Introduction to the workshop for family ministry leaders in Kerala Changanacerry

Dear Fr Tom, dear Professors, dear students,


It’ a gret a pleasure for me to inaugurate this workshop that shows how Kerala’s churches are working in favour of the families. Thank you for your work and your passion!

Starting with the magisterium of Pope Francis and the great changes marking the present era, theology is confronted with a new challenge, that of addressing the topic of the family in an adequate and renewed manner. Unfortunately, theological reflection on the family, considered as a body of relationships, is still insufficient. Much thought has been given to the husband/wife union, to the dimension of spousal love, and there are numerous studies on marriage – understood as the realization of the couple – especially from the juridical-canonical perspective, even though Family Law is virtually absent from the Code of Canon Law. But even rarer still is a true Theology of the Family, with a few exceptions. A deeper theology of marriage is essential and urgent. And that is what the “John Paul II” Pontifical Theological Institute for Marriage and the Family Sciences has set out to promote. Their new curriculum is aimed at resolutely restoring the Christian and human significance of the family institution, recognising in it the actual locus of the very fruitfulness of the Christian sacrament. The idea behind the project has a clear purpose: the family, with all its constellation of relationships, internal and external, is not the mere “consequence” of marriage, it is rather its “development” and its extension in society, in the Church. The concreteness of family history must therefore be considered the “noble matter” of the Theology of Human Love: it is that Theology “firmly grounded in reality” of which Amoris Laetitia speaks. Theology, which has rightfully rediscovered the foundational character of the intimate and fruitful love of the human couple, with its capacity to evoke the Christological and Trinitarian depths of the mystery of God’s love, has decidedly lagged behind vis-à-vis  the family and the complexity of its relationships. It is a gap that must be bridged.

God has entrusted to the covenant between man and woman both the “Earth” (so that it may become their “habitat”) and responsibility for the generations (i.e. the relationships that build human history). The first pages of Genesis tell us that the history of the world and the history of its salvation depend on this covenant between God and man and woman. Where this is effective and fruitful, humanism grows, and the promise guarded by faith is sustained and honoured. Where the covenant falls apart, humanism comes to a halt and the promise of faith is broken. The biblical text speaks of a covenant that has the cosmic, historical flavour of extraordinary power and responsibility. To that covenant God entrusts the entire creation and the entire history of the generations.

Allow me to share with you a brief narrative with a theological flavour about the first biblical account of creation, when God decides to create humans. The biblical author repeats three times in two verses that God made Adam “in his image”: “male and female he created them”. The human one is not the only form of life marked by sexual difference, but it is the only form of sexual difference marked by the image and likeness of God. The male, in the biblical account, is truly “master”, and the female is truly “mistress”. To be in the “image of God” is not to be a mere “copy’” and a “replica”, but rather to be constitutively different, with one’s own freedom, one’s own self-dignity, one’s own spirit. Man and woman, in such a perspective, are the interlocutors of God, Who wants to be loved and not suffered. This is the root of the freedom and self-dignity that God has bestowed on man and woman. They are God’s true interlocutors. Only human beings are capable of choosing, discerning, deciding between good and evil. To love is to choose, to select someone to whom to devote care and attention. The rest of the living world does not share in this prerogative, in this identity that, in essence, is divine: God chooses to create the world.

It is clear from this famous page that the deepest human identity, which partakes in the divine, consists in the capacity and vocation to form bonds, relationships. Which is what constitutes the man/woman relationship, but also the parent/child, child/parent bond, and every healthy and deep relationship that enriches our lives. The identity of the human is the “we”, not the “I”. The family must then be taken care of and nurtured as a centre from which a wealth of relationships radiates. Each relationship will have the capacity to make every person better, accompanied and valued. It is necessary to further develop an art of relationships, which is part of living together as well as a complex responsibility because it has to do with the human, an interweaving of aspiration to good and attraction to evil, of capacity for love and sin. In his Letter to Married Couples, the Pope reminds us that living together is not “penance”. But we know that it is not penance only if relationships are healthy, if we nurture them, shape them and allow them to ripen by listening to the Gospel and learning to love from the One who said “Love one another. As I have loved you”. According to Pope Francis, a wife must strive to make her husband better and vice versa. The same can be argued, then, regarding every other relationship. By loving his parents, a son learns not to abandon them when they grow old, to imitate them and listen to them when they educate him, not to get too entangled in possessive relationships when children grow up and become mature, autonomous. It is no coincidence that at the heart of Amoris Laetitia lies precisely St Paul’s Hymn of Charity, which in Francis’ intention will serve in every season of the family relationship to test the “quality” of our love and our ability to support the other. The Pope writes about “charity” that it “is experienced and nurtured in the daily life of couples and their children. It is helpful to think more deeply about the meaning of this Pauline text and its relevance for the concrete situation of every family”.

