In the Service of the Family: the Prophetic Mission of the Lay Faithful

President of Laity Council Offers Pre-Synod Exhortation

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The president of the Pontifical Council of the Laity, Cardinal Stanisław Ryłko, has issued a statement ahead of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which the Pope will inaugurate with solemn Mass on Sunday.

The cardinal observes that we are “facing a dangerous post-modern cultural shift that threatens the fate of humankind.”

“Today more than ever,” he says, “we need witnesses who live out the Gospel of the family to the fullest and with joy, and who show the world that it is a beautiful and fascinating way of life, a source of happiness for spouses and children.”

These witnesses are needed, he says, even if the voice of the Church is “often contested, rejected and even ridiculed by the media.”

“Christ opens a fascinating horizon of holiness to Christian spouses,” the cardinal affirms. “He shows them that marriage and family can be a privileged way to holiness. Perhaps in our pastoral care of marriage and the family, we – both pastors and lay people – have little trust in the primacy of grace in the Christian life!”

Here is the full text of his statement.

* * *

The fact that the family is undergoing a very serious crisis at this time is there for us all to see. Particularly in Western culture, marriage is increasingly becoming a “residual choice”. Many are choosing not to get married, and there is a huge increase in the number of cohabiting couples and of people getting divorced. The gap is widening between the Church magisterium and the actual lives of the faithful. We are undoubtedly facing a dangerous post-modern cultural shift that threatens the fate of humankind. It is not by chance that Saint John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio: “The future of humanity passes by way of the family”.1 The Church wishes to address this major challenge in the 3rd Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, and to give a proper pastoral response to the question: how can we proclaim the Gospel of the family in our world that promotes and imposes patterns of life that radically contradict its fundamental principles?

I will touch briefly on the decisive and irreplaceable role of the Catholic laity, men and women, in proclaiming the Gospel of the family. Today more than ever, we need witnesses who live out the Gospel of the family to the fullest and with joy, and who show the world that it is a beautiful and fascinating way of life, a source of happiness for spouses and children. Here there is enormous scope for the prophetic mission of our laity. In the lives of Christian couples today it takes the courage of prophets, the courage to stand up to the dominant culture. Someone has rightly said, “Whether it wants to or not, the Church in the West is on its way to becoming a counterculture, and its future now depends chiefly on whether it is able, as the salt of the earth, to keep its savor and not be trampled underfoot by men”.2

In our times it often happens that when the Church speaks out about the nature of family and marriage (union between a man and a woman) and its indissolubility, faithful and fruitful conjugal love and openness to life, it may seem like a voice “crying in the wilderness” that is often contested, rejected and even ridiculed by the media. However this voice cannot and must not fail to be heard because, as the Second Vatican Council says: “The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family”.3 It is in fact a case of defending the very nature of the human being created by God as male and female.

Pope Benedict XVI said: “We live at a time of uncertainty about what it means to be human … In the face of this, we as Christians must defend the inviolable dignity of human beings … Faith in God must take concrete form in a common defence of humanity”.4 A service of vital importance that the Church must offer humanity is the proclamation of and witness to the Gospel of the family. This is a central work of mercy. It is a task for the lay faithful in particular in the society in which they live to be the Gospel leaven that transforms the world from within, the salt of the earth, the light of the world.5 We remember the words of the letter to Diognetus: “Christians … live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven…. To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. … Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which they are not permitted to excuse themselves”. 6

At this point, in the context of the Synod of Bishops on the family, there are some basic questions that Catholic spouses above all must ask: do I really live my marriage and family life according to God’s plan? Have I the courage to trust fully the Gospel of the family proclaimed by the magisterium of the Church? In spite of my limitations and my weakness, do I try to give witness to the beauty of marriage and the Christian family environment in which I live? The pressure of post-modernity in this field is extremely strong and many give in to its destructive dictates. Unfortunately, even among the ranks of the baptised, attitudes of rejection (explicit or implicit) are now spreading like wildfire, as well as choices that stand in stark contrast to the Church’s magisterium. This brings much suffering to married couples and especially to children because of failed marriages.

In this dramatic situation, the Church looks with confidence to the younger generations. In Rio de Janeiro, Pope Francis, in dialogue with young people, spoke to them of this and said, “Today, there are those who say that marriage is out of fashion. Is it out of fashion? In a culture of relativism and the ephemeral, many preach the importance of ‘enjoying’ the moment. They say that it is not worth making a life-long commitment, making a definitive decision, ‘for ever’, because we do not know what tomorrow will bring. I ask you, instead, to be revolutionaries, I ask you to swim against the tide; yes, I am asking you to rebel against this culture that sees everything as temporary and that ultimately believes you are incapable of responsibility, that believes you are incapable of true love. I have confidence in you and I pray for you”.7

Christian families need to be helped and supported by the Church. The family needs a strong message of hope. The primary source is to be found in the young with their ability to challenge the surrounding circumstances and to go against the current, just as Pope Francis said. It is true – as we are told by the Instrumentum Laboris – that at the level of our local churches there are many specialised pastoral facilities and lay associations that work to help families, but this is not enough. There is a great need to give in depth thought to the process of preparation of young people for marriage and to rethink family ministry so that it can truly express the maternal face of the Church, a welcoming face that does not exclude anyone. The Church today is called to accompany Christian couples pastorally and with generosity, charity and empathy, especially those who are in crisis or are living in irregular situations (divorced and remarried divorcees). With renewed courage and competence, the Church must deal with those new and often unfamiliar problems of marriage and the family (think for example of issues related to bioethics …). The Church, pastors and laity, must therefore undertake a journey of true “pastoral and missionary conversion that cannot leave things as they presently are”. 8

The Gospel of the family presents Christian couples with high demanding targets that definitely go against the current with respect to the dominant culture. This is often presented in a watered-down and softened way in our pastoral ministry. There is even censoring of those asp
ects that are particularly demanding (for example, the teaching of Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae), in order to make it more palatable to public opinion. In this way, however, we forget that its beauty and its power of attraction are precisely in that “newness” that surprises us and challenges us with radical proposals. The way offered to Christians by Christ is “narrow” and “the door is narrow”,9 but the grace of God comes to our aid.

