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Bishops' pastoral on family timely and encouraging.

At the United Nations last week, as part of a U.S. Catholic contribution to the 1994 International Year of the Family, Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin shared some observations the bishops had approved at their November meeting in Washington.

At that time they affirmed the document "Follow the Way of Love: A Pastoral Message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to Families." It is both timely and encouraging.

Ironically, the message was obscured during the bishops' gathering by the attention given sex-abuse charges filed days earlier against Bernardin (NCR, Dec. 3).

At the United Nations last week, the Chicago prelate, addressing the issue of families and drawing upon the document, called love a family's "principal resource." However, the love he spoke about was not love as commonly defined in modern Western society. His message was countercultural, a healthy relief from the "find someone and jump in the sack" version that frequently passes for love today.

Bernardin said true love was about "humility and trust, honesty and sacrifice and reverence for one another."

Pretty basic stuff for a Christian. But then you ask, how many people would be able to capture its essence, if pressed for a definition?

Maybe the importance of "Follow the Way of Love" is it reminds us that we speak too infrequently about the basics of our core values, in this case as they relate to society's basic building block.

Families, of course, need all the help they can get. The bishops' document attempts no technical answers to the multitude of woes facing family life. Rather, it acknowledges that preserving family ties is an awesome and often thankless task.

One senses humility in this document. The bishops don't claim specific answers. What they want to do is "shed light" by assessing family needs against scripture and Catholic traditions. These are the bishops as good pastors of the local church. No threats - and simple encouragement.

"We know you face obstacles as you try to maintain strong family ties. ... Some families face multiple burdens of poverty, racism, religious and cultural discrimination," they write.

The family, the bishops continue, "is our first community and most basic way in which the Lord gathers us." The early church expressed this truth by calling the Christian family "a domestic church" or a "church of the home." This was an early Christian insight seemingly lost for centuries, until rediscovered at the Second Vatican Council.

And what is the domestic church's mission? The list, the bishops say, includes: fostering belief in God and intimacy with others, education, prayer, service, forgiveness, celebrating life, welcoming strangers, living justly and teaching our children how to respond to God's grace.

Not a bad summary. This litany is useful for parents or anyone else who, caught up in the mundane, can lose sight of family ideals.

At the heart of any stable family life, the bishops place permanent relationships. The bishops then deal with four challenges facing such relationships: living faithfully, giving life, growing in mutuality and taking time for one another.

Briefly, some passages from "Follow the Way of Love":

* Living faithfully: "To live faithfully in a marriage requires humility, trust, compromise, communication and a sense of humor."

* Giving life: "There are so many ways in which families can give life, especially in a society which devalues life. ... Each generation of the family is challenged to leave the world a more beautiful and beneficial place than it inherited."

* Growing in mutuality: "Marriage is a partnership of a man and woman equal in dignity and value. ... Marriage must never become a struggle for control. ... Mutuality is really about sharing power. ... Flexible roles may appear difficult. ... Each family (couple) must decide what is best for them in a spirit of respect and mutuality. Especially when both spouses are employed, household duties need to be shared."

* Taking time: "Both men and women can get caught up in long hours and weekends at their place of work. Balancing home and work responsibilities is a shared obligation for spouses. ... We urge you to take time to be together."

Importantly, the document reveals that bishops can and do learn from the laity. Christian reflections, for example, dealing with the notion of mutuality in roles between husband and wife, even to the point of an examination of the need to share household duties, come to episcopal consideration through lay experience. This is not something the bishops pulled from church tradition. It is rather the application of traditional Christian values to family life in the modern world. It is an honest episcopal reading of the signs of the times, especially in the United States - learned from lay experience.

The bishops end their pastoral message with an open invitation to families to share family insights as they pertain to following the pathway to love.

"Tell us how you work to stay married. ... Tell us what kind of support you expect from the larger church," they plea, adding, "your words and deeds will lend strength to our exhortations."

Our hope is that this uplifting family dialogue can continue in the open and honest tone set forth in this pastoral message. We owe it to our families.
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Title Annotation:National Conference of Catholic Bishops
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Dec 17, 1993
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