On Nov. 11, 1993, a date worth remembering, Pope John Paul II slipped on a newly installed piece of carpeting in the Hall of Benedictions atop the atrium of St. Peter’s Basilica. He fell down several steps and, though in pain, did not lose his mental equilibrium. In an attempt to reassure his concerned onlookers, he said, “Sono caduto, ma non sono scaduto” (I have fallen, but I have not been demoted).
An X-ray soon revealed a broken shoulder. A cast was fitted to immobilize the broken joint until it healed. An important consequence of the break was that the Holy Father was no longer able to continue his practice of writing by hand. Then-Msgr. Stanislaw Rylko came to the pope’s rescue with a laptop computer and took down what would become John Paul’s “Letter to Families” (Gratissimam Sane) for 1994’s Year of the Family. The mishap, however, had its benefits, since this new computer-style arrangement proved to be so efficient that the pope continued to rely on it for much of his written work even after his shoulder healed.
The image of the Holy Father suffering from a broken shoulder and addressing broken families throughout the world is both appropriate and moving. Fittingly, he wrote, “A broken family can, for its part, consolidate a specific form of ‘anti-civilization,’ destroying love in its various expressions, with inevitable consequences for the whole of life in society.” This single sentence stresses both the supreme significance of the family and the danger that a broken family can bring to society.
The essence of the pope’s letter is positive and emphasizes the personal and social significance of the family, which, like the human person, is both “unique” and “unrepeatable.” Every effort, then, must be made so that the family will be recognized for what it is, “the primordial and, in a certain sense, ‘sovereign’ society.” He reminded families of what he had written in other papal documents: “Through the family passes the primary current of the civilization of love.” “The history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family.” “The family is the center and the heart of the civilization of love.”
Given this radical importance of the family, it becomes clear that a strong and loving family contributes directly to a culture of life and love. At the same time, a broken family contributes directly to a broken world.
The family, realistically and normatively considered, is a profound and vital organic unity. It originates in a marital communion, described by the Second Vatican Council as a “covenant,” in which the man and the woman “give themselves to each other and accept each other.” The “communion” of the spouses naturally gives rise to the “community” of the family.
As John Paul stated, “The ‘we’ of the parents, of husband and wife, develops into the ‘we’ of the family.” In addition, the community of the family is also grafted onto earlier generations and is open to future generations. The community of the family, because of its personal openness, helps to form the community of society. Thus, “the family constitutes the fundamental ‘cell’ of society.” John Paul’s choice of the word “cell” is most appropriate, given the organic nature and capabilities of the family.
John Paul, very diplomatically, pointed to certain “irregular situations” that represent serious dangers to the integrity of the family. Without mentioning anything specifically, he obliquely referred to various modes of reproductive technologies that fracture spousal and family unity. He saw the “civilization of technology” that places its faith in “safe sex” and a “consumerist, anti-birth mentality that does not place its faith in love” as posing grave dangers to the family and contributing significantly to an “anti-civilization.”
Without referring specifically to same-sex arrangements, the Holy Father maintained that they “cannot be recognized, despite certain growing trends, which represent a serious threat to the future of the family and society itself.” He also denounced notions of “free love,” which include, among its victims, children, who, being abandoned by their mothers and fathers, are made “orphans of living parents,” a powerful expression that indicates how the immorality of parents can have tragic outcomes for their children.
St. John Paul II is often depicted as pressing to his left shoulder a crosier that bears a crucifix known as the “Broken Cross,” a symbol that Pope Francis has adopted. The symbolism suggests both a broken world and a broken healer. The image may be disturbing to some, but John Paul saw clearly what is at stake when the family is undermined.
The family, for John Paul, “is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love.” The task has been given to the family, “first and foremost, to unleash the forces of good.”
The world needs to understand the immense power for good that lies within the family and, at the same time, the additional harm that broken families can bring to an already wounded world.
is a senior fellow of
Human Life International.
He is professor emeritus at
St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Canada,
and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College
and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.