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The family in the Pontificate of John Paul II

Holy Father, Your Eminences,


There is no doubt that the enthusiastic proclamation of the Gospel of the family and life as "marvellous news" and a deepening of the identity and mission of the domestic Church, the sanctuary of life, as a truth that fully humanizes husbands and wives, children and humanity, has a special place in the universal Pastor's heart.

As Master of the faith, his Magisterium has assured and guaranteed the identity and evangelizing dynamic of the family, the only institution in God's creative plan that can integrally shape the human being. The Pope has spared no effort to proclaim the truth in order to set it free; he has saved it from the tormented crisis of a sick, dehumanizing society. As St Paul said, wickedness and lies imprison and suffocate the truth (cf. Rom 1: 18.25).

An advanced process of secularization that has sought to banish God from society is emptying humanity by uprooting the core values of the family and life, hastening its debasement. The sickness of a spirit deprived of the truth robs man of his humanity, as Romano Guardini predicted. The proclamation of the truth and its liberation have become a vigorous defence of the family and life, threatened today in so many ways.

The unifying centre of the Pope's teaching has been the truth about man and his mystery. Only in the light of the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man truly become clear (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 22), through "the One who penetrated in a unique, unrepeatable way into the mystery of man and entered his "heart'" (Redemptor Hominis, n. 8). The Pope appeals to humanity to be open to Christ who fully reveals his mystery to man. "Man cannot escape God's eyes. In seeking to hide from him, he hides from himself" (Martin Buber, Il Cammino dell'Uomo, Ed. Qiqajon, Bose, 1999).

His experience as Pastor in Kraków and his academic knowledge not only enabled the Pope to enter into a dialogue with the cultures, faithful to the truth about man and open to hope, and not by just the profusion and depth of his writings, but also with his witness and pastoral solicitude, to impress fresh dynamism on the Church in this vital field that is crucial to the future.

I just want to sketch in broad lines a few of the important aspects of John Paul II's fruitful and providential Pontificate in this cause, which is God's, during the past 25 years that we are celebrating with joy and gratitude.

I shall mention first the Holy Father's service within the Church, and then what his work has meant to society and humanity as a whole.

I. Serving family and life in the Church

Family, heart of evangelization

1. In a clearly-defined Gospel perspective, since the proclamation of the Gospel is the breath of the Christian community, the Pope's efforts have centred on the identity of the family in accordance with God's plan. The Good News gives rise to wonder and its originality meets with enthusiasm. The Holy Father was the Relator Generalis of the Synod on Evangelization, which was published in the Apostolic Exhortation of Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, that had such a unique and decisive influence on renewal.

John Paul II's teaching has considerably enriched the community of believers, doctrinally and pastorally. In particular, the following three documents are an indispensable reference point: 1) the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, the result of the Synod on the Family of 1980, the first Synod of the Pontificate; 2) the Letter to Families, Gratissimam Sane, coinciding with the International Year of the Family, in which he takes up and deepens topics important to the identity of the family and its mission, and 3) the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae, a very vigorous proclamation and defence of the Gospel of Life.

It would take much time to mention his many other important writings, such as Mulieris Dignitatem, in which he stresses woman's indispensable role as wife, mother, sister, and the way she benefits society through being gradually integrated into it without discrimination; the Letter to Children, in which, in a dialogue full of tenderness, he champions the dignity of the child, so frequently trampled upon, etc.; the "Catechesis of Human Love", known by the title Male and Female, I Created Them". His Homilies, especially those he gave during his Pastoral Visits, fill volumes, let alone his Messages and Speeches, which are a rich mine of teachings. This has been a period packed with contributions that have had a dynamic doctrinal and pastoral impact.

The Pope's Messages and Homilies at the World Meetings with families also deserve mention: during the Year of the Family in Rome (1994), in Rio de Janeiro (1997), in the Jubilee of the Family (2000); and the television Message from Manila (in January this year). These World Meetings that the Pope convokes are Church events in which families experience the loving closeness of the Successor of Peter. They are exceptional opportunities to take on commitments with special zeal and deepen the riches of [Church] doctrine in order to account, with fresh vigour, "for the hope that is in us" (I Pt 3: 15). The Holy Father has chosen Valencia, Spain, as the venue for the fifth World Meeting in 2006.

