As I write this column, the Synod on the Family is underway in Rome. It officially began on Sunday, October 4, and will conclude on Sunday, October 25, following the publication of this issue of the Florida Catholic. While we may be reading many things about what is being discussed at the Synod, the final document of the Synod will be the Apostolic Exhortation issued by Pope Francis when he has considered all of the matters regarding family life. This Synod is an extremely important event in the life of the Church as it helps us to reflect upon what is essential to our lives in the gift that is God's family.
At the opening Mass for the Synod on October 4, Pope Francis gave a magnificent homily which certainly is indicative of what the reflection of the Synod will bring forth. The readings for that Sunday, the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, providentially dealt with the matter of marriage. As the Holy Father remarked, “This Sunday's Scripture readings seem to have been chosen precisely for this moment of grace which the Church is experiencing: the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family."
The first reading from the Book of Genesis recounted God's creation of man and woman so they might give themselves to each other as mutual companions in marriage as a permanent lifelong relationship. It would be in this relationship, mirroring the Trinitarian relationship of God Himself, that the gift of life would come into the world. In the Gospel reading from St. Mark, Jesus, referring to the account of Genesis, emphasized that marriage is a permanent relationship for life as intended by God in the beginning. He declared emphatically, "Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate" (Mk 10:9). The Holy Father emphasized that the Lord’s words teach that “God blesses human love, that it is He who joins the hearts of two people who love one another, He who joins them in unity and indissolubility. This shows us that the goal of conjugal life is not simply to live together for life, but to love one another for life. In this way Jesus re-establishes the order which was present from the beginning.”
The Synod on the Family followed Pope Francis' return to Rome from his visit to Philadelphia for the eighth World Meeting of Families. This meeting was the particular reason for his coming to the United States and was an extraordinary celebration of what family is all about. Certainly the fruits of this meeting as well as the affirmation of family life as part of God's original plan will be great blessings for the Church in the United States as well as for our society. The overwhelming sense of love that was present at the gathering was an indication of the love that is part and parcel of marriage and family life as God intended. The Pope expressed well the sense of awe as well as the primacy of family love in his concluding Mass for the World Meeting of Families. He said, "We Christians, the Lord's disciples, ask the families of the World to help us! How many of us are here at this celebration! This is itself something prophetic, a kind of miracle in today's world, which is tired of inventing new divisions, new hurts, new disasters. Would that we all could be prophets! Would that we all could be open to miracles of love to benefit our own families and all the families of the world, and thus overcome the scandal of a narrow, petty love, closed in on itself, impatient of others! I leave you with a question for each of you to answer – because I said the word 'impatient': at home do we shout at one another or do we speak with love and tenderness? This is a good way of measuring our love."
It will be sometime before the Apostolic Exhortation following the Synod on the Family will be promulgated by Pope Francis. We all look forward to benefiting from the treasures that it will hold as a means of assisting family life in our day and age. While we do not know specifically what the Holy Father will say, we do know that he will reaffirm the gift of marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and woman for the sake of their mutual support and that of the children they bring into the world. This is God's plan from the very beginning. He will also address the many difficulties and hardships which family life faces in our day and age and the pain which families feel from breakup. The Synod has expressed the pastoral need to reach out to make all feel an appropriate part of the Church and to heal the wounds of division.
We also know that the Exhortation will be much in keeping with the quoted words of Pope Francis’ homily for the closing of the World Meeting of Families. These words are an emphatic call to love in the human context in which a family lives and by which it will strengthen its members. During the past year, Pope Francis has given a series of Wednesday Audiences on the subject of family life. Aside from his speaking as the Shepherd of the Church, he spoke as a member of a family. He set the tone for his words when he said, "Even the Pope has a family. We are five siblings and I have sixteen nephews and nieces." We often hear the Pope speak of his family as well as his grandparents to whom he was deeply devoted and from whom he learned much. We can surely expect to find in the words of his Apostolic Exhortation, soon to be promulgated, the following practical advice from his audiences.
1. "I always give this advice to newlyweds: 'argue as much as you want. If the plates fly let them. But never end the day without making peace. Never!' "
2. "It isn't necessary to call the United Nations to come to one's home and make peace. A small gesture, a caress, a hello is sufficient! And until tomorrow – and one begins again."
3. The Bible "is not for putting in a shelf, but rather for having it at hand. It is for reading it often, every day, either individually or in groups, husband and wife, parents and children; maybe at night, especially on Sundays. That way, the family can move forward with the light and power of the Word of God!"
4. Marriage "is a journey full of challenges, difficult at times, and also with its conflicts, but that is life."
5. The Pope encourages parents to denounce a culture which is not in favor of the family and having children. He invites couples to give themselves completely to the adventure of parenthood and encourages them to ignore "the comfort of culture." "This culture of comfort has, in the last 10 years, convinced us that it's better to not have children! You can go explore the world, go on vacation, you can have a villa in the countryside, you can be carefree." Such an attitude is the furthest thing from what family life is all about and an obstacle to true joy in life which comes about by giving.
6. "When I confess young couples and they talk to me about their children, I always ask one question: ‘And do you have time to play with your children?' And many times the father tells me: 'But Father, they are sleeping when I go to work in the morning and when I come home back at night they are already asleep in bed.' This is not life." The Pope encourages couples to spend time with their children even in the frantic life that they experience. When young people "see that Dad and Mom love each other, the children grow in that climate of love, happiness and security."
7. "Many children and young adults waste so much time on hallow things: chatting on the internet, playing with a cell phone, seeing soap operas. High tech products are meant to make life simple and to improve the quality of life. But often, they distract us from what's really important." The Pope emphasizes that misuse of technology can be one of the elements that separates a family.
8. "One of the most beautiful things in the life of family, of our lives, is to caress a child and to let them be caressed by a grandfather or grandmother." The Pope stresses that the elderly are a fundamental part of family life and there is no substitute for grandparents.
These simple reflections of the Pope will certainly capture the spirit of his Apostolic Exhortation on the Family and are wise maxims for enhancing family life as God intended it. They reflect a good understanding of what the World Meeting of Families and the Synod on the Family were all about.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
October 23, 2015