A Pastoral Message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to Families
On the Occasion of the United Nations 1994 International Year of the Family
The family exists at the heart of all societies. It is the first and
most basic community to which every person belongs. There is nothing
more fundamental to our vitality as a society and as a Church. For, in
the words of Pope John Paul II, "The future of humanity passes by way of
the family" (On the Family, no. 86).
Thus, it is fitting that the United Nations has drawn attention to the
condition of family life throughout the world. By designating 1994 the
International Year of the Family, it has invited everyone—especially
families—to deepen their understanding of family life, to identify
matters important to the family's well-being, and to take action that
will strengthen families.
This message of the United States Catholic bishops to families takes as a starting point the International Year and its theme, Family: Resources and Responsibilities in a Changing World.
It invites families to examine the quality of their lives. It asks them
to reflect on their strengths as well as their weaknesses; on their
resources as well as their needs.
The message shares with families a vision of their great calling that
is rooted in Christ's teaching and developed in the life of his
believing community. It urges families to seek the healing, strength,
and meaning that Christ offers through his Church. It pledges the
support of the Church so that families might recognize their resources
and carry out their responsibilities in a changing world.
This message stands within the tradition of teaching on marriage and
family expressed through our Holy Father, the Second Vatican Council,
and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Of necessity, it deals
with only a few of the issues relevant to family life today. It offers a
limited pastoral treatment of them consistent with the vocation of
every Christian to follow the way of love, even as Christ loved you (cf. Eph 5:2).
The message is addressed primarily to Christian families but is
intended also for all who can use it toward strengthening their
Questions are placed at various points in the message to encourage
readers to make personal applications, as well as to use the text as the
basis for discussion in their homes and with other families.
At the end of the message there is a select annotated list of church teaching on marriage and family.
Pastors and church ministers are encouraged to help families receive this message and use it.
Families Are a Sign of God's Presence
Ways of Loving
When people talk about life in a family, they speak of love with its
abiding peace, its searing pain, its moments of joy and disappointment,
its heroic struggle and ordinary routines.
"Family is where someone loves you no matter what," a teenager declares.
"Family doesn't mean just mom, dad, and kids, but grandparents, aunts, uncles, and others," explains a Hispanic woman.
"In a family you don't have to look very far to find your cross," a father observes.
"My child asks me such mystical questions," reports a young mother. "I learn so much."
"My teenagers were very sensitive to me during my divorce. God was there for me," a single parent recalls.
The story of family life is a story about love—shared, nurtured, and
sometimes rejected or lost. In every family God is revealed uniquely and
personally, for God is love and those who live in love, live in
God and God dwells in them (cf. 1 Jn 4:16).
And so our message is one that springs from love and that offers you a
reflection on love: how it is experienced in a family, how it is
challenged today, how it grows and enriches others, and how it needs the
support of the whole Church.
We write to you as pastors and teachers in the Church, but we come to
you as family members also. We are sons and brothers and uncles. We have
known the commitment and sacrifices of a mother and father, the warmth
of a family's care, the happiness and pain that are part of loving.
Some of us lived in single-parent families; others were adopted
children. Some of us grew up in alcoholic homes. We came from affluence
and from families where money was scarce.
Some of us have felt the hurt of racial discrimination or cultural
prejudice. Some have lived for many generations in this country. Others
are recent immigrants.
With our families, we celebrate the birth of a baby or a loved one's
success. We rejoice at weddings and anniversaries of family members even
as we grieve at an untimely death or the breakup of a married couple.
Knowing your many joys and struggles, we value your witness of fidelity
in marriage and in family life. We rejoice with you in your happiness.
We walk with you in your sorrow.
The Way of Love
Our ministry as pastors and teachers is enriched by our family
experience. In addition, our vocation of leadership connects us to all
families. It gives us the responsibility of opening up God's truth about
human existence and of sharing with you the saving resources which the
Lord has entrusted to the Church.
With our Holy Father, we consider it a privilege to undertake "the
mission of proclaiming with joy and conviction the good news about the
family" (On the Family, no. 86).
Yes, there is good news to tell. You may occasionally catch a glimpse
of it in the news media and in conversation with neighbors or fellow
workers. But the full story is to be found in God's word. The First
Letter of John puts it succinctly:
In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God
sent his only Son into the world that we might have life through him. In
this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us. . . .
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another (1 Jn
Thus, the basic vocation of every person, whether married or living a celibate life, is the same: follow the way of love, even as Christ loved you (cf. Eph 5:2). The Lord issues this call to your family and to every family regardless of its condition or circumstances.
Love brought you to life as a family. Love sustains you through good
and bad times. When our Church teaches that the family is an "intimate
community of life and love," it identifies something perhaps you already
know and offers you a vision toward which to grow.
What you do in your family to create a community of love, to help each
other to grow, and to serve those in need is critical, not only for your
own sanctification but for the strength of society and our Church. It
is a participation in the work of the Lord, a sharing in the mission of
the Church. It is holy.
