Marriage and Family: A Major Theme for Pope Benedict XVI
by David Gibson
“Falling in love is a wonderful thing,” Pope Benedict XVI told the World Meeting of Families last spring in Milan, Italy.
However, the pope described falling in love as the start of a couple’s journey, not its highest point. Something “more wonderful still” awaits the couple, he said.
Responding to a question asked during a June 2 “evening of witness” in Milan by an engaged couple from Madagascar, the pope said:
“I often think of the wedding feast of Cana. The first wine is very fine: This is falling in love. But it does not last until the end: A second wine has to come later, it has to ferment and grow, to mature.
“The definitive love that can truly become this ‘second wine is more wonderful still; it is better than the first wine. And this is what we must seek.”
So this is a pope who spoke about falling in love? Yes, and he wanted the world to recognize not only the needs of married couples, but the strengths they bring to their homes and surrounding world.
And he called attention repeatedly to the specific ways children grow at home into precisely the kinds of adults society needs. The family “is fruitful for society because family life is the first and irreplaceable school of social virtues,” he said in Milan.
Time after time since becoming pope in April 2005 Pope Benedict turned attention to the sacrament of marriage and family life. I came to consider his manner of esteeming marriage and the family as themes of his papacy.
He hoped the world would learn through couples – see in them – that genuine marital commitment remains possible in the 21st century.
Pope Benedict’s announcement that he will retire Feb. 28 presents an opportune moment to revisit his thoughts on marriage and the building blocks of family life.
Dignity of Marriage
“Discover the greatness and beauty of marriage,” Pope Benedict said to young people participating in the March 2010 International Youth Forum in Rocca di Papa south of Rome In a message to the forum, he wrote:
“The relationship between the man and the woman reflects divine love in a quite special way; therefore the conjugal bond acquires an immense dignity.”
Because “human beings are made for love,” the pope said, “their lives are completely fulfilled only if they are lived in love.” He explained that “the vocation to love takes different forms according to the state of life,” one being marriage.
Over the years, at different times and speaking from different perspectives, Pope Benedict directed attention both to marriage’s “greatness and beauty” and to family life’s essential roles. For example, he said:
— “Matrimony is a Gospel in itself, a good news for the world of today, especially the de-Christianized world.” (He said that in a homily opening the October 2012 world Synod of Bishops on the new evangelization.)
— “Called to live a Christlike love each day, the Christian family is a privileged expression of the church’s presence and mission in the world.” (This point, reflecting the pope’s accent on the family as a “domestic church,” appeared in his 2012 apostolic exhortation on the church in the Middle East.)
— “Your vocation is not easy to live, especially today, but the vocation to love is a wonderful thing, it is the only force that can truly transform the cosmos, the world.” (That comment on married and family life came during the June 2012 World Meeting of Families in Milan.)
Pope Benedict realized that couples encounter all-too-real challenges in marriage and family life. “Conjugal love is not a fleeting event, but the patient project of a lifetime,” his apostolic exhortation on the Middle East stated.
This is a pope who wanted couples to receive support, including religious educational support, from parishes, their extended families, friends and others. Moreover, he wanted spouses to seize moments to focus together on their marriage.
A July 2012 message sent in his name to the international meeting in Brazil of the Teams of Our Lady invited couples to set time aside each day to talk with each other. “Sincere and constant dialogue between the spouses is essential for avoiding the emergence of misunderstandings that grow and harden,” the papal message said.
Families: Schools of Virtue
When he spoke of the family’s role as a school of virtues, particularly for children, Pope Benedict tended to name rather precisely the virtues he had in mind.
In a May 2009 homily in Nazareth, the Holy Family’s hometown, Pope Benedict suggested that children need the benefits of a “human ecology,” need to be raised in “a milieu” where they learn:
— “To love and to cherish others.
— “To be honest and respectful to all.
— “To practice the virtues of mercy and forgiveness.”
Women fulfill invaluable roles in creating such environments, he said.
Added to his Nazareth list of virtues absorbed at home are virtues of generosity, trust, responsibility, solidarity and cooperation – all mentioned in the pope’s June 2012 homily to the Milan World Meeting of Families.
In his World Day of Peace message Jan. 1, 2013, Pope Benedict shared his conviction that the world depends on families for its future peacemakers. “It is in the family that peacemakers, tomorrow’s promoters of a culture of life and love, are born and nurtured,” he said.
How do families grow in love? Specifically, how are families built up? In Milan, Pope Benedict laid out a considerable list of building blocks for families, starting with “a constant relationship with God” and participation in the church’s life, and concluding with efforts by each family to become a “true domestic church.”
Families are built up, said the pope, when they cultivate dialogue and respect each member’s point of view. His list of family building blocks also included:
— Readiness “for service.”
— Patience “with the failings of others.”
— An ability “to forgive and to seek forgiveness.”
— The willingness to try — intelligently and humbly — to overcome “conflicts that may arise.”
Finally, Pope Benedict believed a family is strengthened when the parents agree “on principles of upbringing,” when it is “open to other families” and “attentive toward the poor,” and when it exercises responsibility “within civil society.”
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.