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Pastoral Care of the Family. Fr Gentili (CEI), “communities that know how to welcome, support, discern and integrate”

A developing scenario marked by a change in pace and style. It’s the screenshot of pastoral care in Italy, a year since the publication of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. Amidst the new opportunities and challenges we addressed the theme with the Director of the National Office of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) Fr Paolo Gentili

Two paths – a Master and a Diploma program –will integrate theological studies, pastoral workshops and fraternal life. From July 9th priests, men and women religious, seminarians, and married couples with children, will convene for two weeks (until July 22) at La Thuile (Italy). The daily program is divided into study sessions, prayer, and time for leisure. “This educational proposal is marked by an existential approach, for life in the family prompts formation to the family. Also the Church should attend the school of the family”, Father Paolo Gentili, director of the National Office for the Pastoral Care of the Family of the Italian Bishops’ Conference (CEI) told SIR. Father Gentili is the promoter of two courses in cooperation with the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family.

In a meeting with the Professors of the Institute, past October 27, “Pope Francis called for a new alliance between theology and pastoral care, stating that also theologians need to be like shepherds with the smell of sheep and of concrete family life”, Fr Gentili pointed out. For the priest

“there is need for a sound theology in order to speak to life; a theology is sound if it is alive and incarnated, and theology and pastoral care must go hand in hand.”

Fr Gentili, what are the present challenges faced by the pastoral care of the family? First of all the rise in the average age of the spouses and the drop in marriage-rates – half as many compared to the 1980s. This situation is due not only to working and/or economic conditions but also to widespread affective precariousness and greater difficulties in saying “Yes, I will, forever”, underlying what Pope Francis describes as a “spiritual desertification.” Probably what has lacked in our communities is a joyful proclamation of the Gospel of marriage. One of the major challenges is thus to identify new modalities. This entails accompanying all stages of family life, starting with the birth of the first children or the experience of infertility . involving today 20% of all married couples, causing deep suffering. Accompaniment, carried out in centres such as the Gemelli Polyclinic and Counselling centres inspired by Christianity, plays a crucial role.

Several taboos linked to sexuality have been overcome, while forms of utter relational illiteracy linger on.

Appropriate spiritual, pastoral, psychological and medical accompaniment have succeeded in untangling the knots and resolving sexual lives, which thereby became also fertile. In “unsolvable” cases the challenge consists in discovering new forms of fecundity in an attitude of welcome, as well as through foster care and adoption processes.

From the first to the last years. Every moment of family life involves pastoral care… Indeed: adolescent children with whom communication linked to virtual technology replaces real life communication, an area with which many parents are struggling and that needs to be re-learnt from scrap; the “empty crib” syndrome that calls upon the couple to recreate a new dimension for itself. To this is added the presence of disabled and elderly family members that encompass forms of family loneliness resulting from the disintegration of patriarchal family models and of good neighbourly relations. Today everything needs to be rebuilt. In this respect Christian communities have a fundamental, prophetical task. There are also other challenges linked to the lack of family policies and to the fact that the social value of parents’ educational commitment is being not acknowledged. But in my opinion the most strategic challenge is

The family dimension of the Christian community,

The new face of a community that is able to welcome, discern, accompany and integrate.

These four key-verbs of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia are not an exclusive feature of the eighth chapter. They are the pillars of a new pastoral dynamism involving all the seasons of the family. Are our communities true families? Are they marked by a spirit of communion? In order to be a “family of families” the act of reaching out to peripheries, to economically disadvantaged families wounded in their relations, becomes a priority. To what extent can we say that we are truly dedicated to this dimension?

Amoris Laetitia, in fact. Slightly more than a year has passed since its publication on April 8 2016. What has changed – or is changing – in the pastoral care of the family? Notwithstanding the various initiatives ongoing in dioceses – many bishops have based their pastoral plan on the document -, just like a flower rich in petals Francis has “opened” the pastoral care of the family by initiating a process marked by stronger synergy with other forms of pastoral ministry, namely the pastoral care of vocations, of young people, of work, of ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, of health, and social pastoral action.

Pastoral care is blossoming anew as a flow of grace in the wake of a document that is both the voice of the people and of the Church, which calls for a new “gaze.”

The focus of attention of several local Churches is also “the pastoral juridical bridge” in view of the possibility of a marriage annulment process.

Which area in particular deserves further investment, to ensure the change of pace “hoped for” by the Pope? 
The formation of the clergy. In October we will carry out a project developed in cooperation with the National Vocations Office. It consists in a high-level webinar on Amoris Laetitia dedicated to seminarians and priests with monthly e-meetings. It will involve seminaries in Italy and the presbyters of local Churches. The program also envisages a “face-to-face” meeting.

We don’t always succeed in keeping pace with the rapidity of the transformations, and we stutter in our answers. That is why priestly formation is a challenge needing to be faced and met in the best possible ways.

This moment in history is complex, but it is also fascinating and promising. Especially if we will be able to focus less on numbers and more on accompanying people in their everyday life.

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