Eve is not a creature of Adam, nor a figment of his imagination, much less a by-product of the male. Eve is God’s creature, just like Adam. Adam’s lack of involvement – he is sleeping! –  in the creation of the woman, is precisely symbolic of the fact that she is in no way man’s creature. The famous rib, which actually means “side”, makes it clear that “her” humanity is in no way different from “his” humanity. With poetic elegance, ancient Jewish wisdom collected in the Talmud conveys the true and accurate theological interpretation: “Woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved”.

It is a grave error to eliminate the difference between man and woman. This elimination, regardless of one’s life project, is a loss for everyone. This is not to deny, of course, the fact that the interpretation of this difference and its social and cultural expressions belong to our freedom and responsibility. However, the fundamental traits of this difference and the covenant to which it is primarily destined, must be appreciated as a gift, not conceived of as an obstacle.

Difference is a blessing for history. In today’s world, guarding this covenant of man and woman, whether they be sinners and wounded, confused and humiliated, disheartened and uncertain, is therefore an exciting vocation for us as believers. Genesis shows the fundamental dimension of the relationship between human beings. Indeed, between human beings and the whole of creation. The biblical message is clear: man and woman come from God and are inextricably linked to each other. It is impossible for one to live without the other. The man–woman creaturely polarity is constitutive according to biblical humanism. The image of God on Earth, therefore, is fraternity among all. We complete each other. According to the biblical narrative, God’s allies are man and woman together. The end of the creative process is humanity: man and woman as custodians of creation, understood as a common home. No individual can therefore be said to be absolute (ab-solutus, i.e. detached from the others). Man and woman have been  created so as to be in communion with others. Alone, they suffer. God is like that too, the Bible seems to say in all its pages. He is not  solitude, He is not isolated, however powerful. He is a communion of three Persons, different from each other but each in need of the other. It is the Christian mystery of the Trinity, in whose image man and woman were created. The Christian God is not absolute monotheism, it is a generative monotheism. So it is with the family.

With the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis calls for a deep renewal of the Church. Today, the Churches, all the Churches, cannot fulfil the task assigned to them by God with regard to the family without themselves acquiring the traits of family communion. What is needed is an ecclesiological change, a new way of being Church, a new “Forma Ecclesiae”; a Church understood as the “family of God”. When the Church speaks of families, in reality, it speaks first and foremost of herself. In this sense, when we speak of the Family Ministry, it means making “the whole Church family”. The Pope is well aware that embracing this perspective is not easy nor something to be taken for granted. There may be those who would like the Church to be similar to a notary public or, as he put it, to a “customs house” that records compliant and non-compliant transactions without taking into account the painful circumstances of life and the inner redemption of consciences. The Church as a “field hospital” gets close to every wound to heal it, the Church is merciful to forgive and show the way to learn to love better and more. If the Church, the parish, the Christian community must be other than a customs house, we must not acts as vigilant customs officers. On the contrary, we must engage in the precious work of “discernment”, as pastors attentive to the good of each individual person, of each family. Discernment is a keyword in the magisterium of this pontificate. We must not take for granted that we understand what it means. Discernment does not mean “to be partial to”. Nor does it mean “to decide on a case-by-case basis”, so that no rule really exists anymore. That of discernment is a patient and long journey, which starts from contemplating the richness of the Christian vision of what is true and good, to then make it come alive in the concreteness of one’s personal life and history. To discern means to begin from the awareness that a woman, a man, and every person are not static, given once and for all: they walk, they grow, they fall, they get back up, they try to reach lofty and challenging goals, but not all of them succeed to the same degree and at the same pace. To discern is to look at people’s lives with the eyes with which Jesus looked at them: with a mercy that forgives and brings out talents. Mercy does not mean to tolerate sin, it means to be patient with the sinner. In Family Pastoral Care, the work of discernment is essential to take care of the relationships and bonds that are born, develop, weaken and change with age in the family. In Amoris Laetitia, chapter four, Pope Francis places the Apostle Paul’s Hymn of Charity at the centre of the criterion for all discernment. It is with reference to this model of love that the many loving relationships, which are part of a person’s family fabric and his or her capacity to give and to love, should be helped to grow and develop.

The Exhortation calls for families to feel the responsibility to communicate to the world the “Gospel of the family” as a response to the profound need for familiarity which resides in the heart of the human person and of society itself. Of course, families need a great deal of help in this mission. The Pope speaks, also in this perspective, of the responsibility of the ordained ministers. And he emphasises with frankness that they “often lack the training needed to deal with the complex problems currently facing families.” (No. 202). And he also calls for renewed attention to the formation of seminarians.

If it is true that marriage is indissoluble, even truer is the indissolubility of the Church’s bond with her sons and daughters: for it is like the bond which Christ established with the Church, full of sinners who were loved when they were still sinners. And who are never forsaken. This, as the Apostle Paul says, is indeed a “great mystery”, which definitely goes in the opposite direction compared with that sterile and stifling vision sometimes permeating the man/woman relationship beyond all cultural, historical and geographical differences.


February 1, 2024