The Magisterium of the Pope recalls that the domestic church is evangelized; transformed by the warmth of the Gospel, it offers the world the truth received. In itself it becomes a model, a way of life. The distinctive attributes of fidelity and the defence of life are strongly reasserted. "Let them marry like everybody and beget children, but not desert those that are born. Let them have a table in common, but not a bed" (Letter to Diognetus, V, 7; Funk 1, 318). Thus, the domestic church serves the community of believers in an original and special way in the live transmission of the faith and especially in their participation in the liturgy and prayer. In family prayer the basic notions of the faith are communicated and hearts are opened to the Fatherhood of God.

I would now like to stress just a few aspects of the Pope's teaching. Among other things it can be remembered as a constant that has invigorated theological reflection and pastoral commitment. In the face of the serious and growing challenges of the moment, far from causing dismay, resignation or pessimism, the passion of his teaching has allowed the Church to keep alive responsible enthusiasm, based on the formidable vitality that the Lord pours out on families.

The full validity of the family, founded on marriage and the fidelity of the vast majority as living witnesses, is the best possible response to those who have been working to assure the extinction of this natural institution. Indeed, new cultural and political projects threaten to replace the family with other alternative models that interfere with the healthy tissue of conjugal communion. Now, promising signs of hope are giving rise to renewed confidence for the future.

Strong, consistent anthropology

2. It is the truth about man, his "mystery", his vocation, that people want to question. It is the "humanum" (the human dimension) that is at risk. Must man, powerless, be a spectator at the tragedy of his dehumanization, must he be emptied of the values that make him an image of God? Must he surrender to a culture which, while it seems to exalt him, robs him of his human dignity and treats him as an instrument and object? We are witnessing the "conspiracy" of so many parliaments and pressures and all kinds of ambiguities that proclaim other human rights to replace those that are fundamental.

The family would become the place where freedom is denied, a place of slavery for the woman and her vocation to motherhood, an obstacle imposed by culture on her fulfilment; children would be a heavy burden, the stability and fidelity of conjugal love an impossible hope instead of a fundamental good for human beings and society. This would deny the family's social quality, its capacity to bring happiness to both parents and children by making them truly human.

The sacredness and inviolability of human life, corroborated in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is being infringed and, with recourse to countless, cruel exceptions, is sentencing to death the most innocent being, the "unborn child". This is a massacre on a global scale. It shows that degradation leads to the culture of death.

The embryo is reduced to the status of an object, a thing, a manipulated material; it falls prey to all sorts of experiments that jeopardize its safety, such as artificial fertilization techniques and, with a serious risk to humanity, reproductive and therapeutic cloning. The myth of Medusa is repeated: all that she gazes upon is turned into stone.

The Pope's teaching raises spirits so that they may seek and find the truth that redeems and liberates. In Gratissimam Sane the Pope raises his voice in alarm when he says: "Within a similar anthropological perspective... man thus ceases to live as a person and a subject. Regardless of all intentions and declarations to the contrary, he becomes merely an object". And a little later he warns: "Modern rationalism does not tolerate mystery. It does not accept the mystery of man, as male and female, nor is it willing to admit that the full truth about man has been revealed in Jesus Christ. In particular, it does not accept the "great mystery' proclaimed in the Letter to the Ephesians, but radically opposes it" (Gratissimam Sane, n. 19).

Even for those who do not share our faith, the Holy Father's teaching stands as a moral barrier of recognized authority before the intentions to take apart the family structure, piece by piece.

The Holy Father has taken a key text from the Second Vatican Council to which he constantly refers (cf. Gratissimam Sane, n. 14): "As the Council affirms, man is "the only creature on earth whom God willed for its own sake'" (ibid., n. 9; Gaudium et Spes, n. 24).

