The Synod on the Family has gotten underway, and if you are reading the mainstream news you will have heard that the "conservatives" are digging in and insisting that nothing much is going to change (well, duh). This, however, comes as a great surprise to certain Trads who are certain--positive, even!--that the pope is about to toss out the indissolubility of marriage and commit apostasy among other things and usher in a new age of truly-true Catholic gloom, doom, bitterness and despair which will be nothing like the current age of truly-true Catholic gloom, doom, bitterness and despair, for reasons which aren't quite clear.
Meanwhile, at my tiny little mission church, parents with young children are probably getting tired of seeing me around, because I'm one of those annoying people who makes it a point to stop and talk to moms and dads whose little ones are having a difficult sort of Mass and encourage them and tell them that it gets better (no, really!) and just generally letting them know that I (and many others) are glad they are there. I am always glad to see families with little ones at Mass. I know how hard they are trying because while those days are a memory for me, they're not that distant of a memory (and I have a good memory, anyway). I remember those frantic Church-math calculations you make: Let X equal the number of microseconds between the baby bumping her chin on the pew and the time she starts sounding like an air-raid siren, and let Y equal the amount of time it will take me to inform the oblivious older toddler that we've got to get out, now, and join Daddy who is in the back with the two-year-old, and let Z equal the intensity of the withering stares tossed in our direction while we make the quick dash of shame...And sometimes, with the best will in the world, you get the calculations wrong and think that maybe the little howler or screamer or shrieker will quiet down any second now until Father or an usher or somebody has to let you know (gently, if it's a nice parish, or coldly if it isn't) that it's a good idea to cart the extremely good vocal cords and their operator outside for a spell. At which point that bible verse about begging the earth to swallow you or mountains or trees to fall on you starts to make a terrible kind of sense.
Pope Francis has been talking about how hostile our modern world is to families. He's referred on several times to the loneliness and isolation that comes from creating a world where it is seemingly better to surround yourself with things than with people. And he makes it clear that the two sets of people he's most concerned about are children and the elderly: children, because they get seen as irksome responsibilities and inconveniences instead of joyful wonders, and the elderly, because they are seen as irrelevant or frustrating instead of fonts of experience and even (sometimes) a bit of wisdom.
The elderly, in fact, sometimes point out the breathtaking speed at which our world has changed. Many of them started out in a world where divorce was a sickening tragedy that probably wasn't anything that happened to anybody you knew--certainly not anybody in your immediate family--and ended up in a world where divorce is so common that few young people getting married would be able to say, truly, that for serious Christians divorce ought not even be considered as an option (apart from serious abuse or some similar tragedy). Young people today are starting out in a world where divorce is common, adultery had its own website, porn is ubiquitous, chastity almost unheard-of, virtue an unknown concept and vice celebrated with parades. None of these things build up the family; none of them are meant to.
But the Holy Father is on to something else important when he (just like all the popes of the recent past) talks about global greed, consumerism and materialism, a capitalism unmoored by ethics or solidarity with the poor, and an economic system that sees people as, simultaneously, "working objects" and/or "consumer objects." A "working object" who has the luxury--and, indeed, our world sees it that way--of coming home to a stay-at-home wife who is home with their children, a home-cooked dinner on the table, and time for real family engagement as a form of evening leisure tends to be a less effective "consumer object" than the perpetual man-child with his apartment and movies and video games and toys, and plenty of money to spend on this month's latest and greatest gadget, which is clearly superior to last month's latest and greatest (which is, alas, already obsolete). And a "working object" who gives up remuneration to raise her family is an even greater threat to casual consumerism in most instances. (It should go without saying that the same is true if mom is the "working object" and dad the stay-at-home parent, rare though this is.)
How do we fix this sort of thing? There are no shortcuts. The other side has slick media campaigns to teach us that atomization is wonderful, divorce is just common sense when people live as long as we do today, sexuality is fluid and alterable, and that the highest and best goods are not odd concepts like "truth" or "beauty," but the truth of the shopping mall and the beauty that comes in some sort of bottle. The only way to work against that is to do the work, as Pope Francis has said, of building relationships. Of building strong families and real friendships. Of building each other up, not as objects, but as children of God and brothers and sisters in the human family.
It means treating people you meet even casually, even for a moment in the grocery store or once a week at Mass, like real human beings, and taking a moment or two to care, for real, about them and about what burdens they are carrying. It means smiling at that exhausted mom or dad out in public or at church with an unruly little one, instead of patting yourself on the back that your kids never did that (which probably isn't even true, and if it is you should be thanking God on your knees instead of being harshly critical about those not similarly blessed). It means seeing in your husband or wife, your children, your parents or in-laws, your siblings, and your neighbors, not strangers but those beloved Others for whom Christ laid down His life, and for whom we are called to do the same.
It will be the work of many generations, perhaps, to heal the family of all its modern brokenness. That doesn't mean the work isn't worth doing, or that our little efforts aren't worth making. But it does mean that we may have to step outside our comfort zones a little and stop thinking that Pope Francis just can't wait to strike a new blow against the sanctity of family life.