- What image, feeling, or memory comes to mind when you think about your family?
- What does it tell you about your life as a family?
You Are the Church in Your Home
Baptism brings all Christians into union with God. Your family life is
sacred because family relationships confirm and deepen this union and
allow the Lord to work through you. The profound and the ordinary
moments of daily life—mealtimes, workdays, vacations, expressions of
love and intimacy, household chores, caring for a sick child or elderly
parent, and even conflicts over things like how to celebrate holidays,
discipline children, or spend money—all are the threads from which you
can weave a pattern of holiness.
Jesus promised to be where two or three are gathered in his name (cf. Mt 18:20). We give the name church
to the people whom the Lord gathers, who strive to follow his way of
love, and through whose lives his saving presence is made known.
A family is our first community and the most basic way in which the
Lord gathers us, forms us, and acts in the world. The early Church
expressed this truth by calling the Christian family a domestic church or church of the home.
This marvelous teaching was underemphasized for centuries but
reintroduced by the Second Vatican Council. Today we are still
uncovering its rich treasure.
The point of the teaching is simple, yet profound. As Christian
families, you not only belong to the Church, but your daily life is a
true expression of the Church.
Your domestic church is not complete by itself, of course. It should be
united with and supported by parishes and other communities within the
larger Church. Christ has called you and joined you to himself in and
through the sacraments. Therefore, you share in one and the same mission
that he gives to the whole Church.
You carry out the mission of the church of the home in ordinary ways when:
- You believe in God and that God cares about you. It is
God to whom you turn in times of trouble. It is God to whom you give
thanks when all goes well.
- You love and never give up believing in the value of
another person. Before young ones hear the Word of God preached from the
pulpit, they form a picture of God drawn from their earliest
experiences of being loved by parents, grandparents, godparents, and
other family members.
- You foster intimacy, beginning with the physical and
spiritual union of the spouses and extending in appropriate ways to the
whole family. To be able to share yourself—good and bad qualities—within
a family and to be accepted there is indispensable to forming a close
relationship with the Lord.
- You evangelize by professing faith in God, acting in
accord with gospel values, and setting an example of Christian living
for your children and for others. And your children, by their
spontaneous and genuine spirituality, will often surprise you into
recognizing God's presence.
- You educate. As the primary teachers of your children,
you impart knowledge of the faith and help them to acquire values
necessary for Christian living. Your example is the most effective way
to teach. Sometimes they listen and learn; sometimes they teach you new
ways of believing and understanding. Your wisdom and theirs come from
the same Spirit.
- You pray together, thanking God for blessings, reaching
for strength, asking for guidance in crisis and doubt You know as you
gather—restless toddlers, searching teenagers, harried adults—that God
answers all prayers, but sometimes in surprising ways.
- You serve one another, often sacrificing your own wants,
for the other's good. You struggle to take up your cross and carry it
with love. Your "deaths" and "risings" become compelling signs of Jesus'
own life, death, and resurrection.
- You forgive and seek reconciliation. Over and over, you
let go of old hurts and grudges to make peace with one another. And
family members come to believe that, no matter what, they are still
loved by you and by God.
- You celebrate life—birthdays and weddings, births and
deaths, a first day of school and a graduation, rites of passage into
adulthood, new jobs, old friends, family reunions, surprise visits, holy
days and holidays. You come together when tragedy strikes and in joyful
celebration of the sacraments. As you gather for a meal, you break
bread and share stories, becoming more fully the community of love Jesus
calls us to be.
- You welcome the stranger, the lonely one, the grieving
person into your home. You give drink to the thirsty and food to the
hungry. The Gospel assures us that when we do this, they are strangers
no more, but Christ.
- You act justly in your community when you treat others
with respect, stand against discrimination and racism, and work to
overcome hunger, poverty, homelessness, illiteracy.
- You affirm life as a precious gift from God. You oppose
whatever destroys life, such as abortion, euthanasia, unjust war,
capital punishment, neighborhood and domestic violence, poverty and
racism. Within your family, when you shun violent words and actions and
look for peaceful ways to resolve conflict, you become a voice for life,
forming peacemakers for the next generation.
- You raise up vocations to the priesthood and religious
life as you encourage your children to listen for God's call and respond
to God's grace. This is especially fostered through family prayer,
involvement in parish life, and by the way you speak of priests,
sisters, brothers, and permanent deacons.
No domestic church does all this perfectly. But neither does any parish
or diocesan church. All members of the Church struggle daily to become
more faithful disciples of Christ.
We need to enable families to recognize that they are a domestic
church. There may be families who do not understand or believe they are a
domestic church. Maybe they feel overwhelmed by this calling or unable
to carry out its responsibilities. Perhaps they consider their family
too "broken" to be used for the Lord's purposes. But remember, a family
is holy not because it is perfect but because God's grace is at work in
it, helping it to set out anew everyday on the way of love.
Like the whole Church, every Christian family rests on a firm
foundation, namely, Christ's promise to be faithful to those he has
chosen. When a man and a woman pledge themselves to each other in the
sacrament of matrimony, they join in Christ's promise and become a
living sign of his union with the Church (cf. Eph 5:32).