God "loves" man as a being in his own image, as a person. "Persona significat quod est perfectissimum in tota natura" (St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theol. I, q. 29, a. 3). The Encyclical Veritatis Splendor teaches: "It is in the light of the dignity of the human person - a dignity which must be affirmed for its own sake - that reason grasps the specific moral value of certain goods towards which the person is naturally inclined. And since the human person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure, the primordial moral requirement of loving and respecting the person as an end and never as a mere means also implies, by its very nature, respect for certain fundamental goods" (n. 48). This man, every man, is created by God "for his own sake" (Gratissimam Sane, n. 9). "Aperta manu clave amoris, creaturae prodierunt" (St Thomas Aquinas, Liber II Sent., dist. 2, prol.). "The new being is meant to express fully his humanity, to "find himself' as a person" (Gratissimam Sane, n. 9). "The family is indeed - more than any other human reality - the place where an individual can exist "for himself'" (ibid., n. 11). It is fundamental to demonstrate that from the moment of conception until his natural death, man the "image" cannot be taken and used as an object, an instrument or a "product".

This is a serious temptation in a scientific and technological culture that wishes to preserve its absolute domination: "Utilitarianism is a civilization of production and of use, a civilization of "things' and not of "persons', a civilization in which persons are used in the same way as things are used... woman can become an object for man, children a hindrance to parents, the family an institution obstructing the freedom of its members.... It is evident that in this sort of a cultural situation the family cannot fail to feel threatened, since it is endangered at its very foundations" (ibid., n. 13).

If "the family has always been considered as the first and basic expression of man's social nature... the smallest and most basic human community" (ibid., n. 7), a "unique communion of persons" (ibid., n. 10) in society, a "we", "the family, as a community of persons, is thus the first human "society'" (ibid., n. 7). This must be expressed in the light of the primacy of the person.

Man must therefore be "the beginning, the subject and the object of every social organization" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 25), and social order for his progress must always yield to the good of the person, since the order of things must be subordinate to the order of persons (cf. ibid., n. 26).

This must be expressed in real life by countering the programmes of social engineering that move individuals about as though they were chess pieces in the utilitarianism mentioned above and with an individualistic conception of the family that denies its dignity as a social subject. This concept integrates family members, parents and children, who are not thought of separately, into an individualism that does not correspond to the sum of personal relationships that makes up a family. Within it "the correct application of the rights of its members" is important (Gratissimam Sane, n. 17).

The Pope has strongly recommended the Charter of the Rights of the Family as a valuable means of dialogue, fully in force, which, based on the moral principles it declares, consolidates the existence of the family institution in the social and juridical order of "greater" society (Gratissimam Sane, n. 17).

One aspect worth bearing in mind is the Pope's defence of the "sovereignty" of the family. "As a community of love and life, the family is a firmly grounded social reality. It is also, in a way entirely its own, a sovereign society, albeit conditioned in certain ways" (ibid.), and "by sharing in the nation's cultural heritage, the family contributes to that specific sovereignty, which has its origin in a distinctive culture and language (ibid.). State intervention with regard to the family must concentrate, in that which is not self sufficient, on the principle of subsidiarity and on respect for the rights of the family.

The key text that the Pope is commenting on says that man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for his own sake; the Pope continues, examining in depth what the Council says next, namely, that man "can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself" (Gaudium et Spes, n. 24).

To this he dedicates not only n. 11 of Gratissimam Sane, but also valuable reflections in various places.

Man's sincere gift of himself without reserve means that "this reciprocal giving of self reveals the spousal nature of love" (Gratissimam Sane, n. 11). It is far more binding than anything that might be purchased and communicates "the logic of the sincere gift of self", which becomes a part of the man and woman. The Pope's conclusion is convincing: "Without this, marriage would be empty" (ibid.).

The spouses' promise - "I promise to be true to you... all the days of my life" - emphasizes total fidelity, the person's gift of self that by its very nature is "lasting and irrevocable" (ibid.), open to life.

Furthermore, the well-known aspects of love, fidelity and exclusivity until death are grounded in the sincere gift of self and openness to life that Humane Vitae illuminates with prophetic vigour (cf. Humanae Vitae, n. 9), and that John Paul II has deeply reflected upon in view of the logic of self-giving. "Fecundity is the fruit and the sign of conjugal love, the living testimony of the full reciprocal self-giving of the spouses" (Familiaris Consortio, n. 28). A love that is conditioned, ad tempus, that is closed to new life through fear, mistrust or hedonism, is a betrayal of the sincerity and totality of the gift. "The innate language that expresses the total reciprocal self-giving of husband and wife is overlaid, through contraception, by an objectively contradictory language, namely, that of not giving oneself totally to the other. This leads not only to a positive refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the inner truth of conjugal love, which is called upon to give itself in personal totality" (ibid., n. 32).

