It’s become increasingly clear during his U.S. trip that Pope Francis is trying to get bishops on board in his quest for a church that is more merciful, less judgmental and closer to its people.
That was the sub-theme at this morning’s encounter with international bishops attending the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia.
The topic was the modern family, which usually prompts a litany of problems from church leaders. Pope Francis began his talk by stating that the “foremost pastoral challenge” facing the bishops is to recognize the family as a gift.
“For all the obstacles we see before us, gratitude and appreciation should prevail over concerns and complaints,” he said.
The pope did address the challenges facing families, in particular a “consumerism” mentality that has invaded even personal relationships – accumulating friends on social networks, for example. He also appeared to reference gay marriage when he noted “the unprecedented changes taking place in contemporary society, with their social, cultural – and now juridical – effects on family bonds.”
But as pastors, he said, the response is not to condemn or exclude:
Should we blame our young people for having grown up in this kind of society? Should we condemn them for living in this kind of a world? Should they hear their pastors saying that “it was all better back then”, “the world is falling apart and if things go on this way, who knows where we will end up?”
No, I do not think that this is the way. As shepherds following in the footsteps of the Good Shepherd, we are asked to seek out, to accompany, to lift up, to bind up the wounds of our time. To look at things realistically, with the eyes of one who feels called to action, to pastoral conversion. The world today demands this conversion on our part.
That “conversion on our part” was a pretty remarkable comment. He went on to explain that it’s a mistake for the church to interpret contemporary culture as merely indifferent to marriage, or engaged in selfishness. And it’s wrong to assume young people are “hopelessly timid, weak or inconsistent.”
“We must not fall into this trap,” he told the bishops.
The pope then turned the argument around, saying it’s the church’s responsibility to “rebuild enthusiasm for marriage.”
“We need to invest our energies not so much in explaining over and over the problems of the world around us and the merits of Christianity, but in extending a sincere invitation to young people to be brave and to opt for marriage and the family,” he said.
And in a line that reflected the “actions vs. words” theme of his pontificate, he added: “A Christianity which ‘does’ little in practice, while incessantly ‘explaining’ its teachings, is dangerously unbalanced. I would even say that it is stuck in a vicious circle.”
Shepherding, not talking, is what is required of bishops today, and they may need “infinite patience” in that process, he said.
He closed his speech with a rather amazing request that bishops “become more and more like fathers and mothers, and less like people who have simply learned to live without a family.”