Therefore, a committed, permanent, faithful relationship of husband and
wife is the root of a family. It strengthens all the members, provides
best for the needs of children, and causes the church of the home to be
an effective sign of Christ in the world.
Wherever a family exists and love still moves through its members,
grace is present. Nothing—not even divorce or death—can place limits
upon God's gracious love.
And so, we recognize the courage and determination of families with one
parent raising the children. Somehow you fulfill your call to create a
good home, care for your children, hold down a job, and undertake
responsibilities in the neighborhood and church. You reflect the power
of faith, the strength of love, and the certainty that God does not
abandon us when circumstances leave you alone in parenting.
Those who try to blend two sets of children into one family face a
special challenge to accept differences and to love unconditionally.
They offer us a practical example of peacemaking.
Families arising from an interreligious marriage give witness to the
universality of God's love which overcomes all division. When family
members respect one another's different religious beliefs and practices,
they testify to our deeper unity as a human family called to live in
peace with one another.
We share the pain of couples who struggle without success to conceive a
child. We admire and encourage families who adopt a child, become
foster parents, or care for an elderly or disabled relative in their
We offer our heartfelt sympathy and support to those parents who grieve
at the death of a child due to illness, stillbirth, or the violence so
prevalent in our society today.
We honor all families who, in the face of obstacles, remain faithful to
Christ's way of love. The church of the home can live and grow in every
In our pastoral ministry, we have listened to many families: to
husbands and wives, to estranged spouses, to abused and abandoned
spouses, to single parents, and to children. We know that all families
long for the peace, the acceptance, a sense of purpose, and the
reconciliation that the term church of the home
believe that with prayer; hard work; understanding; commitment; the
support of other families, parish priests, deacons and their wives, and
religious and lay pastoral ministers; and especially with God's grace,
the church of the home is built in ordinary homes, in your family.
- Reflect for a moment on your life as a family. Do you recall a time when you felt God's presence in your midst?
- Why do you think this was so?
- What was happening?
- Recall one or more instances where you experienced being church, either in the home or outside of it. What was the outcome?
Families Are Challenged by Change and Complexity
Living in Today's Society
We know you face obstacles as you try to maintain strong family ties
and to follow your calling as a church of the home. The rapid pace of
social change; the religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity of our
society; the revolution of values within our culture; the intrusion of
mass media; the impact of political and economic conditions: all these
place families under considerable stress.
Some family pressures are due to broad social forces over which a
family has little control. But other pressures are caused by personal
choices, sometimes involving human weakness and sinful behavior.
Divorce, a serious contemporary problem, takes a heavy toll on family
life. Spouses and children are affected most immediately, but so too are
grandparents, other relatives, and friends that make up the extended
family. Divorce can create in young people a fear of and a reluctance to
make lifelong commitments. It often pushes families into poverty and
contributes to other social ills.
Families are burdened also by the economic demands of providing
housing, health care, childcare when needed, education, and proper care
for sick or elderly members. Unemployment or the fear of losing a job
haunts many families.
Child and spouse abuse are touching the lives of more families. So,
too, is the tragedy of AIDS. Families struggle with alcoholism, crime
and gang violence in their neighborhoods, substance abuse, and suicide
among youth. In a neverending stream, communications media bring images
and messages into your homes that may contradict your values and exert a
negative influence on your children.
Some families face multiple burdens of poverty, racism, religious and
cultural discrimination. New immigrant families can feel unwelcome in
our communities and caught in a conflict between cultures.
Not all families experience these pressures to the same degree. Some
are damaged by forces beyond their control. Many more, however, continue
with prayerful determination and trust in God. All deserve our
compassion and support—those who persevere also our gratitude as they
show us the very faithfulness of God.
Pressure is brought to bear on families not only by outside forces but
by those ordinary and inevitable tensions which arise from within. Daily
you discover how different temperaments and opposing points of view can
create hard feelings and even lasting bitterness. Human weakness and
sinfulness often make it difficult to accept differences.
Recall how the wayward son swallowed his pride and returned home to
find a forgiving father awaiting him and a family celebrating his
arrival (cf. Lk 15:11-32). In the same way, all of us who suffer broken
relationships are called to make peace, to reestablish trust, and to
This can be an especially painful task for parents. What if your child
becomes addicted to drugs, or harms others through drunken driving, or
chooses friends you consider a bad influence. What if your adult child
leaves the Church or makes other choices that cause you pain? Is it
still possible to maintain a loving relationship without approving the
child's behavior? How much can you accept before you compromise your own
It's not possible in this message to give complete answers to these
questions and to the many others you confront. But what we can do, as
your pastors and teachers, is to shed the light of Sacred Scripture and
our Catholic tradition on a few key issues which you face.
