Pope Francis calls on the world's Catholics to support families in crisis

Posted April 10

People need to nurture their relationships with family members, friends and neighbors and resist the tendency to give up or turn away from individuals in need, Pope Francis declared in a letter on family life, released Friday.

The pope explained that self-absorbed behavior threatens the family unit and harms those who rely on community support, such as people with disabilities and the elderly.

"No one can think that the weakening of the family … will prove beneficial to society as a whole," he writes in "Amoris Laetitia," which is translated in English as "The Joy of Love."

The 246-page letter, which is referred to in the Roman Catholic Church as an apostolic exhortation, responds to two previous gatherings of church leaders on family life, which took place at the Vatican in October 2014 and October 2015. In it, the pontiff synthesizes the conclusions drawn at these meetings and suggests a path forward for church leaders who hope to lead a parish in which families can thrive.

"Every aspect of church ministry is going to be affected," said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, during a press conference hosted by the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops.

The pope's letter also holds lessons for non-Catholics, especially those seeking guidance on how to be a better parent, spouse, daughter or son, or neighbor to vulnerable people around the world, observers said.

"Pope Francis has a broad perspective on both the hopes and challenges of family life," said John Gehring, Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life and author of "The Francis Effect." "While some view family values as only a battlefield in the culture wars, the pope understands that poverty, the refugee crisis and an economy of exclusion are grave threats to families. He widens the frame in a way that should expand the debate beyond a few hot button sexual issues."

Shining light on the vulnerable

Throughout his papacy, Pope Francis has focused on family life, addressing contentious issues like immigration, same-sex marriage and war in terms of how they impact parents' abilities to raise children in a loving home. "The Joy of Love" builds on these prior efforts, urging church leaders not to get so caught up in doctrinal debates that they forget their core mission: serving people.

“In such difficult situations of need, the church must be particularly concerned to offer understanding, comfort and acceptance, rather than imposing straightaway a set of rules that only lead people to feel judged and abandoned," Pope Francis writes.

Situations of need come in many forms, according to the pope. He encourages church leaders to reach out with kindness to the LGBT community, unmarried adults who cohabitate, single parents and others.

"We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration," the pope writes.

His letter also addressed forced migration and its effects on families.

"Forced migration of families, resulting from situations of war, persecution, poverty and injustice … traumatizes people and destabilizes families," he writes.

It's unsurprising that the pope reflected on immigration and poverty, because, as a church leader in Argentina, he witnessed families unable to build a better life for themselves, said Father Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for National Catholic Reporter who, like Pope Francis, is an ordained Jesuit priest.

"This pope is from the global south. It been clear from the very beginning that the poor and marginalized are people he's very concerned about," he said.

The new letter puts into words what Pope Francis has already put into action. He prayed for illegal immigrants during a February trip to Mexico and encouraged Catholics to treat refugees with compassion in his Easter message. Next week, he will visit the island of Lesbos in Greece to raise awareness of the ongoing migrant crisis affecting families in the Middle East and Europe.

For Jeanne Atkinson, executive director of Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc., the pope's letter was an exciting affirmation of her organization's work. CLINIC helps immigrants settle in the U.S. and provides resources for Catholics who want to do more to welcome new neighbors.

"The work and blessing of building welcoming communities is really up to the people who live in these communities," she said.

Although serving the vulnerable is not a new instruction for the Catholic community, Pope Francis writes in his letter that church leaders and members alike should look for new, creative ways to support those who are forced, whether by violence, job opportunities or poverty, to leave their homeland.

"In accompanying migrants, the church needs a specific pastoral program addressed not only to families that migrate, but also to those family members who remain behind," he writes.

Here, he returns to a theme present throughout "The Joy of Love": people must resist the modern urge to create barriers between themselves and others and, instead, embrace opportunities to strengthen their family and community.

"Freedom of choice makes it possible to plan our lives and make the most of ourselves. Yet if this freedom lacks noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others," Pope Francis writes.

In the coming months, "The Joy of Love" will be read by Catholic leaders, discussed in sermons and studied in church reading groups. Observers said it's not yet possible to know how it will affect the global Catholic community, but Pope Francis' goal in writing the letter was clear.

"In family life, we need to cultivate that strength of love which can help us fight every evil threatening it," he writes.

Additional highlights

• "There is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems."

Although the pope didn't announce any radical doctrinal changes in the letter, he did urge more openness toward people who have historically had a hard time fitting into the Catholic community, such as gays, lesbians, single parents and Catholics who have divorced and remarried.

"The pope isn't breaking with tradition or doctrine, but he does want to make sure the church puts the complex reality of families at the center of doctrine," Gehring said.

• "The weakening of faith and religious practice in some societies has an effect on families, leaving them more isolated amid their difficulties."

The pope doesn't mention declining church attendance often in "The Joy of Love," but, when he does, he argues that loss of faith is partially to blame for the modern challenges families face.

In 2014, 39 percent of U.S. Catholics attended religious services weekly or more, compared to 41 percent in 2007, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

• "Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator."

This quote, from a section of the letter on reproductive technologies, illustrates the pope's suspicion of advancements that give people a false sense of control over their own lives. He also decries assisted suicide, which, as the Deseret News reported in February, has been legalized in several states despite opposition from the Catholic Church and other faith groups oppose.

• "The Christian ideal, especially in families, is a love that never gives up."

Above all, "The Joy of Love" celebrates what family life can be if church leaders, parents and couples take seriously their call to nurture healthy relationships.

The letter "represents an invitation to Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family, and to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience," Pope Francis writes.

Email: Twitter: @kelsey_dallas


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