There is a very striking image of the Church as a “field hospital” which is often used by Pope Francis. This describes very well the gravity of the situation of marriage and the family in today’s world as well as the urgent nature of the mission of the Church in this area that is crucial for the future of humanity.
The Church of our time, then, is like a “field hospital”, yet a sizeable number of the baptised who live in irregular marriage and family situations do not consider themselves to be among the sick and wounded in need of care. On the contrary, they feel that all is well ... We are facing a difficult pastoral challenge. How should we approach it? We find help from Saint Augustine who makes an observation in his commentary on the prophet Ezekiel. He speaks of shepherds and sheep that are not docile: “The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours. ‘Why do you want us? Why do you seek us?’ they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out. ‘If I am straying’, he says, ‘if I am lost, why do you want me?’ You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you. [...] ‘But I wish to stray’, he says: ‘I wish to be lost’. So you wish to stray and be lost? How much better that I do not also wish this. Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome. But I listen to the Apostle who says: ‘Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome’ (2Tim 4:2).Welcome to whom? Unwelcome to whom? By all means welcome to those who desire it; unwelcome to those who do not. However unwelcome, I dare to say: ‘You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this’. For the one whom I fear does not wish this. And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought. Shall I fear you rather than him? Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgement seat of Christ (2Tim 4:2). I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost. Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it. And should the brambles of the forests tear at me when I seek them, I shall force myself through all straits; I shall put down all hedges. So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere. I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost. If you do not want me to suffer, do not stray, do not become lost. [... ] Should I neglect the straying and lost, the strong one will also take delight in straying and in being lost”.1
Might this be the situation of the pastoral care of marriage and the family in our times? St. Augustine gives us a lesson of charity and of extraordinary missionary zeal for so many sheep that even today in various ways say to the pastors, “I wish to stray, I wish to be lost...”. There are so many failed marriages among the baptised, and so many divorces and people cohabiting without sacramental marriage! This is the real pastoral challenge that presents itself to the Church in our day.
I think that today’s crisis of marriage and the family is an alarming indicator, not only and not so much of the rampant anthropological crisis, but especially of a profound crisis of faith of many of the baptised. It is from a crisis of faith that there comes the loss of a sense of sin. This is shown by the almost total abandonment of the practice of sacramental reconciliation by many faithful in the West. However, if there is no sense of sin, speaking about mercy has no meaning and conversion of heart will not follow. Amplified by the media, relativism and moral subjectivism further aggravate doctrinal and moral chaos among the faithful. The free will of the individual becomes the only ethical criterion ... Blessed Paul VI wrote in this regard that Catholic spouses “are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator. The very nature of marriage and its use makes His will clear, while the constant teaching of the Church spells it out”. 2 This then is the urgent task that presents itself to the Church in our day: to wake up, educate and form the consciences of the faithful! Perhaps we too often overlook in our pastoral mission the spiritual works of mercy such as comforting the afflicted, counselling the doubtful, teaching the ignorant, and admonishing sinners ... It is for this reason that Blessed Paul VI made an urgent appeal to bishops: “For it is your principal duty [...] to spell out clearly and completely the Church’s teaching on marriage. In the performance of your ministry you must be the first to give an example of that sincere obedience, inward as well as outward, which is due to the magisterium of the Church. [...] Now it is an outstanding manifestation of charity toward souls to omit nothing from the saving doctrine of Christ; but this must always be joined with tolerance and charity, as Christ Himself showed in His conversations and dealings with men. For when He came, not to judge, but to save the world, was He not bitterly severe toward sin, but patient and abounding in mercy toward sinners? Husbands and wives, therefore, when deeply distressed by reason of the difficulties of their life, must find stamped in the heart and voice of their priest the likeness of the voice and the love of our Redeemer”. 3
Through the current Synod of Bishops on the vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the world it is the Lord himself who calls out to us all, pastors and faithful, men and women, adults and young people. He calls the Church community to a profound pastoral conversion that ‒ as Pope Francis says ‒ “cannot leave things as they presently are”. 4 The family is an extremely valuable asset in every society and every people because it determines the future of humanity itself. In our times, however, it is being threatened by post-modern culture and subjected to a process of dangerous deconstruction at the cultural and legislative levels in many countries around the world. We must, therefore, as Pope Francis often reminds us, defend the family, but above all proclaim with joy and conviction the good news of the family. How can we forget at this point the heartfelt plea of Saint John Paul II that “the families of today must be called back to their original position. They must follow Christ”. 5 And again: “family, become what you are”. 6
We all expect from the Synod of Bishops currently underway a word of hope for so many men and women today to have renewed enthusiasm for marriage and the family as immeasurable gifts of God the Creator.