On Tuesday, May 12, Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, met with several dozen lay Catholic men and women in Washington, D.C., to hear their thoughts on the situation of “the family” in the United States and on how the Church is – or is not – responding to it. The discussion was open and candid and will, one hopes, serve as the first encounter in an ongoing dialogue between concerned laity in this country and this very outgoing papal representative so dedicated to the “Gospel of the Family.”
Through its website and other social media, NCCF has offered to coordinate this ongoing dialogue. So, those of you who are interested, please, stay tuned.
Mr. Vince Burke of Chevy Chase, Md., who arranged as a venue one of our nation’s older and finest establishments, hosted the gathering. I was privileged to attend and very much look forward to receiving the summary of the salient points offered at the meeting that its organizers have promised to distribute among the participants.
To give you an idea of the tenor of the archbishop’s response at that meeting to the concerns and observations voiced so freely by his lay colleagues (his new friends, according to him), I can provide several recollections.
One is Archbishop Paglia’s rather jolting claim – at least for legalist American ears – that the family is not an institution. Rather it is a sacrament and a complex of human relationships. Not exclusively a sacrament in the sense that matrimony is one of the Seven Sacraments, but in the sense that God, after creating the world and seeing that “it was good,” gave as his first gift to our human ancestors the gift of committed community, a community manifested in the complementarity of the first man and first woman. Family is not an institution designed by man. It is a living relationship ordained by God. Recall that Eve was God’s response to Adam’s empty loneliness.
The sacrament of family – in both the Christian and more general senses – should not be considered solely or even primarily as a sexual engagement. More challengingly and much more significantly it is a trusting and sometimes difficult commitment to relationship not just with one’s spouse, but with one’s children, one’s brothers and sisters and grandparents and grandchildren, with society at large, and (take note you demographically diminishing countries) to the future. The family, not the individual, is the basic cell of society. Christians are reminded that while the Supreme Being is one, he is an indissoluble community of three. To be alone is unnatural.
Because of limited time, we were unable to address one question on the archbishop’s mind: how we as lay Americans might more effectively spread the “Good News” about the personal and societal benefits of vibrant family life. In spite of the cogent eloquence and fraternal admonition on the matter by recent pontiffs, families are foundering rather than forming. But the tone of Archbishop Paglia’s message is hopeful, not accusatory. It is therapeutic, not defensive. Rather than defend the ‘sacrament’ of marriage with exclusionary vocabulary we must live it with an embracing witness. We must evangelize, not proselytize – with the hope that others under the inspiration of God’s Spirit “will do as we do rather than as we say.”
We can look forward to an ongoing dialogue with Archbishop Paglia. I believe we will come to understand more fully that if we accept rather than decline this sublime gift that God has given us, the gift of family, we will flourish and experience in its fullest the gift of our humanity.
Dana Robinson is chair of the board of trustees of the National Catholic Community Foundation.