In the next few pages we would like to discuss with you four challenges
in family life. They are: living faithfully, giving life, growing in
mutuality, and taking time. They make a claim on your resources and
responsibilities as a church of the home. They point out how you can follow the way of love, even as Christ loved you (cf. Eph 5:2).
- Can you think of a pressure that has brought trouble to your family?
- How did you deal with it?
- Did this bring you closer or drive you farther apart as a family?
The Sacred Scripture passage that many couples choose for their wedding ceremony is a marvelous blueprint for loving.
Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is
not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its
own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury,
it does not rejoice over wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. It
bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all
things. Love never fails (1 Cor 13:4-8).
These words of St. Paul are worth daily meditation not only for their
insight into the true shape of love but for strengthening our wills to
follow this way of love. The love that he describes flourishes in
faithful, stable relationships. This applies, first and foremost, to a
marriage. It is true also for the entire family.
When a woman and a man vow to be true in good times and in bad they are
confirming a decision to love one another. But, as married couples have
taught us, this decision to love is one we have to make over and over
again, when it feels good and when it does not. It is a decision to look
for, act on, and pray for the good of the people we say we love. It is a
pledge of fidelity.
Our world today needs living witnesses to fidelity. These are the most
convincing signs of the love that Christ has for every human being.
Couples who are living faithful lives of mutual love and support—though
not without difficulties—have the gratitude of the whole Church.
You know the value of a loving and life-giving marriage. Indeed, your
marriage is a gift to all of us. A wonderful way to share this gift, as
well as to reinvigorate your own commitment, would be to help engaged
couples prepare for the sacrament of matrimony. We invite you to become
part of this important ministry through a parish or diocesan program.
Couples who are finding it hard to stay married deserve our prayers and
assistance. The Church can offer them the counsel of other married
couples and the assurance that, with God's grace, it is possible to live
Newly-married couples, when you find yourselves in a crisis, do not
conclude that divorce is inevitable. All of us—family members, friends,
communities of faith—should feel responsible for helping you to
recognize that divorce is not inevitable and is certainly not your only
An enduring marriage is more than simply endurance. It is a process of
growth into an intimate friendship and a deepening peace. So we urge all
couples: renew your commitment regularly, seek enrichment often, and
ask for pastoral and professional help when needed.
To live faithfully in a marriage requires humility, trust, compromise,
communication, and a sense of humor. It is a give-and-take experience,
involving hurt and forgiveness, failure and sacrifice. The very same
thing is true of fidelity in other family relationships.
Children who care for parents stricken with Alzheimer's disease,
parents who stand by their adult children even when they seem to reject
the family's values, a grandparent who helps to raise the children when
parents are unable, a single parent who goes to great lengths to raise
and nurture the children without the benefit of the other parent: all
these are living faithful lives. They enflesh the words of Ruth, who
refused to forsake her widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, and instead vowed,
"wherever you go I will go" (Ru 1:16).
Your faithful love in a marriage and family is tested by change. It can
also be strengthened and brought to maturity through change. The
challenge is to remain open to the Lord's gracious, healing presence and
to see change as an opportunity for growth.
Some changes in a family come unexpectedly, like a major illness, a job
transfer, or loss of employment. Others fit more naturally into the
flow of life, such as the birth of a child, the arrival of teenage
years, or adult children leaving home. Regardless, though, every change
brings with it a measure of stress and uncertainty. For many, it is like
a dark night of the soul.
In these moments, dare to hope that you will rise to new experiences of
love, entering into the very mystery of Christ's own dying and rising.
Maybe your family is trying to cope with a difficult loss or change.
Perhaps you are torn by a conflict or trapped in an unhealthy pattern of
relationships. If this is so, please seek God's help and the support of
The Church's treasures of prayer and worship, learning and service,
contemplation and spiritual guidance are always available to you. The
grace of the sacrament of matrimony and the power of the commitment that
you have made to one another are continuing wellsprings of strength.
A marriage between a Christian and a follower of another religion,
while not a sacrament, is a holy state instituted by God. It too is a
divine gift with sustaining spiritual power.
Also, do not hesitate to seek professional assistance. Counseling, for
example, can help you to identify the personal resources you already
have and to use them more effectively.
- What does love mean to you?
- When have you had to renew a decision to love your spouse, child, or another family member?
- What made it difficult or easy?
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that love diffuses itself, that is, it wells up and spills over into every aspect of our lives.
When a man and a woman marry they pledge a love which is, in the words of Pope Paul VI, creative of life
(cf. On Human Life
no. 9). For a "couple, while giving themselves to one another, give not
just themselves but also the reality of their children, who are a
living reflection of their love . . ." (On the Family
, no. 14).
Welcoming a child, through birth or adoption, is an act of faith as
well as an act of love. Being open to new life signals trust in the God
who ultimately creates and sustains all life. It is also the beginning
of a lifetime commandment: nurturing, teaching, disciplining, and,
finally, letting go of a child—as he or she follows a new and perhaps
uncharted way of love. Parenthood is indeed a Christian call and
responsibility. It is the experience of acting as God's instruments in
giving life to sons and daughters in various ways; but equally, it is an
experience of being formed by God through your children.
