Here are excerpts from my presidential address to the fall assembly of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. (Click here for the full address.)
I had never met Paolo Rodari until he asked to sit down with me to talk about our families. Paolo is an Italian journalist, but this wasn’t about an interview. He had heard that I’d helped care for my brother Georgie, who had Down syndrome, and he wanted to talk about his hopes and fears for his own brother, Giovanni, who also has Down’s.
We met when I was in Rome for the Synod on the Family. While I speak very little Italian, and Paolo speaks only broken English, we were able to speak together of our brothers. “Does Giovanni read books?” I asked. Paolo said no. “Does he watch TV?” “Ahhh, si!” And so they watch together, and this is one way for them to be together, just as it was with Georgie and me.
And then I wondered something else: “Is Giovanni hard to understand?” Paolo nodded. “But do you understand him?” I asked. Paolo smiled and nodded again. Paolo has learned to understand Giovanni, because they’re family.
Today we come together as family. As part of a family, we’re called to walk with our brothers and sisters, helping them grow closer to Jesus through his mercy. We’re also called to give families hope in the abundant life promised by Jesus, inspiring their confidence in the truths of our faith by which we come to encounter him.
We witness to the truths of our faith as members of our own families; as members of our family in faith; and as part of the great cloud of witnesses, a family standing together across time to call to those who are hurting; to let them know, as our Holy Father Pope Francis says, that the Church is “a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven, and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.” (Evangelii Gaudium 114)
As you know, I come to you having recently returned, along with several of our brother bishops, from the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Rome. My prayer for the Synod was that we would witness to the beauty of Church teachings on marriage; that we would deepen the way we accompany those struggling with the many challenges families face today; and that we would encourage — even inspire — married couples to have confidence in their ability to faithfully live the Gospel of the Family.
We took some positive steps at the Synod to advance those efforts, particularly in the hands-on work of the small groups. Those were marked by fruitful discussion and unity of purpose. We now have the final relatio to use as a working document as we prepare for the Synod next October. Looking ahead, we’ll benefit by approaching these issues through the lens of Scripture and Sacred Tradition, informed by the experiences of those we serve as pastors.
It’s my hope that these efforts begun at the Synod — to strengthen witness; to deepen accompaniment; and to renew confidence — will work together to help restore hope in the vocation of married couples and families. We can’t deny the social and economic challenges families face today; they are deep-seated and powerful. Yet we know that hope in marriage is well-founded, a hope written on the hearts of men and women, a hope received in Christ, a hope that does not disappoint. (Romans 5:5)
We also know that children are gifts. We know that lifelong, faithful, fruitful marriages are well within reach and lead to an abundant life. We see it every day among the families we serve. Their joyful witness serves as a strength to all around them. We also see a consistent link between religious practice and strong marriages; a couple who prays together tends to stay together.
We can restore hope in marriage by calling forth such witnesses to help one another, and to help us accompany and encourage families with practical, on-the-ground support. We can work to better convey St. John Paul II’s remarkable vision of marriage and family life as developed in his theology of the body.
And because, as St. John Paul II put it, “the Church is a home and a family for everyone, especially those who ‘labor and are heavy laden,’” (Familiaris Consortio 85), we must especially seek out those who suffer under the weight of the difficulties faced by families today, remembering to see the person first, walking with them and pointing the way toward God.
We all strive to be faithful pastors, so we know what this looks like. Think of the home visits we’ve all done in parishes. When I’d come to someone’s home, I wouldn’t start by telling them how I’d rearrange their furniture. In the same way, I wouldn’t begin by giving them a list of rules to follow.
Instead I’d first spend time with them, trying to appreciate the good that I saw in their hearts. I’d acknowledge that, like them, I was in the process of conversion toward greater holiness. I would then invite them to follow Christ and I’d offer to accompany them as we, together, follow the Gospel invitation to turn from sin and journey along the way. Such an approach isn’t in opposition to Church teachings; it’s an affirmation of them. Our call as bishops is to bring the Good News to others as true missionary disciples, inspiring them to go forth and do the same.
I mentioned Paolo Rodari and his brother Giovanni a few minutes ago. When we met, Paolo wondered what would happen to Giovanni when his mother was no longer there to care for him. I remember that same fear myself. As pastors, we accompany so many families who face their own fears and concerns, and who yearn to experience the love of Jesus in and through his loving family — the Church. Together, brothers, we seek to walk with these families and to build their confidence in faith.
Evangelizing means witnessing to our hope in Jesus. Let us live that witness every day, humbly confident in the goodness and truth and beauty of our faith, standing together as “one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz