Teaching Our Faith — Important Synods: Family Life

As we prepare for the synod on the new evangelization, it is helpful to remember how past synods have had a great impact on our thinking and ministry as a Church. This teaching editorial focuses on Blessed John Paul II’s seminal document, Familiaris Consortio, which flowed from the 1980 synod on the families.

“Families, become what you are” is an often-quoted statement from Familiaris Consortio. This document addresses the Church’s need to renew pastoral efforts supporting the role of the Christian family in the modern world.

In this timeless document, Blessed John Paul II emphatically promotes the intrinsic connection between family and society: “The family has vital and organic links with society….It is from the family that citizens come to birth and it is within the family that they find the first school of social virtues that are the animating principle of the existence and development of society itself” (42).

The document begins by addressing societal ills threatening families, most of which still are present today. The focus of the document, however, is on a positive vision of the family as a community of life and love and on a blueprint to help families fulfill their mission. In order to fully embrace the dignity and responsibility inherent in the identity of a “family,” Blessed John Paul II describes four tasks:

  • To form a community of persons, with the Sacrament of Marriage as its foundation. The spouses’ permanent, faithful, and life-giving relationship communicates publicly the absolute love God has for His people and the love of Jesus for the Church. Because of the vital and public nature of this communion of persons, we often speak of the family as the “church of the home” or the “domestic church.”
  • o serve life, primarily through the transmission of life and the education of children. This self-sacrificing love respects the Church’s teaching on family planning reflected in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae. As the first and primary educators of their children, parents are challenged to create an atmosphere animated with love and reverence for God and all others. Parents do not achieve this alone but through cooperation with other agencies who are “obliged to give all possible and necessary help” (40). Broader service to life in the form of support for all humans as children of God also is addressed.
  • To participate in the development of society as family members participate in, learn from, and serve the broader society. Families are encouraged to reach out to the poor and disadvantaged and to advocate for civil laws that support and defend family rights.
  • To share in the life and mission of the Church by sharing in the same mission as the larger Church: to be a believing and welcoming community, a community in dialogue with God, and a community at the service of God’s people.

The final section of Familiaris Consortio speaks to the pastoral care of the family. In addition to identifying the importance of lifelong formation on marriage and family life, Blessed John Paul II challenges all agents of care — bishops, priests, religious, lay specialists, and those involved in social communications — to be responsive to the complexities confronting families in all stages of development. He calls parishes and dioceses to be especially mindful of families in difficult physical, economic, or marital situations.

In response to and building upon this exhortation, the bishops of the United States released several documents: A Positive Vision for Family Life (1985), a resource guide; A Family Perspective in Church and Society (1988), a manual for pastoral leaders that was reissued and updated in 1998; and Follow the Way of Love (1994), a pastoral message to families. Recently the Bishops’ Pastoral, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan (2009) along with its many companion pieces, drew upon and renewed Blessed John Paul II’s reiteration of Church teaching on marriage and family as expressed in Familiaris Consortio.

Familiaris Consortio concludes with a statement, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” (86). This basic truth continues to challenge our faith community to strengthen, support, nurture, and celebrate all families in their mission to reflect God’s love to the world, and it informs what we do every day in our Family Ministries Office.

Susan Brodfehrer,
Executive Director
Family Ministries Office

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