By Most Reverend Robert J. Cunningham
Bishop of Syracuse
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Bishop Cunningham’s forthcoming pastoral letter, “Enriching the Church.” Copies of the letter will be distributed to parishes and the text will also be available at syrdio.org.
“The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church.”1 With these words our Holy Father, Pope Francis opened his post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), the fruit of a two-year process during which the Church reflected on and addressed current challenges facing marriage and the family. It is with these same words that I greet you, the faithful of the diocese: priests, deacons, religious and laity.
Over decades the Church has partnered with families to provide the foundation of our Catholic faith — to hand it on and nurture it in their children. In today’s society, we must acknowledge that much of the passing on of our faith is not taking place in the home for a myriad of reasons. There is an obvious need to renew our relationship with families, no matter their make-up, and equip them with ways to live out our Catholic beliefs joyfully. Until we do that, we will not be successful in forming missionary disciples, a call we all share through baptism.
For these reasons, I am pleased to declare a Year of the Family in the Diocese of Syracuse commencing the first week of Advent, Sunday, December 3, and concluding on the Feast of Christ the King, Sunday, November 25, 2018. During this year, it is my hope that parishes throughout the diocese will reach out to parents and families in new and different ways that will result in a growing feeling of being at home in the Church and a burning desire to know, live and share the Catholic faith.
With this in mind, I am taking the opportunity to offer both a reminder and some words of encouragement to the families of our diocese so that the joy of love they experience will be a source of enrichment for the Church of Syracuse and beyond. Before reflecting on the role of the family in the life of the Church, it is important to consider the status of marriage and the family in our day.
The Modern Family
The modern family is not perfect. No family in any era or at any time has ever been perfect, except for the Holy Family. It was in the context of this special family that the Gospel according to Luke tells us, “Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor before God and man.”2
Pope Francis, together with bishops throughout the world, has recognized that families, particularly today, are not without their flaws and struggles.3 Family members get sick, grow old, make mistakes, and so on. Yet, our culture and society present their view of what the perfect family should look like. Sadly, their vision of the modern family is often in conflict with God’s plan for marriage and the family, a plan revealed to us through the Scriptures and the Tradition of the Church. Moreover, when we as a Church propose this plan and call others to live according to it, as Christ did, we are ignored, ridiculed, and even attacked.
Having celebrated the one-hundredth anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima this year, I am reminded of what Sister Lucia dos Santos, one of three children to whom Mary appeared, predicted, “The final battle between Christ and Satan would be over Marriage and the Family.”4 Responding to this and to the reality of an increasing disregard for and hostility toward God’s plan for love, Pope Saint John Paul II established the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.
Marriage and the modern family are indeed under attack. These time honored and fundamental institutions are threatened today by a variety of policies and practices from successful attempts throughout the United States and beyond to redefine marriage, to sinful actions that do not uphold the sanctity and dignity of all human life — contraception, certain reproductive technologies, abortion, and euthanasia, to name a few.
Within this wide range of serious threats, there are a number of less obvious ones: Technology is rendering members of many families today unable to communicate personally and lovingly with each other. Mobility and the plethora of options placed before members of the family are tempting them to value quantity over quality when it comes to living well. Politics are dividing them. Individualism is causing them to ignore the importance and necessity of community in the home, in the Church, and in society. Relativism is leading them to think they can be “spiritual but not religious,” causing them to abandon the faith we profess in the Creed, celebrate in the sacraments, live according to the commandments and moral teachings of Christ, and ground in a personal relationship with God through prayer. Finally, peer pressure from our society and culture is causing the members of many modern families to abandon God’s plan for marriage and the family, which — though it is not always easy to live — is what brings them true happiness in this life and in the next.
When it comes to the modern family, in general there has been a shift in focus: from the things of heaven to the things of earth. It is no wonder, then, that in many families today faith is met with indifference or abandoned altogether, hope is shallow, and charity is confused with philanthropy — simply doing nice things for others because it is a nice thing to do. For many, this has become their religion.
The results of all this are drastic. The priests throughout our diocese often share with me that many of the struggles they currently face concerning the vitality of their parishes stem from the absence both of marriages and of the presence of families in general. Many young people are no longer getting married, specifically in the Church. When they do decide to come to the Church to get married, they often arrive un-catechized and with a long list of their own expectations.
These expectations, along with their various assumptions, do not always respect the teaching of Christ with regard to marriage or the Church’s liturgical celebration of this important sacrament. As a result, the number of celebrations of the sacrament of Matrimony at many parishes and around the diocese has declined to a considerably low level. In 2000, 2,083 marriages were celebrated in our parish churches. Last year, the number was 769.
Furthermore, there is a widespread absence of families at the celebration of Mass every Sunday, in faith formation programs, in Catholic schools and in the community life of the parish. As a result, pews and classrooms around our diocese are empty, and the number of young men and women seriously considering vocations to the priesthood and religious life is small.
Nevertheless, there is a faithful remnant of strong families who regularly practice and live out their Catholic faith with conviction. I wish to acknowledge them and thank them deeply for their faithful witness and generosity. They are sustaining and enriching the Church of Syracuse and beyond. May God bless them!
My friends, it is important to be aware that the modern family is in trouble. It is being attacked from without. It faces new and challenging struggles from within. Today, more than at any time in recent history, these attacks and struggles seem to serve as serious barriers that prevent the current generation of families from receiving, living, and handing on our Catholic faith. Much more could be said about the situation of the modern family. However, I will leave it up to those of you reading this letter to recall the specific difficult situations and circumstances of families that you have experienced personally or observed. In far too many cases the modern family has strayed from God’s plan for marriage and the family and so it is necessary to revisit this important and beautiful plan, albeit briefly.