Bishops See Families as Agents of Evangelization
by David Gibson
Many married couples and families in the church pursue their life together in loving, committed and even heroic ways that “illuminate and warm this world of ours,” serving it as an “extraordinary light of love,” Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia said in brief remarks Oct. 15 to the world Synod of Bishops in Rome. He is president of the Pontifical Council for the Family.
The theme of the three-week synod assembly, which began Oct. 7, is “The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.” The new evangelization encompasses efforts not only to reach those who perhaps never have heard the Gospel, but also to reach out to Catholics who have drifted away from the church and to revitalize faith within Catholic communities.
Archbishop Paglia was one of numerous church leaders who pointed in the synod to the important place of married couples and families in the new evangelization.
Another delegate who spoke about this was Bishop Rene Sandigo Jiron of Juigalpa, Nicaragua. “Practically speaking, if in the new evangelization there is an interest in transmitting the faith, which is now in crisis, there must also be an interest in the family,” he said.
And Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Sarajevo maintained that “the new evangelization will succeed if it manages to restore the sanctity of marriage” in such a way that the family “becomes a little church.”
It has been his experience, the cardinal explained to the synod, that his “pastoral work is simply an addition to what the family has already built.”
The synod assembly heard repeatedly that the new evangelization ought to pay attention to married couples and families not only as recipients of evangelization by others, but as evangelization agents.
Matrimony Itself a Gospel
It was anticipated that sacramental marriage and family life would prove of interest for this synod. Its working paper, released in June, observed that “the Christian message on marriage and family is considered a great gift which makes the family the model place for witnessing to faith because of its prophetic capacity in living the core values of the Christian experience.”
But it seems that with his homily for the synod’s Oct. 7 opening Mass in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict assured that marriage and family life would hold places of some importance in the synod. He pointedly stated:
“Matrimony is a Gospel in itself, a good news for the world of today, especially the de-Christianized world.”
For Pope Benedict, “the union of a man and a woman, their becoming ‘one flesh’ in charity, in fruitful and indissoluble love, is a sign that speaks of God” forcefully and eloquently. Its value as a sign even is greater today because “for various reasons” marriage “is going through a profound crisis.”
Marriage, the pope emphasized, “is called not only to be an object but a subject of the new evangelization.”
One church leader who spoke in the synod about married couples and families as objects or recipients of evangelization was Panama’s Archbishop Jose Ulloa Mendieta. In its pastoral care, the church needs to accompany couples and families, he said.
“We must dedicate more time and better resources to preparation for the sacrament of marriage,” the archbishop said. He also stressed the need to devote attention to already-married couples through programs designed to strengthen and prepare them “for the fulfillment of their commitments within the family, church and society.”
The Family and Personal Presence
A number of delegates insisted in synod presentations that to be effective, the new evangelization must encounter people in a personal manner, as Jesus did.
According to some who spoke, what equips spouses and family members in a special way to be agents of evangelization is their capacity to make themselves personally present to each other, as well as to friends, associates and others.
Nicaragua’s Bishop Sandigo spoke about this. He said:
“We must not disregard the fact that growth in the church’s numbers may, in fact, have led to a lack of the personal attention that Jesus [would have given to people]. That is at the root of a situation in which many baptized persons do not feel they are treated as individuals, and ‘many baptized are not evangelized.’”
However, a “personalized approach to transmitting the faith” requires that many in the church dedicate time to a great many individuals. For this to happen, it is “necessary to have the support of a family,” Bishop Sandigo observed.
For Cardinal Puljic, it is the manner in which families transmit faith with the “heart” that makes them effective evangelizers. More than words are needed for evangelization, he indicated. He put it this way: “Faith is communicated much more with that which it is than with that which it states.”
Archbishop Paglia extended his thinking about the family as an agent of evangelization to the church at large by suggesting that to be effective, evangelization needs to present faith in a “familial” manner.
“Experience tells us that the church attracts if it is truly lived in a familial way,” he commented. “The church,” he proposed, “must become more the family of families, even the wounded ones.”
Archbishop Paglia asked, “If we find pastoral infertility in so many corners of the world, isn’t it because we have become more of an institution than a family?”
He added that “living the church in a familial way and the family as a small church is the challenge of a church of communion.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.