Ireland is delighted to play host to the World Meeting of Families 2018. On Tuesday night, 22nd August, the festival officially opened throughout the country in the Cathedral of each diocese. In fact, in preparation for this opening celebration church bells were rung simultaneously in all 26 dioceses in Ireland.
This evening we open the 9th World Meeting of Families simultaneously with a special liturgical prayer service in each of the twenty-six Cathedrals across the island of Ireland. Next Saturday, we will welcome Pope Francis to Dublin. My prayer for all of us today is that this will not be just an event to look back on with nostalgia. Rather, through God’s grace, may it be the beginning of a new journey towards a richer, more welcoming, accompanying and merciful vision of family life, in our Church and in our society.
We have been preparing for this day since Pope Francis announced three years ago that the next World Meeting of Families would take place in Dublin. The Pope chose: “The Gospel of the Family: Joy for the World” as the theme for the Dublin meeting which will celebrate the beauty of God’s love for the family. This theme follows on from Synod on the family which he announced early in his papacy. In this way he signalled the importance of the family for both the Church and society as a whole. The family is where the Christian life is learned and practiced, in the best possible ways.He knew that if the church is to genuinely welcome people and to be a leaven in society, conversations about the social role of the family cannot be avoided. In one of the first documents of his pontificate, Amoris Laetitia, the Holy Father invites us to look at the reality of families with the same eyes with which Christ looks at it, and to assume an attitude of humble understanding (Cf. §4 Relatio Synodi2014). It is a call not to be content to proclaim a theoretical message about the family without connection to people’s real problems (AL §201). The challenge is to avoid romanticising marriage and family life and to make more space for the complicated and often painful realities of life – for all the complexities of persons in a family.
This evening we thank God that many families, which are far from considering themselves perfect, live in love, fulfil their calling and keep moving forward, even if they fall at times along the way. It is vital that each one of us recognises that the task of finding new paths to announce the Gospel message to the family belongs to every person. We are heirs to a vision, a faith which says to us that every individual is valuable. Since God is at work in every human person, pastorally we have to find imaginative ways of helping families, including, for example, the divorced and remarried, or those spouses who find themselves abandoned, face the many challenges in their efforts to embody faithful love. This is the challenge put before us by Pope Francis.
Not every marriage works out as it was planned. We cannot, as Christians, scour the Word of God to find “dead stones to hurl at others” when a word of welcome and not some moral teaching ought to be the pastoral stance (see AL §49). Rather than holding up an idealised vision of the Holy Family Pope Francis speaks of different familial realities – happily married couples, cohabitating couples, single-parent households, remarried couples. Nor is his concern limited to families with a roof over their head – he draws our attention to the struggles of refugees, families fleeing persecution while dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. For the Holy Father, however, every family, “despite its weaknesses, can become a light in the darkness of the world” (AL §66).
“The Word of God is not a series of abstract ideas, but rather a source of comfort and companionship for every family that experiences difficulties or suffering” (AL §22). Rather than stressing doctrine and regretting the decline of family values, Pope Francis recognises that “most people do value family relationships that are permanent and marked by mutual respect” and, like the families whose stories are told in the Bible, they have complicated lives marked by the action of God’s grace (AL §38).
Today there are many challenges to the family. Perhaps the biggest challenge to family life is injustice — poverty, poor housing, violence, abuse, prejudice and hopelessness. There is no easy way to overcome these challenges.But it is surely not an impossible dream to hope that no family, particularly no child, in this country would be left homeless or go to bed hungry? With more than 3,000 children in this country – every one of them precious to God (see Jonah 4:11) – who have no place they can call their home, with families who do not have a front door to call their own, who have no family table – do we not have an obligation to call those in political leadership, who hold power and carry responsibility, to act with urgency, for the wellbeing of our sisters and brothers?
The second challenge for the Church and society is find ways to accompany spouses at the various stages of a marriage: engagement, early years, with children, and when in the empty nest. Such accompaniment requires a step by step approach; Jesus call his disciples again and again to appreciate seeds that are still waiting to grow (see Mark 4:26-27, 30-32). By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”. (AL 305)
Marriage is a lifelong project of human and spiritual growth. Marriage enriches us as individuals and as a society; it takes time to grow into love; it is a type of craftsmanship (AL §221), a type of art; marriage involves the challenge of loving another person for forever, cultivating love over time so that we may grow old together. Fine wine takes time to grow. (AL §125). Families, the place where people do not have to wear masks, are an opportunity to take part in “God’s dream… of building a world in which no one will feel alone” (AL 319-321).
God, our Father,
We are brothers and sisters in Jesus your Son,
One family, in the Spirit of your love.
Bless us with the joy of love.
Make us patient and kind,
gentle and generous,
welcoming to those in need.
Help us to live your forgiveness and peace.
Protect all families with your loving care,
Especially those for whom we now pray
[We pause and remember family members and others by name].
Increase our faith,
Strengthen our hope,
Keep us safe in your love,
Make us always grateful for the gift of life that we share.
This we ask, through Christ our Lord,
Mary, mother and guide, pray for us.
Saint Joseph, father and protector, pray for us.
Saints Joachim and Anne, pray for us.
Saints Louis and Zélie Martin, pray for us.