The life that you give as parents is not restricted just to your
offspring. The children of other families need your guidance, as do
other parents who can benefit from your hard-earned experience.
Likewise, you cannot raise your own children alone. All families—even
those with two parents—need a wider circle of aunts and uncles,
grandparents, godparents, and other faith-filled families.
There are so many ways in which families can give life, especially in a
society that devalues life through such actions as abortion and
euthanasia. For instance, your family can ask: how have we been blessed
as a family? What values and beliefs do we want to hand on to future
generations? What strengths and resources do we possess that we could
share with others? What traditions and rituals have enriched our lives?
Could they benefit other families?
Each generation of a family is challenged to leave the world a more
beautiful and beneficial place than it inherited. You can do this, for
example, when you deliberately pass on your wisdom and the faith of the
Church, providing countercultural messages about poverty, consumerism,
sexuality and racial justice—to name a few.
You also give life as a family by doing such simple things as taking a
grandparent out of a nursing home for a ride, bringing a meal to a sick
neighbor, helping to build homes for poor people, working in a soup
kitchen, recycling your goods, working to improve the schools, or
joining political action on behalf of those treated unjustly.
Such activity builds stronger family bonds. It enriches both the
receiver and the giver. It releases the "formidable energies" present in
families for building a better society (On the Family
, no. 43).
The value of your witness which Christian families offer cannot be
overestimated. As a family becomes a community of faith and love, it
simultaneously becomes a center of evangelization.
- What is it in life that matters most to me?
- How, with whom—and when—shall I share my treasure?
- Does our family share what it treasures with other families?
Growing in Mutuality
At the basis of all relationships in a family is our fundamental
equality as persons created in God's image. The creation narratives in
the Book of Genesis teach this fundamental truth: "both man and woman
are human beings to an equal degree, both are created in God's image" (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women
, no. 6).
And St. Paul describes the "new creation" made possible in Christ:
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed
yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither
slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all
one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-28).
Marriage is the partnership of a man and woman equal in dignity and
value. This does not imply sameness in roles or expectations. There are
important physical and psychological traits which result in differing
skills and perspectives. Nor does the equality of persons mean that two
spouses will have identical gifts or character or roles.
Rather, a couple who accepts their equality as sons and daughters in
the Lord will honor and cherish one another. They will respect and value
each other's gifts and uniqueness. They will "[b]e subordinate to one
another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph 5:21).
Our competitive culture tends to promote aggressiveness and struggles
for power. These are a common part of life, especially in the workplace.
It is all too easy for couples to bring an unhealthy competitive spirit
to their relationship. The Gospel demands that all of us critically
examine such attitudes. Marriage must never become a struggle for
For, unlike other relationships, marriage is a vowed covenant with
unique dimensions. In. this partnership, mutual submission—not dominance
by either partner—is the key to genuine joy. Our attitude should be the
same as Jesus "[w]ho, though he was in the form of God, did not regard
equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself . .
." (Phil 2:6-7).
True equality, understood as mutuality, is not measuring out tasks (who
prepares the meals, who supervises homework, and so forth) or
maintaining an orderly schedule. It thrives at a much deeper level where
the power of the Spirit resides. Here, the grace of the vowed life not
only makes the shedding of willfulness possible, but also leads to a
Mutuality is really about sharing power and exercising responsibility
for a purpose larger than ourselves. How household duties are
distributed should follow from understanding what it takes to build a
life together, as well as the individual skills and interests you bring
to your common life.
Our experience as pastors shows us that genuine marital intimacy and
true friendship are unlikely without mutuality. One spouse alone is not
the keeper of love's flame. Both of you are co-creators of your
relationship. Nowhere is this more vividly portrayed than in your
decisions about having children. The Church promotes natural family
planning for many reasons, among which are that "it favors attention for
one's partner, helps both parties to drive out selfishness, the enemy
of true love, and deepens their sense of responsibility" (On Human Life
, no. 21).
Agreeing that you are equal might be easier than changing your behavior
or accepting joint responsibility for your relationship. It takes hard
work to really understand another's feelings or to practice shared
decision making on important matters.
Sharing feelings and a willingness to be vulnerable can be difficult,
particularly for those of us raised in the "strong and silent"
tradition. Men in all walks of life seem to have been influenced by this
Moreover, some women have learned to fear conflict and may remain
passive in the face of it. Women who accept their own self-worth are
more able to express their beliefs, ideas, and feelings, even such
painful ones as anger.
Flexible roles may appear difficult if your families of origin did not
model them. 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.
We urge you to take advantage of programs sponsored by your parish,
diocese, or other organizations in your community that teach
communication and conflict resolution to couples and to parents. Also
there are worthwhile programs that lead women and men to a spiritual
understanding of their behaviors, to appreciate how they influence each
other, and to move beyond gender stereotypes.
