australia. According to the Sydney-based Catholic Weekly, the day before Francis met the group, Archbishop Denis Hart of Melbourne announced the Australia campus would close after 2018 for financial reasons.
In August, Francis appointed Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia as chancellor of the institute, urging a renewal of its program and structures to ensure that "a pastoral perspective and attention to the wounds of humanity should never be lacking."
Addressing the students and faculty Oct. 27, Francis said it was important to remember that the treasure of being created and loved by God is something human beings carry "in earthen vessels" and is fragile.
"Grace exists, just as sin does," he said. "Therefore we must learn not to resign ourselves to human failure, but to support the 'ransoming' of the Creator's design at all costs."
Repeating a line from "Amoris Laetitia," his apostolic exhortation on the family, Francis told the students and staff, "At times we have proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust on God's grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite."
The bonds of married couples and families "are put to the test in many ways" today, he said. Individualism, a conception of freedom that is disconnected from any sense of responsibility to others, indifference to the common good, "ideologies that directly attack the family project" and growing poverty all threaten families as well as society itself.
Marriage and family life are based on "God's design" for "the alliance of man and woman," he said. That requires "cooperation and respect, generous dedication and responsible sharing, an ability to recognize differences as a richness and a promise, and not as a motivation for subjugation and an abuse of power."
But rather than encouraging efforts to understand the other, he said, modern culture seems to want "to cancel differences" rather than resolve the tensions that stem from them. Such an attitude undermines marriage, but also undermines any attempt to build a peaceful society where all sorts of differences are acknowledged and valued.
"In effect," he said, "when things go well between man and woman, the world and history go well, too. Failing that, the world becomes inhospitable and history stalls."
Francis urged theologians and students at the institute to seek ways to help Catholic families "be more aware of the gift of grace they bear and be proud of being able to put it at the service of all the poor and abandoned who despair of ever being able to find or rediscover" the grace of God's love for them.
Catholic theology and pastoral work, he said, also must take a much more positive approach in focusing less on how people are going astray and more on being close to them and giving them the guidance and support they need and deserve as members of the church.
"Theology and pastoral concern go hand in hand," the pope said. "A theological doctrine that does not let itself be guided and shaped by the church's evangelizing purpose and pastoral concern is just as unthinkable as a pastoral plan that does not know how to treasure revelation and tradition with a view to better understanding and transmitting the faith."