During Mass for World Family Day last October, Pope Francis spoke of the Christian family as one that prays, keeps faith and experiences joy. The Holy Father seems to have taken a special interest in the family, even calling the third ever extraordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops to discuss "The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization."
The assembly will not be held until October, but already the Vatican is gathering information through a survey distributed through national bishops' conferences asking how the Church's teachings of family are disseminated in the dioceses and parishes.
In the Diocese of Buffalo, the Office of Family Life Ministries has taken the mission of reflecting caring, concern and compassionate pastoral presence for all dimensions of families, including traditional, blended and single-parent families, as well as single persons, people with disabilities and those suffering.
"We want to reach out to them and hopefully share God's love with them and the Good News of Jesus Christ," said Nancy Scherr, director.
The office offers a variety of programs and resource materials to aid and prepare people for a Christian life that spans the spectrum of family relationships from engaged to widowed.
Journey into Love is the diocesan marriage preparation program. In existence for over 25 years, the full-day workshop sees married couples giving a series of short talks on issues important to couples, such as communication, finances and Natural Family Planning.
"Through each of those 20-minute talks we try to build upon our faith based upon important values that are necessary in order to build a healthy marriage, because marriage is about two people, a husband and a wife, coming together and forming a partnership, pledging their love, and trying to live out those vows on a daily basis," Scherr said.
For couples already married who want to make their relationships stronger, Marriage Encounter weekends help focus on the importance of communication in making the marriage a better relationship.
Couples who prefer smaller groups, may look into Teams of Our Lady which offers parish-based groups of five to seven couples who meet monthly to share a meal and fellowship, with time for prayer or sharing what has helped them to live the Christian sacrament of marriage. A priest typically meets with them.
When couples experience problems they cannot deal with on their own, the Office of Family Life will refer them to Catholic Charities' Marriage Counseling Center.
And if that doesn't work, Divorce Link has a raps group that meets twice a month in Eggertsville. It's for people who have recently experienced divorce or separation. There are also two eight-week structured programs for men and women. The program offers participants emotional and spiritual support and a listening ear to help them through these difficult times.
"You want to be able to come and share the feeling that you have - the anger, the frustration; and to be able to meet with people who are walking that same path and dealing with those same issues is very helpful," said Scherr. "Divorce Link has provided a wonderful service for people who find themselves in that difficult circumstance in life."
To honor and recognize the importance of marriage, the office sponsors an annual Mass at St. Joseph Cathedral every October for couples celebrating their 50th and 60th wedding anniversaries. It's a fun event, Scherr said.
"It's meaningful. It's a nice celebration for couples who have walked that journey, the hills and valleys of married life. That's an awesome accomplishment because you know there's been joys and there's been sorrows. Together they made it."
Family Life also collaborates with other offices within the Catholic Center, including the Office of Pro-Life Activities and the Office of Cultural Diversity. Every December they team up to plan a Mass at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Lackawanna for the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It is a way to celebrate the Mexican culture and traditions.
During her three years as director, Scherr has seen a steady flow of people coming to her and secretary Sharon Brady, asking for help. She sees a decline in the family unit due to education and job opportunities pulling families in different directions.
"To a large degree we've been losing the concept of family as it one was," she said. "Families used to live more geographically in proximity to once another, but over the course of these past three, four, five decades with people going off to college and studying. They leave for jobs. Raising families have taken them to different living locations. So, as a Church and the Body of Christ, we need to reach out, and we need to be there for other people and we need to help them on their journey. Family is wonderful, and extended family is wonderful. That is the place where our teaching and our values are. It's a little different now."
When young adults are out on their own, they often stop going to Church as their priorities change. Scherr calls the drifting from faith "typical, but unfortunate."
"Sometimes parents get their priorities mixed up. They don't realize that the habits that you establish and promote in your family as you raise your children are real important," she said. "That weekly coming to Church and educating yourself in the faith and teaching your children is really important for the life of that child. We talk to them about the importance of the parish community and prayer and worship, and regular attendance at Mass, and celebrating the sacraments. The parish community is another support for us."
The October 2014 synod will address ministry to single-parent families, interreligious marriage, same-sex marriage, polygamy, non-committed relationships, influence of media, forms of feminism that are hostile to the Church, and surrogate motherhood.