The founder of Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth, revolutionized the family when he proposed lifelong monogamy as the moral ideal for marriage. Prohibiting divorce was a radical step in the ancient world, as the astonished reactions of Jesus’ disciples clearly shows. Yet this norm was the first step in equalizing the relationship between men and women, and indeed, among men. For each man, no matter how wealthy, could have one and only one wife. No man, no matter how powerful, could discard his wife. It is no exaggeration to say that the marriage norm of lifelong monogamy instituted by Jesus, laid the foundation for the many of the most distinctive features of Western society.
Yet the very features that make Christian civilization both distinctive and great are now under attack as never before. Easy divorce, abortion on demand and even same sex marriage all disrupt the organic life of the family. The modern world demands all of these as basic human rights, without seeing that these policies promote the alienation of man and woman from each other and children from their parents.
The participants in the Fifth World Meeting of Families discussed all these issues and more in Valencia Spain. The Meeting began with a Theological and Pastoral Congress, which featured papers from academics and clerics from all over the world. Cardinal Carol Caffarra of Bologna, Italy, kicked off the conference with a discussion of the impact of secularism on the family, showing that secular society has lost a sense of the meaning of marriage. He suggested that the modern trends toward easy divorce and same sex marriage were creating a “society of strangers” which views marriage as nothing but a contract. A panel of economists and demographers documented the collapsing birthrates of the modern countries. Professor Rosa Linda Valenzona, former Undersecretary of Social Welfare and Development in the Philippines, argued that the most commonly cited causes of demographic decline are not adequate explanations. The increasing opportunities for women and the rising costs of children are not sufficient reasons for cultural suicide, which is what the current situation amounts to.
The Meetings also included presentations from marriage support ministries from all over the world. David and Bronwyn Lea of New Zealand represented the World Wide Marriage Encounter movement, which is well-known in North America. Many other marriage support ministries attended, including Couples for Christ, founded in the Philippines, Equipes Notre-Dame (Teams of Our Lady), founded in France and the “Crescendo” organization of the elderly. Some of these ministries also had booths at The Family Fare, which featured displays from ministries all over the world. The Meeting also sponsored a Congress for the Young and a Congress for the Elderly. Approximately eight thousand people attended these meetings.
The atmosphere shifted from academic conference and trade show to a festive combination of religious ceremony, camp-out and Fourth of July. At the Prayer Vigil on Saturday evening with Pope Benedict, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims crowded the outdoor venue to hear brief presentations, to view artistic performances, and of course, to pray. Fireworks capped the program after Benedict’s homily. Many of the young families and youth groups simply unrolled the sleeping bags and stayed overnight in anticipation of the outdoor Mass the next day. Over a million people attended the Mass, at which Benedict described marriage this way: “The family, founded on the indissoluble marriage between a man and a woman, is the expression of the … filial and communal aspect of life. It is the setting where men and women are enabled to be born with dignity, and to grow and develop in an integral manner.”
It was a fitting conclusion to the great work of supporting the great Christian institution of marriage.