Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress today and amidst his profound and sensitive reflections were these words about the state of the family in the United States:
How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and family life.
In particular, I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable: the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse, and despair. Their problems are our problems.
Families are, indeed, being threatened from both within and without. We are aware of the many external threats, including the attempt by legislators and the U.S. Supreme Court to redefine marriage, a cultural disregard for strong, traditional families, and the intrusion of immorality into our homes through a flood of technology. It’s easy to forget the internal threats though — those forces from within that Pope Francis mentions.
Within our own families, seeds of darkness always wait to be fertilized. Selfishness, greed, jealousy, bitterness. The devil adorns these vices in lovely garments, so that we can tell ourselves things like “I don’t put up with any garbage” or “I am very ambitious and hard working” or “I always protect my rights.” Or we prioritize our reputations, bank accounts, and physical appearance over the relationships in our families. It’s so easy to do, so seductive. We protect our homes from the internal threats that Pope Francis mentions through our openness toward one another, our willingness to sacrifice our own desires for the needs of our families — especially the most vulnerable, and by our willingness to move outside ourselves to play, work, and worship with our families. It seems so simple, doesn’t it? Building a community of love is simple, but challenging.
Pope Francis opened his speech with these words: “I am most grateful for your invitation to address this Joint Session of Congress in the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’ ” I thought about what it means to be free, to be brave. Real freedom requires the resistance of love. I think many American are very confused about that; they assume freedom means they get to do whatever they want without limits, without boundaries, without responsibility. But that is not freedom; it is a prison. The thing that confounds people about many Catholic families is our belief in self-giving love, in our belief that we can never be free until we grow to a place where we can give generously. This is very strange thinking in our culture. Sometimes reality look crazy; sometimes the truth is strange.
The truth about children — how they thrive, what they need to grow up into whole, joyful, contributing members of society — is uncomfortable for many people because it’s inconvenient and challenges them to be free and brave. Building a community of love requires real freedom and real bravery, but it is how we express the image of God in ourselves. Being a mother has helped me become more free because I’ve come to understand the spiritual significance beneath simple acts of mothering, in particular, the way in which I am caught up in divine love when I stretch my limits out of care for my family. As for bravery, being a mom has helped me become more brave, too. I am more willing now to resist the status quo, to question popular views about children and families. Perhaps most importantly, being a mom has helped me face the truth about myself when I am not free, when I have failed to be brave — when I’m stuck or broken.
The Pope will have plenty more to say about the family during his time with us at the World Meeting of Families, but how wonderful that he expressed his love and concern for American families before Congress, 30% of them Catholic. The Holy Spirit is always working.
Image credit: Kevin Lemarque/Reuters