My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
In this third in a series of articles, I continue my review of the Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of Love.
In two chapters, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, offers some pastoral perspectives and ideas toward the better education of children. He begins by reminding us of… “the Gospel of the family as a joy that ‘fills hearts and lives,’ because in Christ we have been ‘set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.’”
These are words that he borrowed from himself in another Apostolic Exhortation entitled “The Joy of the Gospel.” The Holy Father sees all things through Christ, as it is Christ who is the source of our joy. It is Christ who can give joy to a family. It is the role of the parish to give pastoral care to families. In fact, the parish is a family of families who come together for the worship of the Lord. Each family, no matter what its situation, has something to offer to the Church and the parish. Our Holy Father brings out the point that many seminarians and religious come from troubled families and sometimes lack emotional stability. Yet, they still follow the path to a vocation to the priesthood or to religious life.
The preparation of engaged couples for marriage is of great importance to the Church, and this preparation must be taken seriously. Pope Francis says, “Quality is more important than quantity, and priority should be given – along with a renewed proclamation of the kerygma – to an attractive and helpful presentation of information that can help couples to live the rest of their lives together ‘with great courage and generosity.’” I know in our own diocesan program in Brooklyn and Queens, we try to give couples the best preparation for the life of marriage. The best preparation, however, is learned in stable families who teach their children the love of God and the love of one another.
In a curious reference, our Holy Father mentions St. Valentine’s Day which has become a day of commercial interest rather than a day the Church can use to help couples show true love for one another. The dangerous signals in a married couples’ life needs to be detected early on in their marriage and attended to as well. The marriage preparation programs should offer names and places of services where couples can receive any help they might need in the future.
In our Catholic Charities and through a network of counselors, we hope to be able to provide that kind of assistance for those who come to the Church for the sacrament of marriage.
Pope Francis continues and mentions the preparation for the celebration of the wedding day, which in our own day, all over the world, has become a great industry and somehow distracts couples from the real planning necessary for a happy life. The problem of commitment is a difficult one in our day, since making decisions and staying with them is not part of contemporary culture. Marriage needs to be contracted only in love and freedom, two essential elements for a happy marriage. The constant reaffirmation of commitment to marriage is more necessary today than ever before. Every effort needs to be made to help couples find ways to keep their commitments to each other. The Pope says, “Among the causes of broken marriages are unduly high expectations about conjugal life.” A realistic understanding of each other’s personality and capabilities needs to be part of the marriage preparation program.
Our Holy Father then moves on to discuss the understanding of the pastoral care for newly married couples, who need constant support in undertaking a life-long commitment to one another. “Young couples need to be encouraged to be essentially open to the great gift of children.” Making family life the place of joy demands planning free time together, moments of recreation with the children, and different ways of celebrating important events that will help the spiritual growth of the family. Pope Francis gives many other concrete examples of how young couples can be assisted by the community of the Church, which is a family of families.
Casting light on crisis, worries, and difficulties is always important. When things remain in the darkness and are not discussed, they only grow worse as every family is marked by different kinds of crisis. Every crisis, however, has a lesson to teach the family. The Pope says, “When problems are not dealt with, communication is the first thing to go.” Communication is an art to be learned in moments of peace and in moments of difficulty. One important aspect of communication is the capability to forgive, as our Holy Father tells us, “To know how to forgive and to feel forgiven is a basic experience in family life.”
Problems arise when one or the other of the partners does not feel fulfilled or does not see a need to remain married. In the Church today, we need to develop ministries that support the marital relationship.
Lack of maturity is a difficult obstacle to overcome in marriage. In fact, Pope Francis says, “Many people leave childhood without ever having felt unconditional love.” This makes it very difficult for them, in turn, in the marital relationship to show that type of love. Couples need accompaniment after breakdown and divorce. “The Synod Fathers noted that ‘special discernment is indispensable for the pastoral care of those who are separated, divorced or abandoned.’”
The Pope makes it clear when he says, “‘They are not excommunicated’ and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community.” In order to assist those who, unfortunately, are divorced, recourse to the process of annulment should be free of charge, as it is here in the Diocese of Brooklyn. Also, the process should be one that is as easy as humanly possible. Separation and divorce, unfortunately, have the greatest effect on the children who suffer in silence. The Holy Father says, “Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling.”
There are many complex situations today involving marriages between Catholics and other baptized persons, and even with persons who are not baptized. All of these special circumstances must be understood in the light of religious freedom, and all must be respected.
In his Exhortation, the Holy Father makes two points about those who experience same-sex attraction. The first is that “the person’s dignity must be treated with consideration…while every sign of ‘unjust discrimination’ is to be carefully avoided.” At the same time, proposals to place unions between homosexual persons on the same level of marriage have no validity. Concern for single-parent families is also expressed. And, finally, the situation of the widows and widowers must be taken into consideration in the pastoral care of the Church for Families.
Chapter Seven, entitled “Towards A Better Education of Children,” speaks about how we can assist our children in growing in maturity, both intellectually and religiously. Parents have the ultimate responsibility for shaping the moral character of their children, which cannot be relegated to others. While freedom must be respected, it can also be lost when a deficient moral education does not allow children to exercise free will in choosing what is for their own good. In the correction of a child, the parents must show constant trust in their child. Moral education includes asking a child not only those things that do not involve a disproportionate sacrifice, but also those which demand only a degree of effort that will not lead to resentment or coercion.
Moral values for children must come voluntarily. It is in the family, which is the first school of human values, where we learn the true use of freedom. The family is the primary setting for socialization. There we learn to listen not only to one another but also we learn the values of patience and respect. The educational process that occurs between parents and children can be helped or hindered by the increasing sophistication of communications and the entertainment media. Parents need to be ever watchful in guiding their children to the proper use of the new and complex media outlets available to them.
While parents should not be dominating, they must always affirm the freedom to form an integral education. Quoting the Second Vatican Council, The Holy Father reminds families of the need for “a positive and prudent sex education.” Sex education not only provides information, but also gives a context to understand the real meaning of sex. Sex education is not primarily for protection through the practice of safe sex. Such expressions are negative. A more positive understanding, however, of the reality of sex and our personality is necessary. Sex education cannot avoid appreciation for the differences between the sexes in giving children an understanding of sexual attraction.
The passing on of the faith to children is the responsibility of the family. Only in the family can faith be passed on from one generation to another. Moments of prayer and devotion to family are far more effective than mere words. The family has great responsibility in establishing domestic churches, which become a leaven for evangelization in society.
Again, my cursory treatment of some of the key phrases and topics of the Exhortation are meant to whet your appetite for deeper reading, as you put out into the deep of studying the Exhortation of our Holy Father, Pope Francis.