A real antidote to the problem of shrinking populations in many developed countries of the world is the very clear doctrine that Pope Francis does not tire in announcing to the world about the true nature of marriage and the family. This constant teaching emanating from the Roman Pontiff, following the tradition of the many Popes before him, was recently reiterated in a Letter of His Holiness Pope Francis to Married Couples for the “Amoris Laetitia Family Year” last December 26, 2021, Feast of the Holy Family. He wrote it especially to express his deep affection and closeness to married couples during these difficult months of the pandemic. He wanted to accompany with humility, affection and openness each individual, married couple and family in the difficult situations in which they find themselves during these trying times.
He compared the difficult situations faced by married couples today to those which Abraham faced when he was called to set out from his land in his father’s home towards a foreign land that God himself would show him. Like Abraham, many married couples today are experiencing uncertainty, loneliness, the loss of loved ones. Many too have been forced to leave behind their certainties, their familiar ways of doing things and their ambitions, and to work for the welfare of their families and that of society as a whole, which also depends on them and their actions.
Pope Francis stresses the unconditional love that the spouses must have for one another, the very foundation of every marriage in which a man and a woman become one flesh, as decreed by God from the very beginning of creation. He once again compares all husbands and wives to Abraham who “set out” from their own land at the moment when, in response to the vocation to conjugal love, they decide to give themselves to each other without reserve. Becoming engaged already means setting out from their land, since it calls them to walk together along the road that leads to marriage. Different situations in life, the passage of time, the arrival of children, work and illness, all challenge couples to embrace anew their commitment to one another, to leave behind settled habits, certainties and security, and to set out towards the land that God promises: to be two in Christ, two in one. Their lives become a single life; they become a “we” in loving communion with Jesus, alive and present at every moment of their existence. God is always at their side; He loves them unconditionally; they are not alone. This supernatural way of looking at marriage guarantees that married couples will always have the strength to overcome all the difficulties of bringing children to the world, starting with the birth pains that mothers experience when giving birth.
Pope Francis gives very valuable advice about how to bring up the children as real assets to society. He tells them that their children, especially the younger ones, watch them very closely and in them seek the sign of a strong and reliable love. “How important it is for young people to see with their own eyes the love of Christ alive and present in the love of spouses, who testify by the reality of their lives that love forever is possible.” Children are always a gift; they change the history of every family. They are thirsty for love, gratitude, esteem and trust. Being parents call the spouses to pass on to their children the joy of realizing that they are God’s children, children of a Father who has always loved them tenderly and who takes them by the hand each new day. As they come to know this, children will grow in faith and trust in God.
The Pope acknowledges that raising children is not a walk in the park. He reminds parents, however, that children also raise them. The family remains the primary environment where education takes place, through small gestures that are more eloquent than words. To educate is above all to accompany the growth process, to be present to children in many different ways, to help them realize that they can always count on their parents. An educator is someone who spiritually “gives birth” to others and, above all, becomes personally engaged in their growth. For parents, it is important to relate to children with an authority that grows day by day. Children need a sense of security that can enable them to have confidence in their parents and in the beauty of the life of their parents together, and in the certainty that they will never be alone, whatever may come their way. These comments have great implications on the significant harm done to children of parents who get divorced. That is why it is providential that the 1987 Philippine Constitution clearly states that “marriage is an inviolable institution” which will make it very difficult to pass a law that will allow divorce.
The Pope is not unaware of the many difficulties in today’s environment that married couples face in having and raising children. In his words, “Marriage, as a vocation, calls you to steer a tiny boat—wave-tossed yet sturdy, thanks to the reality of the sacrament (of matrimony)—across a sometimes stormy sea. How often do you want to say, or better cry out, like the apostles: ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ Let us never forget, though, that by virtue of the sacrament of matrimony, Jesus is present in that boat; he is concerned for you and he remains at your side amid the tempest. In another Gospel passage, as they rowed with difficulty, the disciples saw Jesus coming to them on the waters and welcomed him into their boat. Whenever you are buffeted by rough winds and storms, do the same thing: welcome Jesus into your boat, for once he “got into the boat with them…the wind ceased.” It is important that, together, you keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Only this way, will you find peace, overcome conflicts and discover solutions to many of your problems. Those problems, of course, will not disappear, but you will be able to see them from a different perspective.”
The Pope then touches on the circumstances faced by married couples during the pandemic. He writes about the difficulties and opportunities that families have experienced during the current pandemic: “For instance, the lockdown has meant that there was more time to be together, and this proved a unique opportunity for strengthening communication within families. Naturally, this demands a particular exercise of patience. It is not easy to be together all day long, when everyone has to work, study, recreate and rest in the same house. Don’t let tiredness get the better of you: may the power of love enable you to look more to others—to your spouse, to your children—than to your own needs and concerns. Let me remind you of what I said in Amoris Laetitia, inspired by St. Paul’s hymn to charity. Implore the gift of love from the Holy Family and reread Paul’s celebration of charity, so that it can inspire your decisions and your actions.”
The Pope used the same advice given to business people on how to respond to a crisis threatening their business: convert crisis to an opportunity. The crisis of the pandemic may threaten the stability and harmony within a family. The long lockdowns could create conflicts among members of the family as they spend a lot of time together. The Pope, however, has this advice to convert this crisis into an opportunity to even grow in love for one another. He reminds couples of the importance of three little words: “please, thanks, sorry.” After every argument, “don’t let the day end without making peace.” Forgiveness heals every wound. Mutual forgiveness is the fruit of an interior resolve that comes to maturity in prayer, in our relationship with God. It is a gift born of the grace poured out by Christ on married couples whenever they turn to him and allow him to act. Christ “dwells” in every marriage and is always waiting for the spouses to open their hearts to him, so that he can sustain them, as he did the disciples in the boat, by the power of his love.
The Pope then addresses some words specifically to young people preparing for marriage. Even before the pandemic, it was not easy for engaged couples to plan their future, because of the difficulty of finding stable employment. Now the labor market is even more insecure, he urges engaged couples not to feel discouraged, but to have the “creative courage” shown by St. Joseph in overcoming the many difficulties he encountered in providing for the safety and welfare of Jesus and Mary. The Pope advises engaged couples not to hesitate to rely on their families and friends, on the ecclesial community, on their parish, to help them prepare for marriage and family life by learning from those already advanced along the path on which they are now setting out.
The Pope had some final words for grandparents. During the lockdowns many of them were unable to see or spend time with their grandchildren. Many elderly persons felt isolated and alone during those months. Families greatly need grandparents, for they are humanity’s living memory, a memory that “can help to build a more humane and welcoming world.” We should be thankful that it is still very much the practice in Filipino families at all social levels that grandparents continue to be in very close contact with their children and their grandchildren. These old people are not automatically dumped into homes for the aged, to be visited by their children very infrequently during the year. Grandparents can and do play an important role in the upbringing of their grandchildren and in relieving harried parents from some of their tasks as modern couples trying to strike an optimum balance between their work and their responsibilities as parents. In the Philippines, work-life balance is easier to maintain, thanks to the omnipresent lolos and lolas! For comments, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.