It is the logic of good, by its very nature "diffusive", in a demanding love which, in the mystery of Christ who gives himself to the end, becomes the source of a wonderful flow of energy. The domestic church, which is at the heart of this great struggle between good and evil through the presence of the risen One within her, receives the mandate to "unleash the forces of good, the source of which is found in Christ the Redeemer of man" (Gratissimam Sane, n. 23).

In light of the mystery of Christ

3. All this is referred to Christ, "the One who penetrated in a unique and unrepeatable way into the mystery of man and entered his "heart'" (Redemptor Hominis, n. 8). "Husbands and wives thus discover in Christ the point of reference for their spousal love" (Gratissimam Sane, n. 19).

One of the Conciliar texts to which the Pope has paid the most attention (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22) is also the main theme of Redemptor Hominis: "The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly... must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into him with all his own self, he must "appropriate' and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself" (Redemptor Hominis, n. 10).

Thus, the family must live its vocation in an atmosphere of prayer, of dialogue with the Lord who never ceases to show his love and bring it to a better understanding of its nature and mission.

Only In Christ, who comes to meet the spouses, "can the [truth about the] family be "to the end' the great "revelation', the first discovery of the other: the mutual discovery of husband and wife and then of each son and daughter born to them" (Gratissimam Sane, n. 20). The great mystery of the Letter to the Ephesians (cf. 5: 32) also turns out to be a value of great ecclesial importance: "The Church cannot therefore be understood as the Mystical Body of Christ, as the sign of man's Covenant with God in Christ, or as the universal sacrament of salvation, unless we keep in mind the "great mystery' involved in the creation of man as male and female and the vocation of both to conjugal love" (Gratissimam Sane, n. 19). This thought enriched the Continental Synods, especially the African Synod.

II. Pastoral aspects

The Holy Father says to the Bishops: "The person principally responsible in the Diocese for the pastoral care of the family is the Bishop. As Father and Pastor, he must exercise particular solicitude in this clearly priority sector of pastoral care. He must devote to it personal interest, care, time, personnel and resources, but above all personal support for the families and for all those who, in the various diocesan structures, assist him in the pastoral care of the family" (Familiaris Consortio, n. 73).

What the Bishop recommends as Pastor, he has first put into practice in his ministry.

The area mentioned is certainly a priority for pastoral ministry. The evangelization and the future of humanity pass by way of the family (cf. ibid., n. 86), as does the future of the Church which the Lord will accompany until the end of time. He will never leave her, but will pour out upon her an abundance of his graces.

The chief duty of teachers of the faith is to share the bread of the truth. For this reason the Pope recommends that priests see their teaching and advice as always in full harmony with the authentic Magisterium of the Church, making every effort to be united in their judgments, so as to avoid troubling the consciences of the faithful (cf. ibid., n. 73).

In order to face certain very complex and demanding challenges, the Pope places special importance on training pastoral workers at academic and pastoral institutions to carry out this task.

Today the Bishops' Conferences recognize and give priority to the family ministry, and its structures rely on Episcopal Commissions for the family and life.

The Holy Father recommends that the Dioceses and Episcopal Commissions set up pastoral agencies to coordinate and enliven this work starting from the family, the parishes and the movements themselves, which will thereby help to build up the various forms of pastoral ministry (cf. Address to the 10th Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for the Family, 30 January 1993; L'Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 24 February 1993, p. 7).

Implementing the guidelines for renewal from the Synod on the Family, with deep insight he established the Pontifical Council for the Family, and at the Lateran University, the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family which bears his name; more recently, he founded the Pontifical Academy for Life.

III. Social, political tasks

The Holy Father has taken special care to ensure that the family not be closed in upon itself but fully open to society with which it has "vital and organic links", since it is its foundation and nourishes it continually, as Familiaris Consortio recalls, referring to society's "first and vital cell" (cf. Familiaris Consortio, n. 42; Apostolicam Actuositatem, n. 11).

The Synod on the Family recalled that "The family is... the place of origin and the most effective means for humanizing and personalizing society: it makes an original contribution in depth to building up the world, by making possible a life that is properly speaking human..." (Familiaris Consortio, n. 43).

