By Alessandro De Carolis
Five years in existence and three areas of competence as big as the world can be summarized in a single word: laity. Pope Francis created this new structure of the Holy See in response to his wish to bring together men and women of every background, culture and part of the world. The Dicastery for the Laity, Family and Life is the privileged place and observatory to discern and promote all that can give prominence to the lay vocation in the Church and the world. The Dicastery is made up mostly of lay employees, with a budget of two million euros for 2021. According to Cardinal Kevin Joseph Farrell who heads this office, the Dicastery has at heart the wellbeing of the family and all its components, not only spouses, but also children, young people, grandparents, and people with disabilities. The aim is to promote reflection in anthropological, moral, and philosophical areas, as well as action in political, economic, and ethical spheres in order to protect and promote the dignity of human life.
Established by Pope Francis in August 2016, the Dicastery merged into a single institution the competencies regarding the laity, the family and life, previously divided among different departments. What is the common thread that keeps these three realities together?
I would say that the common element that ties these various areas together like a red thread can be seen in the primary role of the lay faithful in the Church: the laity in the first person are called to form other laity to Christian life and to assume greater responsibility in their own parishes and dioceses. It is the laity, especially young people, who are called to make their creative and "visionary" contribution to the Church and to become missionaries to their peers. Better than anyone else, married laity can assume the responsibility of preparing for marriage and accompanying other couples. It is the laity who must be present in the world of politics to help governments to adopt adequate measures in defense of life, in favor of families, the elderly, the young, people with disabilities or who experience many other types of challenges. This is also the Pope's desire for our Dicastery: to be an office of the Holy See that promotes the laity in every sphere, civil and ecclesial, overcoming sterile forms of clericalism or elitism, which still continue, especially in some countries. The Pope wishes to awaken this engagement of all the laity of every social background.
How is the work of the Dicastery organized?
The activity of the Dicastery regarding the laity, as I have said, aims first of all to promote their vocation and mission in the Church and in the world, both as individuals and as members belonging to associations, movements and communities. During his visit to the Dicastery on October 30, 2017, Pope Francis had expressed his desire that mostly lay people work here and be at the service of other lay people. Special attention, therefore, is paid to the formation of the laity at every level. I would like to say that in this regard the formation of the laity animates all areas of the Dicastery’s work, in the sense that it is a consideration present in all our activities. In fact, all the work we do with young people, with families, with ecclesial movements, includes essential aspects of lay formation: formation in faith and spiritual life, formation for the apostolate, formation for Christian witness in society, culture and politics.
To note some more specific initiatives, following a study on this theme together with all the Bishops' Conferences, a work meeting was organized entitled "Promotion and Formation of the Lay Faithful. Best Practices," with the participation of about 40 representatives of various episcopal conferences around the world, which had the purpose of identifying the best initiatives aimed at forming the lay faithful so that they might fully express their baptismal vocation and mission according to the diversity of cultures and traditions of each country. It also sought ways to help, support and encourage dioceses and bishops' conferences that have not yet developed formation initiatives beyond those related to sacramental preparation. Following up on a proposal made during this conference, the Dicastery has also created a website, called laityinvolved.org, which presents initiatives and "best practices" of evangelization, formation and promotion of the lay faithful already taking place in various parts of the world, which have proved fruitful in a given country and can be proposed in many other places. It is, therefore, an instrument that the Dicastery wishes to place at the service of pastoral agents, lay movements and all those interested in engaging in this vital field of lay formation. I would also like to add that the first Plenary Assembly of the Dicastery, held in 2019, had as its theme: "The lay faithful, identity and mission in the world." During the working days of the Plenary, we asked for help and collaboration from our Members and Consultors, who gave the Dicastery interesting insights into the objectives to be addressed in the coming years.
Among the lay faithful with whom the Dicastery works are many lay people who are members of various Church groups around the world. A considerable amount of the Dicastery’s work is then dedicated to the creation or recognition of groupings of the faithful and international ecclesial movements, whether with the approval of their statutes or the examination of administrative appeals concerning matters within the Dicastery’s competence. Could you tell us more about this work?
In the laity section there are also two particular offices, not very well known, but of great pastoral importance: the "Women’s Office" called to deepen ecclesial reflection on the identity and mission of women in the Church and in society – an important matter for Pope Francis - and the "Church and Sports Office”, a type of "observatory" of the world of sports to animate in the local churches a renewed attention to the pastoral care of sporting environments.
Tied to the vast world of the laity, special attention is given to young people. In this way, the Dicastery interprets the Church's concern for young people by promoting the initiatives of the Holy Father in the field of youth ministry. A great investment of energy and work in this area is required of the Dicastery when it comes to the organization of the World Youth Days.
