On the Feast of the Holy Family, December 29, 2013, Pope Francis invited all Catholics to pray for families as the Church prepares for an Extraordinary Synod to examine the troubling disconnect between Church teaching and the reality of modern family life. In his Angelus address given to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis recited for the first time his new Prayer to the Holy Family. (Full text available here.)
The prayer seeks the help of the Holy Family while at the same time revealing Pope Francis’ vision of the family as it is and as it could be. It paints an ideal portrait of family life and yet acknowledges the severe difficulties faced by many. It concludes with a heart-felt petition for the renewal of the sacredness and inviolability of the family. Pope Francis’ prayer is a short primer on the theology of the family and deserves careful contemplation. Let’s see what he says.
The Splendor of True Love
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendor of true love,
to you we turn with trust.
The prayer’s opening words about the splendor of true love echo Pope Francis’ first encyclical, The Light of Faith, which emphasized the need for truth and love to co-exist: “If love needs truth, truth also needs love. Love and truth are inseparable. Without love, truth becomes cold, impersonal and oppressive for people’s day-to-day lives” (LF, no. 27). More than just a romantic phrase, “true love” points to the perfect combination of God’s truth and God’s love.
Pope Francis may also have meant to allude to Pope John Paul II’s well-known encyclical, The Splendor of Truth, which cautioned against relativism and insisted on the primacy of objective truth. In The Splendor of Truth, Pope John Paul II told us: “No one can escape from the fundamental questions: What must I do? How do I distinguish good from evil? The answer is only possible thanks to the splendor of the truth which shines forth deep within the human spirit.” What must we do to solve the crisis of the family and above all the crisis of the family in the Church? The splendor of truth combined with the splendor of love will give us an unfailing guide.
Ideal of Family Life
Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.
Here again, the ideas of Pope John Paul II take pride of place. The idea of the human person was central to John Paul’s philosophy, and family to him was a communion of persons, introducing each newborn person into the human family and into the family of God. Within the tender, caring communion of the family, mothers and fathers should teach their children to pray — to talk to God with love and trust. Through the witness of their Christian lives, parents are or should be the first heralds of the Gospel for their children. St. Thomas Aquinas compared the ministry of Christian parents to the ministry of priests, since both must nurture the spiritual life of those entrusted to their care. For this reason, the Catechism calls the home “the domestic Church” (CCC, sec. 1656). This is an ideal picture of family life, one that we can aspire to but one that we frequently fail to attain.
Reality of Family Life
Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.
In this plea for comfort to families in distress, Pope Francis’ prayer recalls the earlier words of Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio: “There is no family that does not know how selfishness, discord, tension and conflict violently attack and at times mortally wound its own communion: hence there arise the many and varied forms of division in family life.” But in raising the issue of scandal, these words do something new. It cannot be denied that priests frequently distribute Holy Communion to parishioners who are openly divorced and remarried outside the Church. In an effort to be inclusive, these priests often scandalize laypeople who witness repeated behavior that appears to fly in the face of Church doctrine. Without minimizing the hurt suffered by people whose marriages have fallen apart, this prayer seeks comfort for those who have been scandalized as well.
Renewal of Family Life
Holy Family of Nazareth,
may the approaching Synod of Bishops
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.
With these closing words, Pope Francis stresses that the family is a sacred institution instead of merely a secular one, and that God has a plan for it — not just any plan, a beautiful plan. As the Catechism states, quoting the address of Pope Paul VI on the Feast of the Holy Family in 1964, “May Nazareth teach us what family life is, its communion of love, its austere and simple beauty, and its sacred and inviolable character.” And may God bless the approaching Synod of Bishops!