Approach families with respect because God is at work, pope says

Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square June 15. (CNS/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter’s Square June 15. (CNS/Paul Haring)

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) — Like Moses before the burning bush, those talking about the real-life situations of families must take off their sandals because they are standing on holy ground, Pope Francis said.

The pastoral care of families requires “a climate of respect capable of helping us listen to what God is saying,” the pope said June 16, opening the  Diocese of Rome’s annual pastoral conference.

The families, catechists, priests and bishops participating in the two-day meeting were focusing this year on outreach to families in Rome in light of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation on the family,  “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”).

Pope Francis made a formal presentation, with several impromptu additions, and then answered questions at the end, speaking mainly from his pastoral experience in Argentina, but also as pope.

In the question-and-answer session, he assured participants that his exhortation was thoroughly reviewed by  Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, a respected theologian.

The document, he said, fully conforms to Catholic doctrine, but some people “want doctrine that is mathematically precise. That does not exist!”

“Truth is found in neither strictness nor laxity,” the pope said. “The Gospel teaches something different: welcome, accompany, discern, integrate.”

A priest must listen to each family, ask questions that help the person reflect and grow, but “not sticking his nose into every detail” of the couple’s life, the pope said.

“Morality is always an act of love, love for God and for one’s neighbor, he said. “And it also is an act that leaves room for the conversion of the other.”

An attitude of superiority, he said, can even lead to “pastoral cruelty,” for example when a priest refuses to baptize the baby of an unwed mother.

In his formal presentation, Pope Francis said that as the diocesan gathering reflects on the family, participants must keep three things in mind: “the life of each person, the life of every family, must be treated with great respect and great care, especially when reflecting on these things; we must guard against setting up a pastoral plan of ghettos and for ghettos; we must give space to the elderly so they would begin to dream again.”

The biblical image of the burning bush, Pope Francis said, should be a reminder that “family” is not a theme or a theory, but a reality lived by real people with real joys and sorrows.

“How helpful it is to give faces to the theme,” he said. “That frees us from rushing to obtain well-formulated conclusions that can be lifeless; it frees us from speaking in the abstract so that we can draw near to and make commitments to concrete persons. It frees us from turning faith into an ideology with well-designed systems, but ignoring grace.”

“To reflect on the life of our families as they are and where they are requires us to remove our shoes in order to discover God’s presence,” he said.

Faith prohibits the church from abandoning or giving up on anyone “because he doesn’t live up to what we are asking,” the pope said. The church must proclaim the Gospel and its values and help people to strive to live holy lives.

However, he said, Catholics must “avoid falling into judgments and attitudes that do not take into account the complexities of life.”

“Evangelical realism,” the pope said, is the biblical way of looking at life and it “gets its hands dirty because it knows that ‘grain and weeds’ grow together, and the best grain in this life always will be mixed with a few weeds.”

Pope Francis quoted from “Amoris Letitia,” saying: “I understand those who prefer a more rigorous pastoral care which leaves no room for confusion. But I sincerely believe that Jesus wants a church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness.”

Christians, he said, are “continually exposed” to a temptation to judge others and to think more of themselves by contrasting their behavior with the behavior of others.

“We all need conversion,” the pope said. The only way to hear God providing direction in helping others is to pray and to start that prayer with the words, “Have pity on me, Lord, because I am a sinner.”

Outreach to families will never succeed if conducted by “those perfect and immaculate people who think they know everything,” he said.

One key resource the church has, but which too many people today ignore is the power of the witness of the elderly, he said. Couples who have been married for decades know the reality of the challenges, but they also know that true love exists and lifelong fidelity is possible.

Too often, though, “we have deprived them of the opportunity to recount their lives, their stories, their experiences,” Pope Francis said. “Tossing them aside we throw away the possibility of making contact with the secret that allowed them to keep going.”

Without models and guides, he said, there is little chance that young people, who already are fearful of the future, will find the courage to make a lasting commitment and to stick to it even when the relationship gets rocky.

“How can we expect young people to live the challenge of the family and marriage as a gift if they continually hear from us that it is a burden,” the pope asked.

“We must develop a pastoral plan for families able to welcome, accompany, discern and integrate,” he said. Families today need the churches help in constructing “scaffolding” that will support them and help them grow in the way God wants.

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