The other major area of competence the Dicastery covers is the key area of Family and Life, including the pastoral care of the family, the protection of its dignity and its wellbeing based on the sacrament of marriage. The Dicastery works in favor of the rights and responsibilities in the Church, and their promotion in civil society. The Dicastery organizes international conferences and events on the family. It also monitors the activities of institutes, associations, ecclesial movements and Catholic organizations, both national and international, whose purpose is to serve the good of the family. It also oversees the study of doctrine on the family and its dissemination through appropriate catechesis. With the goal to offer concrete possibilities for formation, the Dicastery promotes studies on the spirituality of marriage and the family, offers guidelines for programs assisting engaged couples and young couples, and supports families in the faith formation of young people, in ecclesial and civil life, with particular attention to intergenerational dialogue, as well as to the poor and the marginalized. Finally, it promotes an openness of families to the possibility of adoption, fostering of children, and care of the elderly.
The Dicastery also aims to support and coordinate all initiatives for the protection of human life from conception to natural death, bearing in mind the needs of the person in the various stages of development; to promote and encourage organizations and associations that help women and the family to accept and cherish the gift of life, especially in the case of difficult pregnancies, and to prevent recourse to abortion; to support programs and initiatives designed to help women who have had an abortion. The Dicastery also studies and promotes the formation of the faithful based on Catholic moral doctrine and the Magisterium of the Church, regarding the main issues in biomedicine, laws relating to human life, and ideologies inherent in human life and the reality of society.
Your activities consist of occasions with great resonance worldwide, such as the World Youth Days and Meetings of Families. What role does the Dicastery play in promoting and coordinating these events?
The preparation of the World Youth Days (WYD) requires a lot of effort with organization and coordination between the Holy See, the local organizing committee and the dioceses of each continent, which takes place practically "in a continuous cycle", that is, with almost no interruption between one WYD and another. Over the years, WYD has become an event of worldwide resonance, not only at an ecclesial level but also a social one, especially for the organizing countries. In concrete terms, the Dicastery is responsible for preparing the catechetical moments that characterize the days preceding the meeting with the Pope, selecting the speakers and organizing the meetings for the language groups. The logistics of the meeting, on the other hand, which include the preparation of the celebration and meeting spaces and the entire complex management of the reception, is left to the local diocese hosting the WYD. At the same time, the Dicastery also plays an important role in assisting the local organizing committee, making available its long experience accumulated over the years in past editions of this event. As is well known, the international WYD usually takes place every three years, while in the local churches it is celebrated annually. The goal of the Dicastery is to make WYD an ongoing process of formation, evangelization and accompaniment of young people, so that the experience is not just an intense and exciting moment that remains a one-off event, but instead one that leaves a lasting impression in the concrete lives of young people. The WYDs should represent the culmination of a joyful and celebratory occasion, a gradual and thorough process that allows young people to grow and mature, year after year, leaving lasting benefits for them. In this regard, as part of this "ongoing journey" with young people and for young people, the Dicastery is working to sensitize the Bishops' Conferences to enhance the diocesan WYD with appropriate pastoral emphasis, following the recent indication given by Pope Francis who decided to move this local celebration, traditionally linked to Palm Sunday, to the Sunday on which the Solemnity of Christ the King falls, starting in 2021. The subsidy entitled "Pastoral Guidelines for the Celebration of World Youth Day in the Particular Churches" is already available in several languages on the Dicastery’s website. It features the diocesan WYD to the leaders of local churches, gives indications on how to celebrate it, and encourages its organization where it is not yet planned.
Similar to WYD, the World Meeting of Families has taken on such importance over the years, due to its size and importance, as to require a long and laborious preparation process, also in this case in full synergy with the hosting diocese. The Dicastery is primarily entrusted with the preparation of the International Theological-Pastoral Congress, which takes place during the initial days of the event attended by Bishops in charge of the pastoral care of the family and life, married couples delegated by the Bishops' Conferences and Dioceses, experts, representatives of family movements and associations and, more generally, all families who wish to experience days of formation and sharing in an atmosphere of friendship, celebration and prayer. Next year's 10th World Meeting of Families, which will mark the conclusion of the "Amoris Laetitia Family Year", will be of particular importance.
What resources do you draw on to sustain such a wide-ranging area of responsibilities? And what are the most important aspects of your mission?
A significant part of our work is pastoral in nature and is carried out in continuous dialogue with lay groups and in close collaboration with those responsible for family and youth ministry. I would say then that the main resource of the Dicastery is precisely the people who work here, since they make it possible to keep alive this network of relationships, which is vital for us. With their skills they make it possible to carry out effectively this task of animation, guidance and pastoral accompaniment. As far as funding resources are concerned, the Dicastery benefits from donations coming from Associations and Foundations that in part support our initiatives, especially with the international conferences we organize. The main expenditures are rent, salaries of officials and other staff. The Dicastery also manages a special “Solidarity Fund” with contributions made by young people when they register for World Youth Day. This fund is used to help young people with fewer resources to pay for travel and lodging expenses so that they can participate in World Youth Day as much as possible.
