The Experiences and Challenges of Families

"The Joy of Love" - Chapter Two

In the first chapter of The Joy of Love, we saw a lectio divina, or sacred reading, of Psalm 128 which offered us a Biblical perspective on marriage and family life. In Chapter Two, Pope Francis offers us a similarly careful reading of the status of the family in the contemporary world. Using the report of the Synod on the Family and reflections from his own experience, the Holy Father names many factors that cause stress and hardship to marriage and family life.

Several factors deter young people from marrying and starting a family in the first place. Among these are: the example of couples whose marriages have failed, the prevalence in some cultures of couples “living together” without any thought of marrying, the fear of losing one’s independence, the lack of suitable family housing, and the rejection of marriage as something that seems too institutional or bureaucratic.

Some people, even if they choose marriage, do so while they are still quite immature emotionally. This may impact their ability to choose a marriage partner, as well as their ability to deal with all the aspects of married life. Such people often remain immature, even as their marriages fail. They seek new relationships, only to find the same problems.

Many factors put a great deal of strain on marriages and families that already exist. Among these are: the demands of long workdays that separate family members and leave them too exhausted to meaningfully interact with one another after work; an excessive individualism that sees the family as, at best, a “way station, helpful when convenient… and easily swept aside when it proves inconvenient or tiresome”; dire poverty, which makes it difficult or impossible for families to access adequate housing, health care, or education; the weakening of religious practice in some cultures, which leaves families feeling more isolated and at the mercy of cultural pressures; a sense that the needs of families are ignored by many institutions.

The Holy Father does not stop at pointing out how other areas of society have stressed or ignored families. He raises the question of how well the Church has supported and nurtured families. At times, he says, our presentation of marriage has been too abstract and too removed from the concrete lived experience of actual married couples. At other times, Church leaders have been content with “decrying present-day evils” but have not devoted enough time and effort to outline the “reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them.” Church leaders need to help form the consciences of the faithful but not try to replace them. It is Pope Francis’ hope that an awareness of the many problems that families face today will inspire Church leaders to show such families the merciful face of their Mother.

Family life is not merely a set of problems to be faced. Pope Francis also describes the strengths of the family and the essential role that families play in society. For the Holy Father, “the strength of the family lies in its capacity to love and to teach how to love.” He expresses gratitude for the witness of marriages that have proven not only long-lasting but also loving and fruitful. He points to families that lovingly accept the challenge of children with special needs, saying they are not only “an invaluable witness of faithfulness to the gift of life” but also strengthen “our commitment to show mercy in welcoming others and to help the vulnerable to be fully a part of our communities.” The same can be said of families that cherish and support their elderly members. A healthy family can be the place where drug abuse and alcoholism can be prevented and overcome. A healthy family is a building block of a healthy society. Likewise, any weakening of the family poses a serious threat to society.

Pope Francis calls for a renewed appreciation of the gift that marriage and family life are to the world and for a better way to encourage all people, especially young people, to value and embrace them: “We need to find the right language, arguments, and forms of witness that can help us reach the hearts of young people, appealing to their capacity for generosity, commitment, love and even heroism, and in this way inviting them to take up the challenge of marriage with enthusiasm and courage.”

This chapter of The Joy of Love, then, is both an unflinching look at the challenges that confront families today and an expression of deep admiration and gratitude for the witness that families offer to the world.

Father Mark P. Nolette, a priest/hermit of the Diocese of Portland, resides in Pittsfield and also does part-time ministry at Our Lady of the Snows and Saint Agnes parishes. Father Nolette also writes a regular blog which can be found at