Families as missionaries

Lost among the media attention and amped-up security of Pope Francis’ visit was the World Meeting of Families, the reason we were graced with his papal presence. Among the hundreds of thousands who travelled to Philadelphia for a chance to stand among the crowds for a brief glance at Pope Francis were the many families that spent a week enriching their family lives.

There were far more than 25,000 people who attended the World Meeting of Families; a record-breaking number for this event. It wasn’t hard to pick out those people among the thousands who travelled to Philadelphia to check off a papal Mass from their bucket list. Watching the parade of young families as they travelled back and forth from their hotels, often with several children in tow, one was struck by the effort this entailed. The families came from all across our country, and from many nations around the world. In many ways they were just like the families that are in our communities. They had children who needed to be guided through their education and extra-curricular activities. Some were “blended families” that brought together the lives and experiences of previous Marriages. Others had children whose special needs required great care and advocacy. There were families from the “sandwich generation” who were caring for their elderly parents as well as their own children. While there was nothing remarkable about the families that attended the World Meeting of Families, it was a revelation to see so many people willing to gather together for a week in which the prime purpose was to cultivate a stronger faith.

The keynotes and workshops of the World Meeting of Families placed a mirror on the families in our society and reflected their needs. The organizers crafted a conference that addressed the Spiritual needs and many struggles that families face today. Some workshops taught them how to integrate prayer into their lives, and another addressed the importance of healthy financial foundation in the home. There were talks for blended families where they were encouraged to have a personal relationship with Christ Who is Unifier, Healer and Peacemaker. Families learned how to give loving care to the elderly and to place service at the heart of their activities. There were talks on the need for an ecumenical Spirit and respect for one another’s faith. There was a retreat that reflected on the special place of women in the family, Church and society. 

It has been said that families don’t need to be perfect, but they should strive to be holy. One of the workshops captured this perfectly: “The Family and Faith, See How They Love One Another.” The presenters promised to share the secret of making one’s family more joy-filled and full of grace. They offered some practical ideas to transform family life and to “uncover the secrets that will help you celebrate every aspect of your life together as the gift God intends it to be.” So simple, yet this is the profound reality that can make a difference in the life of a struggling family.

Pope Francis has a vision for the how the family will become the center of the New Evangelization. He is encouraging the Synod on Family “to give back a leading role to the family that listens to the Word of God and puts it into practice.” The group of thousands that gathered in Philadelphia this past September are a sample of the indispensable witness of Christian families that Pope Francis wishes to send forth to live their missionary vocation. Pope Francis believes that the family should not only receive the Church’s pastoral care as if it is a passive recipient, but should also actively participate in the Church’s mission. Family life is “a place where evangelical holiness is lived out in the most ordinary conditions.”

We can learn from the World Meeting of Families that the Church needs to offer solid formation and support for families. Archbishop Kurtz stated at the synod that formation of the families must be as much a priority as is given to the ordained. “Just as the local Church invests years of effort into future priests’ education and preparation for ministry, so, too, must we offer intentional and ongoing formation so that the family can truly live its missionary identity.” 

Pope Francis is calling on families to participate in the Church’s mission as a field hospital. He asks the family to provide “doors wide open to whoever knocks in search of help and support. To reach out to others with true love, to walk with our fellow men and women who suffer.” We have these missionaries in our parishes, and with a little effort, we can gather them into a powerful witness of the transformative impact of the Gospel.

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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