We urge you to join with other couples and families who are making a
conscious effort to follow Christ's way of love. You can find help for
this through the Christian Family Movement (CFM), Marriage Encounter,
Teams of Our Lady, the New Families Movement, and your diocesan Family
Life Office—to name just a few.
When children are born, both mother and father are important in
nurturing and forming them. More and more, fathers have been discovering
how their involvement in parenting enriches both their children and
themselves. This is a hopeful development.
We urge men to interpret their traditional role as "provider" for a
family in more than an economic sense. Physical care of children,
discipline, training in religious values and practices, helping with
school work and other activities: all these and more can be provided by
fathers as well as mothers.
There is a lesson to be learned from the way in which many cultures
place children at the center of family life. Children in the family
share equal dignity as persons with the adults. They too are part of the
covenant of mutuality. Parents can demonstrate this by treating
children with respect, giving them responsibilities, listening seriously
to their thoughts and feelings.
Bringing children into decision-making discussions, especially when the
decisions could alter the pattern of family life, has precedent in our
tradition. We read in the Rule of St. Benedict that the abbot is to
consult with all members of the monastery, even the youngest (who often
were children), when their lives were likely to be affected. Rather than
undermining authority, this strengthens it in love.
Elders enrich the life of their families. They, too, should be
cherished, not merely tolerated, for they are "a witness to the past and
a source of wisdom for the young and for the future" (On the Family
no. 27). Grandparents, we encourage you to continue your lives of
caring, especially for the youngest generation, and to find additional
ways of demonstrating love for your children and grandchildren.
The pattern of mutuality within a household is closely allied with the
virtue of humility. And humility is forged in prayer: husbands and wives
praying with and for each other, parents praying with and for their
children. This is the heart of ministry within the church of the home.
- As a married couple, reread this section and consider: how has
early life shaped our understanding of the roles of men and women?
- Where do we need to grow in mutuality?
- As a family, do we show respect for one another?
- How can we strengthen this virtue?
We are struck by the incredible busyness of family life that can take
its toll on loving relationships. Daily we observe families overwhelmed
by the demands of work, business travel, household tasks, getting to and
from school, keeping appointments with doctors, civic responsibilities,
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. It is a critical issue facing families
today. Where choices exist, hours on the job need to be weighed against
their impact on family life.
To thrive, love requires attention, communication, and time—to share a
story or confide a need, to play a game, to tell a joke, to watch and
cheer on—time to be present to another's failure or success, confusion,
despair or moment of decision.
Spending time together builds intimacy, increases understanding and
creates memories between husband and wife, parent and child, brothers
and sisters, grandparents and younger family members, It is hard to
imagine how a family can live faithfully, be life giving, and grow in
mutuality without deliberately choosing to spend time together.
It is especially important for couples to have some time alone.
Spending time away from children and other adults provides opportunities
to grow in understanding and rekindles the fire of love that is often
left unattended as children, job, and other commitments claim time and
So, each of us needs to ask: to what am I giving my precious time? What
are my priorities? Do television, sports, making money, shopping,
getting ahead on the job, volunteering in the church or community
swallow up time that could be better spent with those I love?
We challenge you to examine the priorities you have for your family.
Compare them with how you actually spend your time, See what individual
pursuits could be given up or replaced with family activities. We urge
you to take time to be together:
- making shared meals a priority (even if you gather at a fast food restaurant),
- praying and worshipping together, especially at the Sunday Eucharist and in family prayers, such as the rosary,
- building family traditions and rituals,
- taking part in retreats and family education programs.
Watching television together and discussing the values being promoted on programs can be time well spent as a family.
Time given to solitude is also time well spent. When we enter into a
genuine Sabbath experience, alone with God, we can understand more fully
who we are—as distinguished from what we do—and can receive what Jesus
offers when he invites us to "come to me... and I will refresh you" (Mt
- How are we balancing time commitments to jobs, community, each other, and the children?
- Have our lives become too fragmented?
- What positive choices have we made, this week, to improve on how we use our time?
Families Are Supported in the Church
Earlier in our message we affirmed the ancient insight that the
Christian family is a church of the home. This understanding has guided
and informed all we have written. We know that, in the everyday moments
of your family lives, you proclaim God's word, communicate with God in
prayer, and serve the needs of others. The graced experience you have as
a Christian family in your domestic church should be shared more
extensively with all of us.
We encourage you to help the Church by speaking to us, but more
importantly to other families, about how you are trying to follow the
way of love. Tell us how you work to stay married, how your family has
overcome obstacles, how you have made time for each other, sought
enrichment opportunities or professional help with your problems. Share
with us how you have come to understand your vocation as a spouse or
parent. Speak to us of your pain over broken promises and relationships.
Give witness to your belief in God's mercy as you move toward
reconciliation both with your family and with the Church. Help us to
appreciate the symbols and traditions with which you celebrate and
worship. Let us glimpse how you are trying to live a more simple
lifestyle, serve the needy, build justice and peace in your community.
Tell us what kinds of support you expect from the larger Church.
In 1994 (The International Year of the Family) Catholic News Service
will provide a forum, through its syndicated "Faith Alive" series, for
families to tell their stories.