It puts us on guard against a society of the masses that is increasingly standardized and depersonalized, and therefore inhuman and dehumanizing (cf. ibid., n. 43).

The family is an irreplaceable forum of social expression and makes an original contribution. Families should do their utmost to see that "the laws and institutions of the State not only do not offend but support and positively defend the rights and duties of the family" (ibid., n. 44). Numerous families suffer the disregard of their rights by institutions and laws (ibid., n. 46).

The Holy Father has been the universal advocate of the family's fundamental rights at important world meetings, with heads of State, in Parliaments and in conversations with politicians. He has been a determined champion of the rights of all poor families and poor peoples subjected to the arbitrary policies of the powerful who, with no respect for their sovereignty, overwhelm them with pressures and undue demands that are incompatible with their culture and dignity. So it was that his authoritative words rang out in the face of the myth of overpopulation that serves as an excuse for birth control, disrespectful or inhumane, with policies that are the tools of the new ideologies which exploit the weakest.

He has rejected the Neo-Malthusian concept that excludes the most deprived from the banquet of life and gives priority to the domination and opulence of the powerful. He unflinchingly takes up the challenge of Paul VI's Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations (4 October 1965): "Your task is to ensure that the harvest of humanity yields food in abundance and does not presage artificial birth control, that would be logical, aiming at reducing the number of those invited to the banquet of life".

The Holy Father John Paul II has challenged the heads of State regarding the false lifestyles that were attempted to be imposed at the Cairo Conference, and invited legislators not to issue destructive laws but a body of legislation that would support families and enable them to carry out their mission.

The Pope denounces the risks of a culture of death that has reached its apex in a broad confusion of concepts, typical of a sick society, and that has altered the word "crime" (delitto) to make it mean "rights" (diritto) (cf. Evangelium Vitae, n. 11).

Facing the onslaught of these enormous and dramatic problems of justice, freedom and peace in the world, the Christian family "constitutes an inner energy that generates, spreads and develops justice, reconciliation, fraternity and peace among human beings" (Familiaris Consortio, n. 48). He has called for a new international order in the face of the global dimensions social problems have acquired.

The family, aware of its social and political role which constitutes a good for humanity, is called to be the heart of the civilization of love. This was the theme of the first World Meeting with families in Rome in 1994.

The Pope's insistence on communicating how systematic, planned hostility to the family and life is weakening the social fabric and dampening the hopes of the peoples who thus cannot secure for themselves a future worthy of the human being is impressive. In the face of the phenomena of the gradual deterioration of the family by insidious legislation, John Paul II's teaching stands out like a critical conscience, forged in the Gospel, which also invites us to defend all that truly humanizes man. This is a serious responsibility of politicians.

Democracy must not become a dictatorship of parliamentary majorities, turning its back on the true good of society. It is a form of "political truth" that is arbitrarily imposed. The Pope recommends respect for the spirit of the law. "This means that laws, whatever the areas in which the legislator intervenes or is obliged to intervene, must always respect and promote human persons - in all the variety of their spiritual, material, personal, family and social needs. Hence, a law which does not respect the right to life - from conception to natural death - of every human being, whatever his or her condition - healthy or ill, still in the embryonic stage, elderly or close to death - is not a law in harmony with the divine plan" (Address to Government Leaders, Members of Parliament and Politicians during Their Jubilee, 4 November 2000, n. 4; ORE, 8 November 2000, p. 7).

In the Letter to Diognetus we read: "What the soul is to the body, Christians are to the world" (VI, 1, Funk 322). The Gospel of the family must ring out in the world and awaken "that primordial wonder which led Adam on the morning of creation to exclaim before Eve: "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh' (Gn 2: 23)" (Gratissimam Sane, n. 19). This is the reality of marriage which the Lord, in the abundance of his love, raises to the highest dignity of a sacrament. John Paul II has devoted most of his precious energies to the Gospel that restores life and humanity to the world.

Holy Father, for all your ministerial and magisterial solicitude, and in particular for all that you have done in the past 25 years and are tirelessly continuing to do to promote the family and life, I would like to reiterate my appreciation and gratitude, to you, Your Holiness, on behalf of those of us who in various capacities have been generously associated with your historic battle for the truth.

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of the family and of life, always protect you, Your Holiness, and help you in your generous gift of self as his Vicar on earth.