His words on the family apply equally to the whole enterprise of attempting to live out the Catholic faith in the world.
With the Synod on the Family ending its first round, Pope Francis has used the opportunity to re-affirm and strengthen the church’s teaching on marriage and family life, and with it a refreshing understanding of what it means to live the Catholic faith.
In his closing speech of the synod, Pope Francis acknowledged that the synod debates had been somewhat stormy. The journey was difficult and the waters sometimes choppy, but this reflects the topics discussed: family life—which is rarely completely harmonious, and the Faith itself, which is not easy to live.
Nevertheless, Pope Francis reminded the fathers of the synod that their words were “full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage.” All was done for, “the good of the Church, of families, and the ‘supreme law,’" the “good of souls”….without ever putting into question the fundamental truths of the Sacrament of marriage: the indissolubility, the unity, the faithfulness, the fruitfulness, that openness to life.
Last Saturday, Pope Francis met with thousands of followers of Germany’s Schoenstatt Movement—a group devoted to Marian devotion in the church. He used the opportunity to observe the attacks on the family in the modern world, and to call for a renewed commitment to the high ideals of Catholic family life. The Pope observed that modern society undermines the idea of indissoluble bonds of marriage and commitment, in favor of individual freedom. Calling again for personal encounter, he stressed that we must take time for people and to “waste time” with them as they seek to discover Christ.
Pope Francis, answering a question about marriage said, “ “the Christian family, the family, marriage have never been attacked as much as they are right now….” The family is “beaten and the family is bastardized” and debased, since "almost anything is being called a family.” The family faces a crisis “because it is being bludgeoned by all sides, leaving it very wounded.”
Commenting on the modern understanding of marriage, the pope admitted that often people are more interested in a grand wedding than in a good marriage. The Church is guilty of not forming people properly, but the culture, too, is one where everything is provisional, and the idea of a vow for life is incomprehensible. Cohabitation is a symptom of this fleeting understanding of love, with couples sharing their life in short term, impulsive relationships with no lasting love.
What is Francis’s answer? It is clear from the discussions in the synod and in Pope Francis’s whole approach to ministry that he does not believe policies, principles, rules, and regulations provide the answer on their own. While he knows they are necessary, he sees that what is more important is for the Church to simply “be there.” He calls priests to “smell like the sheep,” to get out of their church-y lives and be with the people, to listen to their difficulties, to “make a mess” and “waste time” with them.
Last week a priest friend admitted to me that he finds Pope Francis to be “an enigma.” This is because Pope Francis, in his own people-centered ministry, reveals to the world how very complicated and difficult it is to live out the joy of the gospel. The Catholic Church sets out the dogmas, doctrine, and disciplines of the faith very clearly. She establishes the rule, regulations, and rubrics of religion, but to apply them in real life is a constant challenge. The rules and doctrines are necessary, but they are the map for the journey, they are not the journey itself. The rules promote the love of Christ in the world, but love, like art, is messy, unpredictable, and alive.