Pope Francis, the Boy in Yellow, and Embracing Hope for the Family

The Vatican is big on meticulous planning, staging impressive events and rituals, organizing meetings and conferences, and finding ways in which the pope can address current issues.

But Catholics also believe that the Holy Spirit guides and protects the Roman Catholic Church, despite human faults, failings, and even outright evil. Every now and then, it seems the Holy Spirit pops in with something wholly unexpected and beautiful, as if to say, "I haven't given up on you yet."

There have been many visually stunning moments in the short papacy of Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, but few have reverberated around the world like these three.

The pope kissed and embraced eight-year old American boy Dominic Gondreau, who has cerebral palsy, in St. Peter's Square on Easter Sunday, making him and his loving family instant celebrities.

Then there was 9-year old Brazilian boy Nathan de Brito, who leaped the barricades at World Youth Day in Rio in late July and was lifted up into the popemobile, where he embraced Francis several times and whispered through tears of his desire to become a priest.

Then this past Saturday, 6-year old Colombian orphan "Carlos" (not his real name), who was adopted by an Italian family a year ago, left his perch among a group of children seated in front of the pontiff on a dais in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican to have a close encounter with Francis, as part of a weekend-long celebration of the Day for the Family.

After photos and animated GIFs of the event went viral on Buzzfeed, video soon followed.

Despite the urging of clerics and papal aides, little Carlos, in a yellow jersey, remained with the delighted and patient Pope Francis for more than 20 minutes, kissing his cross, hugging his leg, waving, leading a guest to the pope and even helping himself to a seat on the papal chair.

According to a report on Good Morning America, his parents said the child did it on his own initiative. Over social media, his mother said that "the blessing our son received goes out to all the abandoned children in this world."

Unwittingly, these boys have helped highlight important parts of Pope Francis' agenda -- caring for the marginalized (including the disabled), the forgotten, and children, who are increasingly being seen as expendable with declining birth rates, abortion, abuse, and abandonment.

With wide acknowledgement that the breakdown of the family unit is at the core of many -- if not almost all -- of today's social ills, the Family Day celebrations in Rome marked the beginning of a special push by Francis to address problems facing marriage, parents, and children.

Among these are poverty and violence, and the pope was visibly moved while listening to families sharing stories, including a woman who said: "We are a Christian family from Syria. We had a quiet life up until armed men surrounded our neighborhood. They killed a friend of our 10-year-old daughter, and they threatened to take our nephew."

As Vatican watchers know, Pope Francis has been especially focused on Syria, writing a letter to President Putin, who was hosting a gathering of world leaders during the recent Syrian crisis, and leading a prayer vigil for peace in St. Peter's Square in September.

But families also face everyday challenges from without and within that can be devastating over the long run.

In his speech on Saturday, Oct. 26, Pope Francis urged husbands and wives to join hands and step forward in courage and trust in the Lord, saying, "And do not pay attention to our makeshift culture, which can shatter our lives."

He also gave practical advice that's good for any family (or non-family) relationship: "And I want to repeat these three words: please, thank you, sorry. Three essential words!"

On "sorry" in particular, he said, "We all make mistakes and on occasion someone gets offended in the marriage, in the family, and sometimes--I say--plates are smashed, harsh words are spoken, but please listen to my advice: don't ever let the sun set without reconciling. Peace is made each day in the family: 'Please forgive me', and then you start over. Please, thank you, sorry! Shall we say them together? Please, thank you and sorry. Let us say these words in our families! To forgive one another each day!"

In his homily in the Mass for the Family Day on Sunday, Oct. 27, Pope Francis urged families to pray together and find the joy in family life.

He said, "God alone knows how to create harmony from differences. But if God's love is lacking, the family loses its harmony, self-centeredness prevails and joy fades. But the family which experiences the joy of faith communicates it naturally. That family is the salt of the earth and the light of the world, it is the leaven of society as a whole."

To that end, Pope Francis has called for an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (the third of its kind since Pope Paul VI established them in 1965) from Oct. 5-19, 2014, in the Vatican, on the theme of "The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization."

Expected to be on the agenda is the issue of Catholics who have had a civil divorce and then civilly remarry while the first spouse is still alive and without getting a church annulment. While just being divorced doesn't affect a Catholic's standing within the Church, being remarried without being widowed or annulled bars him or her from personally participating in Communion and other sacraments.

A recent article in Vatican newspaper l'Osservatore Romano by Archbishop Gerhard Muller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, opens no doors as far as readmitting remarried divorcees whose initial marriages were sacramentally valid.

But, Muller does offer hope in acknowledging that, because of inadequate religious formation and the corrosive effect of the culture, many Catholics have married in recent decades without a clear understanding that the Church intends marriage to be until death do the spouses part.

So, there may be a rethinking of the criteria and process of church annulments, along with a review of what this means in legal terms.

But Muller emphasizes that the consequences of some choices must simply be endured, and that forgiveness for a sin is never a free pass to commit it again.

Muller writes: "An objectively false appeal to mercy also runs the risk of trivializing the image of God, by implying that God cannot do other than forgive. The mystery of God includes not only his mercy but also his holiness and his justice. If one were to suppress these characteristics of God and refuse to take sin seriously, ultimately it would not even be possible to bring God’s mercy to man. Jesus encountered the adulteress with great compassion, but he said to her 'Go and do not sin again' (Jn 8:11)."

In the interests of seeing what family issues are most pressing to people in the pews and their shepherds,  Archbishop Lorenzo Baldiserri, secretary general of the Vatican's Synod of Bishops, has sent a questionnaire to bishops' conferences worldwide, containing a wide-ranging poll seeking Catholics' attitudes about such potentially divisive topics as single parenting, contraception, same-sex marriage/adoption, polygamy, cohabitation and divorce.

The document also asks for suggestions about the pastoral care of congregants dealing with these issues, and how they can be brought closer to the Faith and Church teaching.

The American bishops from the roughly 200 Latin Rite dioceses and Eastern Rite eparchs are being asked for their own input--leaving it up to them how or whether to consult with the priests and laity in their care--while in England and Wales, the bishops' conference has set up an online survey to collect opinions directly.

Answers have been requested no later than Dec. 31, 2013, so the information can be evaluated in time for the Oct. 2014 synod. Pope Francis also wants these issues to be further discussed in a planned 2015 gathering to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the synods.


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