The World Meeting of Families is a global event begun by Pope St. John Paul II. Similar to World Youth Day, John Paul envisioned such a gathering so that people could come together with other families and be strengthened through prayer, dialogue, and fellowship. At the end of the conference, which is held every three years, the Holy Father meets with the families who participated.
In preparation for the World Meeting of Families, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia released a catechetical book aimed at exploring what the Catholic Church teaches about the family. While it’s a small book, it’s pretty dense, because if we are going to understand the family we have to ultimately understand the human person. As I began to read the catechesis, my first thought was, “Wow, we’re beginning way back at the beginning!” Of course, it makes perfect sense. If we don’t understand the human person and why we were created, we aren’t going to understand God’s plan for the family.
The title of the book, Love is our Mission: The Family Fully Alive, reveals the key to understanding who we are; as families and as individuals. We were created out of love, with love, for love. Men and women throughout the ages have looked for the purpose of life, and ultimately the only answer that makes sense is this: we were created to love.
We were created in the image of God, who is love. While this truth can be rejected and ignored, it ultimately can never be erased. Since we were created in the image of God, who is a Trinity of Persons constantly giving and receiving love, we will only be truly happy when we do the same. Vatican II reminded us, “man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
This is foundation of the theology of the family. Now anyone who has ever known a family, much less been part of one, knows that this sounds nice in theory, but is a lot harder in practice. Giving of ourselves is hard, and sometimes it’s even harder when it comes to giving ourselves to our families! It can often be a lot easier to help a stranger than a spouse or parent.
We can listen to what the Church says about the theology of the family and be tempted to think, “Well, that’s great, but you don’t know my family.” The brokenness, the hurt, the wounds, the messes of life might make us want to laugh—or cry—when we hear what the Church teaches about families. But the Church doesn’t teach these hard truths to make us feel guilty, unworthy, or like we’ve failed. It teaches these hard truths because it’s the only way we will truly be happy.
Since the Garden of Eden, humanity has been unfaithful. But since that same Garden, God has been faithful and merciful. We are well aware that we are wounded, but we must never forget that He is willing to take us back. We just need to acknowledge our weakness and failings and return to Him. Pope Francis recently reminded us, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 3).
Notice that Pope Francis is telling us to do it every day. It’s not enough to admit our sins and return to our Father once in our life, or even once a week. We all fall every day, and every day he is willing to take us back.
We all know families who are suffering. Now is the time to share the good news of Jesus Christ. At the last World Meeting of Families, Pope Benedict XVI said of suffering families: “I am convinced that their suffering, if truly accepted from within, is a gift to the Church. They need to know this, to realize that this is their way of serving the Church, that they are in the heart of the Church.” This is our task as Christians: to help people encounter Jesus Christ. We don’t ignore the suffering, nor do we explain away the sin. Rather, we help them know that their brokenness has an answer: the love of God.
This papal trip is about much more than the Pope coming to America. It is a reaffirmation of what we believe about the human person and a celebration of families—not that we think families are perfect, but that because we aren’t perfect, we need each other and most of all, we need God.