by Oswald Cardinal Gracias, President, Conference of Catholic Bishops of India
INDIA, FEB 23, 2017: We, two Cardinals, 136 Archbishops and Bishops, representing the 132 dioceses of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), gathered at the Pastoral Centre, Bhopal, for our Plenary Assembly from 31st January to 8th February 2017 to deliberate, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, on the theme "Promoting the Joy of Love in our Families". The choice of this theme was prompted by the epoch-making Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (Joy of Love), which was the outcome of the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family. The Apostolic Exhortation reviews the current situation of families in the light of the Church's perennial teaching on marriage and family, especially with regard to unity and indissolubility of marriage (cf. Mt 19:3-6; Eph 5: 22-31) with a view to building up stable, fruitful and joyful families, and offering help to those who do not fully meet the Christian ideal of marriage and the family. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, always remains as a model of our ministry to the family. Indeed, the family is God's precious gift to human society and to the Church.
The theme of the family as the "Domestic Church" has been the subject of frequent reflection by the Bishops of India. Aware that "the welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and of the Church" (AL 31), the 29th Plenary Assembly (2017) took up this theme for reflection anew.
At our current Plenary Assembly, we were fortunate to have His Eminence Lorenzo Cardinal Baldisseri, the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, Rome, who enlightened us on the historical background and the thrust of Amoris Laetitia. We were enriched by the frank and faith-filled sharing of some Catholic couples from various parts of our country - a couple who had been present at the 2015 Synod; a father of a mentally challenged child; a single parent, and others who spoke with utter sincerity and openness about their marital journey with all its ups and downs, joys and sorrows. We were edified by their deep faith in God, their prayer life nourished by the Word of God and participation in the Holy Eucharist, and their dedication to ministry in the Church as lay people. We realise that these couples who spoke to us are just a few of the many Catholic families which, despite many difficulties, remain faithful to the Church's teaching on marriage, and make possible for their children a truly Christian upbringing. Such families are nurseries of vocations for the priesthood and religious life. Seeing this, we are filled with joy in the Spirit, and would like to thank our families for the service they render to the Church and to society.
At the same time, we are aware that there are some shadows. More than 300 million people in our country are subject to poverty and deprivation, especially in the rural areas, with little access to basic health services, educational facilities and employment opportunities. Many of them are afflicted by evils such as domestic violence and alcoholism. Among the poor, women and children are the ones who suffer the most. A large number of families have not been sufficiently catechised. Migration too has had a strong impact on marriage and family life. The media, with all its beneficial effects, have often exercised a deleterious influence on family life.
Part of the problem is that ordained ministers are not adequately equipped to help families cope with the complex problems they face (cf. AL 202). Priests also need to know how to harness, for the pastoral care of families, the many Family Movements and Associations with which the Church is blessed.
As pastors responsible for our faithful, we took into serious account the varied and diverse situations regarding marriage and family across various regions of our country. We have sketched out a Plan of Action which will be made specific and implemented in stages by each diocese, according to its needs and resources. As Bishops, primarily responsible for the family apostolate, we wish to state:
1. The content of our pastoral plan for families will always include the "culture of life" (cf. Gen 1:28, 3:20; Evangelium Vitae 87).
2. We will focus, in the first place, on adequate Preparation for Marriage, updating, wherever necessary, the present Marriage Preparation Courses. We want to emphasise especially Christian Family Education programmes in our schools and colleges, with a view to helping young people discover the dignity and beauty of marriage (cf. AL 205-216), without minimising the call to priestly and religious life.
3. Priests and religious will keep in touch with families through regular family visits and devise structures for accompanying couples, especially in the first years of marriage (cf. AL 217-238). We will enlist the help of experienced married couples, Parish Family Cells, SCC (BEC) networks and the Family Movements and Associations in our dioceses. Wherever needed and feasible, we will establish Family Service Centres with counselling facilities to help couples facing difficulties.
4. In particular, with a careful process of discernment, we will reach out to those who, for several reasons, feel estranged from the Church (divorced, divorced and civilly remarried, cohabiting partners, etc.). We keep in mind the words of Pope Francis: "what is urgently needed today is a ministry to care for those whose marital relationship has broken down" (AL 238). We want all to feel the maternal love of the Church in such a way that they experience the merciful embrace of the Father from which no one is excluded.
5. We will ensure that our priests, religious, catechists and pastoral workers receive better training for family ministry. In particular, we will insist that seminarians "receive a more extensive, interdisciplinary, and not merely doctrinal formation in the areas of engagement and marriage" (AL 203) and will have exposure to family situations under the guidance of their formators.
6. We realise that there are certain families that need special care: families living in dire poverty, families with spouses of two different religious traditions, single parent families, families with differently abled children, grieving and bereaved families, migrant families, families with sick and elderly members (cf. AL 247-253). We pledge to support and accompany these families in whatever way possible.
7. Responding to the call of Pope Francis, we will show a respectful attitude to those who have not been provided with adequate pastoral care such as transgenders, people with different orientations, etc.
Dear families in Christ, Pope Francis so well says: "The Joy of Love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church" (AL 1). We ourselves experienced this joy while deliberating on the family in the light of the Holy Spirit. You are God's precious gift to the Church. We are grateful to Pope Francis for so courageously highlighting the need of a merciful approach to families, especially to those living in difficult situations.
Along with other Christian families and those of other faiths, you are called to journey together to become witnesses of God's tender love and mercy in this world, which has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ.
May Mary, the Queen of the Families and St Joseph, her chaste spouse, intercede for our families to enable them to live in justice, peace, love and joy in the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 14:17).