Your words and deeds will lend strength to our exhortations.
At other times we have urged all institutions of society to forge
partnerships with families. We now promise to do our part to develop
such a partnership within the Church. Specifically, as the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops, we pledge:
- to welcome dialogue between our conference and families by
asking the Committee on Marriage and Family to find ways of listening to
families' reflections on this message;
- to continue our support for families organizing to help one
another, e.g., in the responsibilities of parenthood, in the process of
grieving and healing after a significant loss, in taking action to serve
the poor and remedy injustice, in forming communities of families who
walk the way of love together;
- to request theologians and pastoral leaders, especially at the
national level, to develop resources that will strengthen the unity of
marriage and deepen everyone's understanding of the value and role of
the Christian family as a domestic church;
- to study in greater depth how to improve our marriage
preparation efforts and how to strengthen and enrich marriages, using
the spiritual and pastoral resources of the Church, and to focus
particularly on those stages in a marriage when there is the greatest
likelihood of divorce;
- to include more deliberately within the scope of our pastoral
care an attentiveness to single-parent families, families in a second
marriage, grandparents raising children, interracial families,
interfaith families, and persons who are widowed or divorced;
- to broaden our efforts to welcome families from ethnically and racially diverse groups;
- to advocate with national organizations, publishers, educators,
and other experts for resources that will assist parents in the role of
forming the morals and faith of their children;
- to continue our national advocacy for public policy and
legislation that will promote family stability and the welfare of
children and those who are most vulnerable—the unborn, the disabled, and
the frail and sick elderly.
In general, we wish to initiate or improve things that are within our
competence as a national body so that our belief about you, a church of
the home, will bear fruit. We bishops need you to infuse the whole
Church with your vitality, your understanding, your loving intimacy,
your hospitality. We need you, whose faith and discipleship are nurtured
within the church of the home, to join more fully with us in
proclaiming Christ to the world.
We acknowledge that official structures sometimes make it difficult to
have dialogue with families and to create a partnership with you.
Therefore, as bishops in our individual dioceses, we recognize these
- to urge our diocesan agencies and parishes to create ways for
families to communicate with church leadership about their needs and
- to see that our parishes, schools, institutions, and diocesan
agencies examine the extent to which their policies and programs help or
hinder family growth and enable families to meet their
- to give serious consideration to changing those policies and
programs that are no longer responsive to contemporary family needs or
make it difficult for families to assume their rightful place as a
church of the home.
A Concluding Word
We have expressed in various ways throughout our message how deeply we
care about strengthening family life for the well-being of the world and
the Church and, indeed, for the sake of every man, woman, and child.
Now, as a means of emphasizing, we offer these reflections:
- Married couples: the grace of the sacrament of matrimony
and the spiritual power of your vows are available to you daily. Call
upon these realities to strengthen you in your vocation.
- Parents: not only do your children need discipline and
love, they need the example of adults whose behavior demonstrates their
caring. Put your children first in making decisions about family life.
- Children and youth: you have the right to expect love,
guidance, discipline, and respect from your parents and elders. And, in
turn, you should obey and respect them while you share with them your
love, your experience of God, your fears and hope. You should help your
parents and elders in their needs and accompany them in the way of
holiness. Pray for them as they do for you.
- Spouses who are separated: the road to healing,
reconciliation, and rebuilding of your relationship can be a slow,
painful one. If you are willing to begin that journey, the Church has
many resources like pastoral counseling, Retrouvaille, and The Third
Option program, which can assist you.
- Divorced and widowed persons: relationships and
circumstances within your family may have changed, but God's love for
you is ever present and does not come to an end. Grasp the hands of
those who reach out to you in loving concern. Extend your own hand to
others whom you meet on the road to healing and reconciliation. There is
a home for you within our parishes and communities of faith.
- Single parents: to be faced with all the
responsibilities of parenting by yourself is a challenge that touches
the very core of your life. We bishops express our solidarity with you.
We urge all parishes and Christian communities to welcome you, to help
you find what you need for a good family life, and to offer the loving
friendship that is a mark of our Christian tradition.
- Families: join with other families in communities of
mutual support. Spiritual growth, insight into problems, help in times
of trouble, and lasting friendships can flow from such experiences.
- There is no shame in seeking help for family problems, whether
it be in the form of counseling, educational programs, or support
- Christian life includes obligations beyond the family circle.
For children to learn the true meaning of abundant life in Christ (cf.
Jn 10:10), they need to know the joy of contributing to the common good:
in the home, in the neighborhood, in the Church, and in society. Duty
is an anchor in what seems an ocean of chaos.
If all the members of the Church are to follow Christ's way of love, it
is essential that we continue speaking with, listening to, and learning
from each other. We are the one Body of Christ: the Church in the home,
in the small community, in the parish, in the diocese, in a universal
communion. We share one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We are one family
We bishops prayerfully entrust all families
to Mary, the mother of Jesus
and mother of the Church.
