Cardinal Ennio Antonelli, born in 1936, was general secretary of the Italian bishops’ conference and archbishop of Florence prior to being named president of the Pontifical Council for the Family last July by Pope Benedict XVI. The Register’s Edward Pentin interviewed him in his Vatican office shortly after he was appointed.
What are the main challenges for you as president of the Pontifical Council for the Family?
The challenges are certainly many, but essentially boil down to a culture of individualism.
The individual is concentrated on the fulfillment of his own ambitions without thinking of the needs of others. So what’s of value is only what you perceive as of immediate pleasure, use, or interest.
This kind of liberty, which is emphasized in this way, is part of the consumer society where you consume not only things but also experiences, sensations, emotions. So, as Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, you have a society which is rich in things, but poor in relationships.
This is why we have children who suffer hardships, many adults are tired of life, many elderly suffer from loneliness. This is the culture of individualism, and this is really the great challenge that lies ahead for the family today.
How is this culture directly related to the crisis of the family?
This culture expresses itself in many ways in the crisis of the family. There is a poverty of dialogue within the family, a facilitation of separation and divorce, an abdication of parental responsibility for the education of the children, and insufficient care of the elderly and the sick.
There are many forms of crises, and then there are the more extreme forms, such as abortion, euthanasia, cohabitation outside marriage and cohabitation of homosexuals. All these forms express the crisis of the family in this individualistic culture.
There have been an increasing number of cases, in the U.K. and other Western countries, of youth who are turning to violence. One British politician said recently that the Church offers the solution in its approach to the family. What is your view of this situation?
There are statistics that evidently show the correlation between delinquency among minors and the more general crisis of the family, the weakening of the family, families coming from, as we say in Italy, “devastated” areas.
It seems there are various research studies that have made this correlation and put it in percentage terms. So certainly the crisis of the family opens a path to much hardship and many social ills.
How would you characterize the true culture of the human person?
The person is certainly an individual, but an individual in the sense that he is a subject within a wider body.
He is a single subject who is self-aware, free to choose, but his life is also significantly marked by his relations with others and with God. And these relations with and through this wider body, in union with his own inseparable body and soul, need to be born, to grow, to develop, to be realized.
A person needs the other, and definitively, he needs God. So he has a need for a family and a social intermediary: a school, a state, an international society.
He needs the Church at different levels: a small local community, a parish, a diocese, the people of God spread throughout the world. This culture of the human person obviously recognizes the fullness of liberty, the freedom of choice, the freedom to choose the truth, and to choose what is truly good for communion and solidarity.
Paradoxically, freedom means building authentic connections through which the fullness of life can be realized. So this freedom — for a society of solidarity, for a Church communion, for freedom to build the family — leads to deep and close relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, but also between generations: children, parents and grandparents.
This is something of the vision of the culture of the human person, the family and society on which the Church reflects.
From this perspective, how important is the family to the well-being of society?
The family has many functions as regards society, because through it generations will pass down fundamental human values, the cultural heritage of people, and foster reciprocity between people, especially helping the weakest, children, the elderly and the sick.
So these functions are evidently important from a social point of view, and the family has a public interest that is to be favored over other forms of cohabitation. So the family has a right to receive incentives, a right to receive support and services of society regarding the home, work and recognition of domestic work in a certain way.
Also natal support, freedom of education, and support for the functions of domestic assistance. So the family carries out important social functions and therefore has a right to have privileged and concrete support from society and also to be favored by policy.
How can the pontifical council promote more favorable political support to life and the family?
The pontifical council can contribute to a more favorable political culture for the family by supporting the life of the family, above all by encouraging, stimulating, and coordinating institutions of research, study and formation in this field, for example the John Paul II Institute for the study of marriage and the family, which has branches throughout the world.
Then it can also be a stimulus for coordinating associations committed to favor the family, for example, associations like Scienza & Vita [Science and Life, an organization of pro-life Italian practitioners], and committees that promote the defense of life.
And then it is important to encourage remarkable initiatives, such as the Family Day that is held in Rome, and to promote large conferences such as the next World Meeting of the Family, which is going to take place in Mexico next January.
How are the preparations going for that meeting?
The details of this meeting are being prepared mainly by the dioceses that are in charge of organizing it.
There will be various movements related to the family present at this international congress, institutions that work to defend the family who will take part in an expo.
Then there will be a great celebration of the family on the Saturday afternoon in the famous Aztec stadium — famous to all those who love soccer — and on Sunday there will be a large Mass at the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe — a shrine at the heart of the Latin American people and very important in the history of the faith in America.
Then there are also the preparations going on to develop catecheses and the themes which will be carried out during the event. The dates of the meeting, Jan. 14-18, are set.
What would you say the role is of the family in the Church?
The role of the family in the Church is fundamental, that is, a living Gospel among people.
You know there are two sacraments for the life of the community: holy orders, for the pastoral guidance in the Christian community, and marriage, which makes the family like a small church — we usually say “a domestic Church.”
The family is a subject of communion and evangelization, called to proclaim the faith both between and within families. For this, it’s very important to introduce and maintain prayer within the family, especially the prayer of listening; I mean, for example, listening together to the word of God, studying short texts from the holy Bible, questioning and discussing them, asking oneself and each other what things God has to tell us about the concrete situations of life in which we find ourselves.
The Gospel also lives out in relationships that the family has: with relatives, with friends, those who are near, work colleagues ...
In all relations, the family must make the Gospel visible in a way that everyone can understand, that shows the Gospel is not only beautiful or just an ideal, but a real possibility that is offered to mankind and to those who are willing to give themselves to the Lord.
I’d say this is the role of the family in the Church: to be a living Gospel, a way for evangelization to make the Gospel credible — credible with the grace of God and possible among men of good will.
What kind of pastoral approaches need to be developed?
Obviously, experiences are many, and I do not pretend to have a formula. But to start with, there are preparatory courses that we have to include like faith journeys for engaged couples to follow and prepare for marriage; they should principally be carried out in parishes under the guidance of one or more married couples, and then through meetings in parishes with experts.
In this way, this can be a very significant experience. And here I would also mention the value of many of the movements that have a beautiful experience of promoting the family and communion between families, holding days dedicated to the family.
As regards parish pastoral care, I think it’s important to have parish days devoted to the family, so that a family doesn’t become isolated but receives reciprocal support through a network of friendships, spirituality and joy — networks that offer concrete and mutual help according to needs.
What will you personally bring to your work as the new president of the pontifical council?
First of all, I still don’t know the pontifical council well; I don’t have international experience. Mine is an Italian experience, at a diocesan and at a national level. Anyway, I think it’s important to develop a dynamic consultation among many — among people and organizations in the Church and in the whole society.
I also see promoting ordinary pastoral care for families with the necessary contribution of families as a priority.
Your predecessor, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, was very strong on pro-life issues, especially abortion and contraception. Some say you will be a softer president of the council. What do you say in response to these comments?
I think that everyone must have impassioned convictions when it comes to the truth and what is truly good, of the person and of the family.
So one must be very attentive to the truth and to people, putting the emphasis, above all, on the beauty of the authentic family, human and Christian. But if I may say, my preference here is to put a special emphasis on what is positive, what is beautiful, precisely what moves, accepts, engages and attracts the hearts of people. Yes: Pastoral care of the family needs mind and heart.
Edward Pentin writes