Christ opens a fascinating horizon of holiness to Christian spouses. He shows them that marriage and family can be a privileged way to holiness. Perhaps in our pastoral care of marriage and the family, we – both pastors and lay people – have little trust in the primacy of grace in the Christian life! Often, when we think about the “feasibility” of gospel principles, we refer exclusively to worldly standards and discard certain requirements that are difficult and sensitive.

In this regard, we may recall a beautiful dialogue between Cardinal Frederick and Don Abbondio in “The Betrothed” by Alessandro Manzoni: “It is but too true, said Frederick. Such is our terrible and miserable condition! We exact rigorously from others, that which it may be we would not be willing to render ourselves; we judge, correct, and reprimand, and God alone knows what we would do in the same situation, what we have done in similar situations. But, woe be to me, if I take my weakness for the measure of another’s duty, for the rule of my instruction!” Immediately after this Cardinal Frederick adds one important thing: “Nevertheless it is certain, that while imparting precepts, I should also afford an example to my neighbour, and not resemble the pharisee, who imposes on others enormous burdens, which he himself would not so much as touch with his finger”.10 This is a good lesson that is worth pondering …

In the debate on the state of marriage and the family, a gloomy and rather dramatic tone is currently prevailing. We are witnessing a dangerous proliferation of “false prophets” who want to convince us that the changes brought about by post-modernity are the last word on the story, and therefore irreversible, and that we Christians should obey their arrogant dictates when proclaiming the Gospel of the family. However, at this juncture, we must not forget that the Lord of history is Christ Himself, and He faithfully goes before us.

Strengthened by this assurance, Pope Francis wants to launch a new season of evangelisation in the Church, marked by a joy that comes not from human calculations, but from theological hope. Among the signs of hope that must be mentioned are the numerous and varied charisms that the Holy Spirit is showering upon the Church of our times and from which so many ecclesial movements and new communities have been created. They are places that generate very effective itineraries of faith development for lay men and women, young and old. They are paths of Christian initiation that encourage lay people to go forth with missionary courage. So many men and women of our time, thanks to this new era of group endeavours of the lay faithful, have discovered the fascinating beauty of marriage and the family. For them it is a true vocation and a concrete way to holiness. Many of them have been generously receptive to life (large families!). Many have rediscovered the value of chastity in married life. Many marriages have been saved that had undergone a period of crisis and were on the verge of separation. Entire families have felt the missionary impulse and have been prepared to go forth to proclaim the Good News in mission countries (ad gentes).

The Gospel of the family, however, also leads others to say, like those disciples in the synagogue in Capernaum: “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (Jn 6:60), and they go away disappointed. Lay people trained in these new ecclesial associations have the courage to say with Peter: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe … “(Jn 6:68-69). Indeed, these lay people convincingly say to the world that the Gospel of the family is not a utopia. It is well worth trusting in this way of life. The new season of associations of the faithful is therefore an important sign of hope for the Church at a time in history when we are facing the challenge of the crisis of marriage and the family. Of course, the lay people involved in various forms of association are a minority, but – in the words of Pope emeritus Benedict XVI – they are a “creative minority” that are crucial to the future of the world. These groups, therefore, deserve to receive strong encouragement and support.

I conclude with the words of St. John Paul II, whom Pope Francis called the “Pope of the family”: “The Gospel is not a promise of easy success. It does not promise a comfortable life to anyone. It makes demands … The Gospel contains a fundamental paradox: to find life, one must lose life; to be born, one must die; to save oneself, one must take up the cross. This is the essential truth of the Gospel, which always and everywhere is bound to meet with man’s protest. Always and everywhere the Gospel will be a challenge to human weakness. But precisely in this challenge lies all its power. Man, perhaps subconsciously waits for such a challenge; indeed, man feels the inner need to transcend himself. Only in transcending himself does man become fully human”.11 The Gospel of the family can only be understood from this fundamental truth…

1) JOHN PAUL II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris consortio, n. 86.

2)   ROBERT SPAEMANN, Divorce and remarriage, in: FIRST THINGS, August – September 2014.

3) Vatican Council II, Costituzione pastorale sulla Chiesa nel mondo contemporaneo, Gaudium et spes, n. 47.

4) Benedict XVI, Celebrazione ecumenica nella Chiesa dell’ex-Convento degli Agostiniani di Erfurt, in “Insegnamenti” VII, 2 (2011), p. 303.

5) Cfr Mt 5,13-16.

6)  Dall’Epistola a Diogneto (Cap. 5-6; Funk 1, 317-321).

7) Francis, Discorso all’incontro con i volontari della XXVIII Giornata Mondiale della Gioventù, in “L’Osservatore Romano”, 29-30 luglio 2014, p. 11.

8) Francis, Esortazione apostolica Evangelii gaudium, n. 25.

9) Cfr Mt 7,13-14; Lc 13,24.

 10) ALESSANDRO MANZONI, I Promessi Sposi, De Agostini, p. 317.

11)  John Paul II, Varcare la soglia della speranza, Mondadori, pp. 118-119.

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