The rich and varied world of ecclesial associations and movements is part of the Dicastery’s responsibilities. What is the state of health of lay associations today and what are the future prospects, also in light of the indications given following the recent Synod of Bishops dedicated to youth?
The world of lay associations is very diverse, so much so that it is difficult to generically define the state of health of such diverse realities. There are international groupings that were already instituted before the Second Vatican Council, some with a hundred-year history. Others came about through the context of religious congregations. Other ecclesial movements that have undergone enormous development since the Council. Some ecclesial realities are experiencing a "natural bewilderment," as Pope Francis has described it, that marks the time following the death of their founders. After decades of great expansion, some are experiencing a decline in numbers in recent years, others are younger and therefore in full development. Some have already reached full "ecclesial maturity", while others have yet to grow in this aspect.
In any case, these realities constitute a great resource for the Church and their methods of evangelization contribute to realizing in various ways Pope Francis' desire for an outgoing Church reaching out to the social and existential peripheries. The paths and stages of formation developed within them make them real laboratories in which young people, adults, and the elderly can experience faith and witness to it in their daily lives, work and social commitment.
The Dicastery is tasked with accompanying these realities on their path of growth and to ensure that, faithful to their charism, they mature according to the Church criteria that distinguish them. The Dicastery carries out this accompaniment through a wide network of contacts, correspondence, annual meetings on important issues in the life of the Church, visits of those responsible for international associations to the Dicastery, or participation of Superiors at their events.
In the coming months, the spotlight of the Church will be focused in particular on the family after the Pope announced the special Year inspired by "Amoris Laetitia". What kind of response do you expect and on what initiatives do you intend to focus the Dicastery's efforts?
The Amoris Laetitia Family Year, inaugurated by the Holy Father on March 19, 2021, the Solemnity of St. Joseph and the fifth anniversary of the publication of the Apostolic Exhortation, is aimed at offering an opportunity for reflection and deeper understanding in order to implement in pastoral ministry the richness of the Exhortation. The idea is to be able to reach every person and every Christian family around the world in order to announce how precious the gift of marriage is and to foster the active participation of families themselves in evangelization. This objective will hopefully translate into a renewed pastoral thrust, aimed at offering marriage preparation and accompaniment to married couples by addressing the challenges of the times, with particular reference to the education of children, to the active involvement of spouses in the Church alongside priests, to help couples and families in crisis or experiencing particular difficulties.
The Dicastery has already started several initiatives in this area: the monthly publication of videos in which the Holy Father focuses on the chapters of Amoris Laetitia along with some families from around the world who will share their concrete daily life experiences. Last week we held a four-day Forum with the heads of family ministry of bishops' conferences, movements and international associations in order to share challenges and strategies in the application of Amoris Laetitia. The first World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly will be celebrated on the fourth Sunday of July this year. There are many other initiatives, including those of an academic nature, planned in collaboration with networks of universities and family centers in order to promote the culture of marriage and the family in civil society. The Year will conclude with the celebration of the Tenth World Meeting of Families in Rome (June 22-26, 2022), focusing on the theme "Family love: vocation and way of holiness."
The purpose is to encourage the outreach, already very extensive in some ecclesial contexts, of episcopal conferences, local churches, family movements and associations, academies and universities, to share contents and pastoral strategies in a spirit of authentic ecclesial communion.
In this time of pandemic, the campaigns you have promoted to draw attention to the situation of the elderly have had a great impact. How do you plan to give continuity to these initiatives so that they become a permanent pastoral commitment for the whole Church?
The choice to value grandparents - as the Pope calls the elderly – did not come about due to the pandemic and does not end with it, but is rather a characteristic that distinguishes the pontificate of Pope Francis. According to the statutes, our Dicastery is specifically dedicated to the pastoral care of the elderly and we are urging all ecclesial realities to establish an office specifically dedicated to their pastoral care. The establishment of the World Day of Grandparents and the Elderly, on which we are already working, goes in the same direction: the elderly make up a significant portion of the Catholic laity, and they also are protagonists in the Church.
The pandemic has hit them particularly hard, especially those who have found themselves without family support. In the wake of this experience, our initiatives fall within the framework of family pastoral care with the objective of fostering a welcoming attitude on the part of families towards the elderly who are mainly on their own.
How can the Pope's recent Motu Proprio on the access of women to the instituted ministries of Lector and Acolyte contribute to the enhancement of the dignity and mission of women in the Church?
The possibility of conferring also to women the ministries of acolyte and lector does not resolve on its own the question regarding women and their presence in the Church. In addition to overcoming a discrimination that had no theological justification, this measure desired by Pope Francis calls attention to the appreciation of women in the Church not as substitutes to carry out certain tasks, but as bearers, themselves, of their own ecclesial vocation by virtue of baptism and according to the gifts that make them apostles in the ecclesial and non-ecclesial contexts in which they live and work.