Pope Francis cares deeply about the health and happiness of today’s families. Just seven months into his papacy, he announced that he would host an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops to discuss the pastoral challenges facing modern families. Only twice before in the fifty years since Pope Paul VI established the Synod of Bishops has a pope called an “extraordinary” synod, which signals the urgency and importance of the chosen theme. The discussions on the family began in October 2013 in Rome, and they have since sparked conversations in millions of homes and parishes around the world.
The pope continues to keep the theme of the family in the forefront through his speeches, homilies, addresses, and writings, and he is quick to share anecdotes from his childhood in Argentina to illustrate his points. Jorge was the eldest of the five children born to Mario and Regina Bergoglio, first-generation Italian immigrants. He grew up in a middle-class family in Buenos Aires near the home of his paternal grandmother Rosa, whose enchanting lessons in faith sparked youthful devotion. But Jorge was not an overly pious boy: he played soccer and basketball, had a lively sense of humor, and liked to dance (the milonga more than the tango, for those who care to know).
Although he was a voracious reader and a strong student, he preferred the outdoors to any indoor activity, including listening to the radio or practicing piano. When his mother became seriously ill after giving birth to his youngest sister, Jorge learned to cook for the family and discovered that he enjoyed cooking—especially pasta and “a good meat stew.” As a teenager, he worked as a janitor at the stocking factory where his father worked as an accountant. Before joining the Jesuits, a religious order of priests, he studied chemistry and worked for a few years as a technologist in the foods section of a local laboratory. He doubted his vocation once, early in his seminary days, after meeting a certain girl at a family wedding. Her beauty and intellectual radiance “dazzled” him and left him sleepless for a week.
Pope Francis’s rich and varied life experience helps explain his knack for painting a colorful picture of family life or giving a memorable lesson on love and forgiveness. “I always give this advice to newlyweds,” he says: “Argue as much as you like. If the plates fly, let them! But never end the day without making peace! Never!”
Pope Francis has often addressed the splendor and struggles of married love, the joys and troubles of ordinary Christian families, and the family’s mission to be leaven in the world. He speaks from the heart more often than not, almost as if he were seated beside you at a kitchen table. That is intentional on his part: he prefers simple words to prepared speeches because he genuinely wants to connect with each person he encounters. As you begin this book, try to imagine Pope Francis sitting with you and conversing with you, as a good friend or family member might do, his eyes bright with warmth and his voice brimming with encouragement. Whether you are young or old, married or single, engaged, widowed, or divorced, may Pope Francis’s words strengthen you, refresh you, and illuminate the pages of your own life story.
The mission that awaits us is of course challenging, but with the guidance of the Holy Spirit it becomes an exciting one. We all experience our poverty and weakness in taking the precious treasure of the Gospel to the world, but we must constantly repeat St Paul’s words: “We have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7).
It is this that must always give us courage: knowing that the power of evangelization comes from God, that it belongs to him. We are called to open ourselves more and more to the action of the Holy Spirit, to offer our unreserved readiness to be instruments of God’s mercy, of his tenderness, of his love for every man and every woman—and especially for the poor, the outcast and those who are distant… As St Paul said: “If I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor 9:16). God’s salvation is for everyone!
Sadly, in our day, the family all too often needs to be protected against insidious attacks and programs contrary to all that we hold true and sacred, all that is most beautiful and noble in our culture. Specifically, we need to see each child as a gift to be welcomed, cherished and protected. And we need to care for our young people, not allowing them to be robbed of hope and condemned to life on the streets. It was a frail child, in need of protection, who brought God’s goodness, mercy and justice into the world. He resisted the dishonesty and corruption which are the legacy of sin, and he triumphed over them by the power of his cross.
All families, we need God: all of us! We need his help, his strength, his blessing, his mercy, his forgiveness. And we need simplicity to pray as a family: simplicity is necessary! Praying the Our Father together, around the table, is not something extraordinary: it’s easy. And praying the Rosary together, as a family, is very beautiful and a source of great strength! And also praying for one another! The husband for his wife, the wife for her husband, both together for their children, the children for their grandparents… praying for each other. This is what it means to pray in the family, and it is what makes the family strong: prayer.