The Family in Crisis

This article first appears in the latest issue of Marian Helper magazine. Sign up for a free copy, or read our digital version.

If Fr. Bill Hayward, MIC, could stand before the Holy Father and tell him just one thing he's learned from parish ministry, it would be that "families nowadays are stressed like never before, with too many demands placed on them."

Father Ron McBride, MIC, would say the family is "in a state of severe decline. We've been losing them for years to the culture of individualism."

Father Matthew Lamoureux, MIC, would say, "The family is everything. If families are weak, society is weak."

All three Marian parish priests hasten to add that anything they would say to Pope Francis would only serve to reinforce what the Holy Father clearly knows: The family is in crisis, and the Church must re-examine its role in contemporary times.

Indeed, Pope Francis has placed family matters at the center of his pontificate as evidenced by the two-week Extraordinary Synod at the Vatican dedicated to the "pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization." The gathering on Oct. 5-19 of some 250 bishops and laity from around the world served as the official opening of a yearlong discussion leading to an Ordinary Synod of Bishops in October 2015.

Pope to Address Family Matters
Drawing from those discussions, Pope Francis will then write an apostolic exhortation to chart the Church's course for proclaiming the Gospel of the family in the 21st century. Illustrating his awareness of the complexity of the family in crisis, Pope Francis instructed Synod participants to speak freely. "Let no one say: 'This you cannot say,'" he told the gathering.

He got what he asked for. There were disagreements among the bishops on the role of gays in the Church and whether divorced and remarried Catholics who haven't had their first marriages annulled should be permitted to receive Communion. The so-called "relatio," a mid-Synod summary of topics and comments, caused some dispute, and the public misconstrued it as official Church teaching. Then, in the Synod's final address, the Pope affirmed the Church's unchanging doctrine while calling for mercy in dealing with problematic moral situations in families.

Despite the controversy, the Marian priests say they anticipate the Ordinary Synod and Pope Francis's subsequent exhortation will stress direct pastoral application. Moreover, they believe Pope Francis will help bring clarity to certain matters in which Church teaching has been misunderstood by the general public and "at times misrepresented by clergy themselves," says Fr. Matthew, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Yorkville, Illinois.

Church Must Bear the Burden
Meanwhile, concerns for the Church's influence in family life are substantiated by some grim statistics. For instance, in the United States, a Pew Research Center poll released in 2012 indicated that the number of Catholics who attend weekly Mass dropped from 47 percent in 1974 to 24 percent in 2012.
While the Marian priests acknowledge that an array of socio-economic changes and challenges to family life may account for much of the decline in Mass attendance, they agree the burden still falls squarely upon the Church to make the faith relevant in the modern world.

To that end, the Marians see signs of hope beginning with Pope Francis himself. Specifically, the Holy Father's emphasis on the mercy of God and his call for a Church that's more humble, charitable, and willing to take risks is not only drawing admiration worldwide, it's also inspiring clergy to step out from their comfort zones and become more involved in people's lives, just as Jesus did.

"What we see with Pope Francis," says Fr. Matthew, "is that he has not been changing teachings, but he's been putting different wrapping paper on the gift, saying, 'Take a look at this - this beautiful gift that is the Church.' We have to be creative in how we reach people now. We have to deal with the present as it is, so we can bring people to the reality of Christ."

Still, Fr. Bill, pastor of Holy Rosary Parish in Kenosha, Wisconsin, says the challenges are formidable. He ministers to families wrenched by financial hardships, divorce, and spousal abandonment. Families are stressed by "obligations to work, school, and sports," he says, "and even Sunday Mass seems like 'just another thing to do' for many families."

Father Ron, who serves at Our Lady of Peace Parish in Darien, Illinois, says that despite the challenges - including U.S. Catholics' increasing support of same-sex marriage, cohabitation, and contraception - "bending on orthodoxy is not the solution to the family crisis. The Church's teachings are the solution."

The three priests agree the best means the Church has to attract those who challenge, ignore, or reject Christ's promise of salvation is the message of Divine Mercy, which the Marians promote. The appeal can be summed up in these words of Christ to St. Faustina, His secretary of mercy, "The greater the sinner, the greater the right he has to My mercy" (Diary of St. Faustina, 723).

"This is where healing begins," says Fr. Ron.

A Telling Conclusion to the Synod
It was certainly no accident that Pope Francis concluded the Synod by beatifying Pope Paul VI, who shepherded the Church through a contentious period of reform during the cultural and social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s.

In his homily at the beatification Mass, Pope Francis quoted Pope Paul VI, who said, "By carefully surveying the signs of the times, we are making every effort to adapt ways and methods ... to the growing needs of our time and the changing conditions of society."

Perhaps foreshadowing Pope Francis's own pending prescription for the crisis of the family, it was Pope Paul VI who called for an authentic dialogue with the modern world while also standing firm on Church teaching. He stood firm most notably with his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae (Of Human Life), in which he affirmed the Church's teaching on married love and responsible parenthood while reiterating its opposition to artificial birth control as a serious violation of the procreative and unitive aspects of married love.

Interestingly, it was also Pope Paul VI who, in 1965, established the first Synod of Bishops.

With his beatification, Pope Paul VI's challenge to the Church has now been re-energized under Pope Francis, who said in his homily, "The Church is called to waste no time in seeking to bind up open wounds and to rekindle hope in so many people who have lost hope."

Synod, by the way, means "shared journey."

Says Fr. Matthew, it's a journey "guided by the Holy Spirit and our Merciful Savior."

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