We ask St. Joseph to guide you
in all the ways of faithfulness.
Most of these documents (those listed with a publication number) are
available from: United States Catholic Conference, Office for Publishing
and Promotion Services, 3211 Fourth Street N.E., Washington, D.C.
Second Vatican Council. Constitution on the Church in the Modern World/Gaudium et Spes. December 7, 1965.
Teaching on the dignity of marriage, the role of the family, and the duty of society and the Church to support families.
Pope Paul VI. On Human Life/Humanae Vitae (also known as On the Regulation of Birth). July 25, 1968. Publication No. 280-2.
Encyclical letter on the nature and purposes of married love, the gift of fertility, and the call to responsible parenthood.
Pope John Paul II. On the Family/Familiaris Consortio. December 15, 1981. Publication No. 833-9.
Apostolic exhortation on the nature and tasks of the Christian family and the scope of pastoral care needed by families.
Pope John Paul II. On the Dignity and Vocation of Women/Mulieris Dignitatem. August 15, 1988.
The mutuality of men and women in marriage, the
importance of the order of love, and the essential Marian dimension of
the Church are presented in this apostolic letter which springs from the
Holy Father's meditation on the Scriptures.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Human Life in Our Day.
November 15, 1968. (Not currently available from USCC; please check with your parish or diocesan library.)
Pastoral letter emphasizing the maturing of life in a family and the development of life in a peaceful world order.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. To Live in Christ Jesus: A Pastoral Reflection on the Moral Life.
November 11, 1976. (Not currently available from USCC; please check with your parish or diocesan library.)
Pastoral letter responding to certain moral questions arising from life in the family, nation, and world community.
Holy See. Charter of the Rights of the Family.
October 22, 1983.
A document addressed to governments presenting principles to be used in drawing up legislation, family policy and programs.
Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism.
March 25, 1993. Publication No. 658-1.
A document containing important directives on mixed marriages.
National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Family Ministry: A Pastoral Plan and a Reaffirmation.
November 13, 1990. Publication No. 426-0.
Statement providing leadership and direction for pastoral ministry with families.
United States Catholic Conference. Human Sexuality: A Catholic Perspective for Education and Lifelong Learning.
November 21, 1990. Publication No. 405-8.
Document presenting the human values, scriptural roots,
moral principles, and theological considerations that must be taken into
account when formulating educational programs.
United States Catholic Conference. Putting Children and Families First: A Challenge for Our Church, Nation, and World.
November 1991. Publication No. 469-4.
Pastoral statement examining the social conditions of
children and the moral and religious dimensions of caring for them,
especially through reordering our priorities in public policy and
Committee on Marriage and Family, NCCB. A Family Perspective in Church and Society
1998. Publication No. 5-273.
A resource for leaders to increase their understanding of
contemporary families and to assess how policies and programs can
strengthen family life.
Committee for Pastoral Research and Practices, NCCB. Faithful to Each Other Forever: A Catholic Handbook of Pastoral Help for Marriage Preparation.
1989. Publication No. 252-7.
A resource for diocesan and parish ministers responsible
for catechesis on the sacrament of matrimony, preparing couples for
marriage, and providing pastoral care after the wedding.
Committee on Marriage and Family, NCCB. Families at the Center: A Handbook for Parish Ministry with a Family Perspective.
1990. Publication No. 337-X.
A resource for those who want to know how the principles of a family perspective can be utilized in parish ministries.
Committee on Marriage and Family and Committee on Women in Society and in the Church, NCCB. When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence against Women.
1992. Publication No. 547-X.
A statement intended for the victims of abuse, for those to
whom they turn for help, and for abusers themselves; it offers moral
and practical guidance for responding to domestic violence and for
dealing with those who abuse women.
Committee for Pro-Life Activities, NCCB. Human Sexuality from God's Perspective: Humanae Vitae 25 Years Later.
July 25, 1993. (Available from: Diocesan Development Program for
Natural Family Planning, 3211 Fourth Street N.E., Washington, D.C.
A reaffirmation of the teaching of Humanae Vitae calling a
new generation to recognize and accept the Church's prophetic vision of
marriage, sexuality, and family life.
Follow the Way of Love: A Pastoral Message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to Families
was developed by the Committee on Marriage and Family. It was approved
by the Administrative Committee in September 1993 and by the Catholic
bishops of the United States at their general meeting on November 17,
1993. Follow the Way of Love
is authorized for publication by the undersigned.
Monsignor Robert N. Lynch, General Secretary, NCCB/USCC
Scriptural excerpts from the New American Bible
used with permission of the copyright holder, Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, copyright © 1970, 1986. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1994, United States Catholic Conference, Inc., Washington,
D.C. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and
retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright
To order Follow the Way of Love: A Pastoral Message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to Families
in its official published format, contact the USCC Office for
Publishing and Promotion Services, 800-235-8722 (in the Washington
metropolitan area or from outside the United States, 202-722-8716).
English: No. 677-8; Spanish: No. 676-X. 32 pp.