PHILADELPHIA — When Pope Francis stepped foot on American soil for the first time in his 78 years of life, the person who welcomed him wasn’t Barack Obama, president of the United States.
It was Barack Obama, head of the Obama family; Obama was joined on the tarmac by his wife, Michelle, and their two teenage daughters, Malia and Sasha, and his mother-in-law, Marian Robinson, as well as Vice President Joe Biden and his family.
This was a symbolic indication that, despite the media frenzy that did its best to indicate otherwise, the Holy Father’s three-city visit would focus on something more fundamental than politics: It would focus on the family.
Pope Francis said as much when he told his brother bishops on Sept. 23 at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington that promoting the family “is the primary reason for my present visit.” He reiterated this focus the next day, telling Congress that he wished for family to be a “recurrent theme” throughout his journey.
‘Factory of Hope’
Indeed, it was the family that was the subject of Pope Francis’ most memorable American moment, an off-the-cuff, impassioned oration on the goodness of family life he delivered at the Festival of Families in Philadelphia on Sept. 26. During this address, he called the family a “factory of hope” and underscored its privileged and divine origins.
“The most beautiful thing that God made, says the Bible, was the family,” Francis told the crowd of hundreds of thousands who filled the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. He also emphasized the complementarity of man and woman and noted the fundamental role families play in building society.
The Vatican also confirmed that, though Pope Francis didn’t deliver his prepared remarks, they should still be considered part of his message to families.
“[A man and a woman] are meant to be a home, a family,” noted the Pope in this undelivered address, before stating that the family is “the living symbol” of God’s loving plan.
Adding to these stirring remarks was Pope Francis’ homily at the final Mass the next day, in which he called families “true domestic churches.”
“They are the right place for faith to become life and life to become faith,” he said.
Pope Francis’ celebration of the family was well received by his brother bishops.
“[He] affirmed the truth of marriage: that it is between a man and a woman who generate life in the gift of their children and ‘reveal God,’” said Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver.
“It was a joy to hear Pope Francis speak so eloquently and so passionately on the family,” added Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Neb. “He spoke, as Pope St. John Paul II often did, on the family as the image of the Blessed Trinity.”
Gospel of the Family
If St. John Paul gave us the theology of the body, then Pope Francis is articulating the “gospel of the family,” a term he used numerous times. Indeed, language of the family was present in nearly all of his homilies and addresses, from Washington to New York and Philadelphia.
On the one hand, the Holy Father used the family as a powerful model and metaphor to describe other human relations and bonds.
He spoke of the nation’s Catholics as a “family of faith” and used the image of the “family fire” to describe a Church that is welcoming and attractive to those who are lonely and neglected. He described a Catholic school as a “big family which surrounds [the students]” during his visit to Our Lady, Queen of Angels School in New York; and in his addresses to world leaders and policymakers, he repeatedly referred to the international community as a “united human family” that needs to stand together as brothers do.
On the other hand, Pope Francis tied the importance of issues facing contemporary society back to the well-being of the family, such as when he told the United Nations that human development is inseparable from family development and noted the “primary right of the family to educate its children.”
The Pope also took a family-centric approach to critiquing economic imbalances, noting how limited opportunities can deter young people from starting families.
“Government leaders must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development,” Francis said at the U.N.
The Holy Father even linked care of creation to deference to the moral law, “which includes the natural difference between man and woman and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” Without this proper understanding of what constitutes a family and the family’s central role in society, Pope Francis said that the goals of the U.N. risk “becoming an unattainable illusion” or, worse, cover for corruption or “carrying out an ideological colonization.”
Francis also spoke about the importance of marriage and the family in front of Congress on Sept. 24, sharing his “concern for the family,” which the Pope said is threatened “perhaps as never before.”
“Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the basis of marriage and the family,” Francis said in reference to the redefinition of marriage. “I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and beauty of family life.”
The Holy Father returned to this theme during an address to bishops at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia on the final day of his visit, underscoring the necessity of the family both for society and the Church, before describing contemporary threats. Among them, Francis noted a growing divide between the Christian sacrament of marriage and the civil institution.
In response, Pope Francis told the bishops, “Our ministry needs to deepen the covenant between the Church and the family.”
Bishop Conley said the Holy Father’s words were right on cue, noting that the contemporary family faces not only legal and political threats, but also cultural ones, such as “radical individualism” and “egocentric relativism.”
“Through his words and, more importantly, by his actions, Pope Francis gave us a beautiful image of what family life can be.”
Witness of God’s Love
Of course, beautiful images of family life weren’t only spoken and demonstrated by Pope Francis — they were present wherever the Holy Father went.
In all three East Coast locations, parents and their children flocked to see Pope Francis as he passed by in the popemobile. And, despite the protests of the Secret Service, the Pope did his best to interact with the flock, kissing babies and children and shaking hands along his routes.
Large Catholic families were also present whenever and wherever the Pope celebrated Mass, many of them including three or more generations.
Frank Marchetti of Stamford, Conn., attended the papal Mass at Madison Square Garden in New York on Sept. 25 with 22 members of his extended family, including his parents and children.
“Our faith was handed down by our parents, so going to Mass is the quintessential thing you do as a family, especially if it’s with the Pope,” he said, adding that he hoped his large, loving family could serve as a quiet witness of God’s love.
With the Holy Father now back in Rome, attention turns to the Ordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family.
During his U.S. visit, Pope Francis avoided discussing the contentious issues expected to be brought up at the synod, but he did address some of them with journalists on his return flight to the Eternal City. Most significantly, the Pope affirmed Church teaching on marriage, while explaining his recently released guidelines for more streamlined annulments.
“This document, this motu propio, facilitates the processes and the timing, but it is not divorce, because marriage is indissoluble when it is a sacrament. And the Church cannot change. It’s doctrine. It’s an indissoluble sacrament.”
Jonathan Liedl filed this report from Philadelphia.