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Photo: Pope Francis greets a baby before leading the Regina Caeli in St. Peter’s Square April 30, 2017.

The Holy Father’s focus on personal relationships is making a difference.

By Peter Jesserer Smith, National Catholic Register, 3/12/18

WASHINGTON — As Pope Francis’ pontificate hits its five-year mark, the U.S. Catholic Church is making positive changes to Catholic ministry for marriage, family, youth and parish life, following a blueprint set in motion by the Holy Father’s own writings and personal example.

On March 4, the Archdiocese of Washington plans to unveil its own pastoral plan to implement in concrete ways, at the local Church level, Pope Francis’ vision for marriage and family ministry outlined in his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

Susan Timoney, secretary for pastoral concerns and ministry at the archdiocese, told the Register that Pope Francis’ positive stature in the public square has made it easy for Catholics to talk about the Church and the Gospel.

The archdiocese has been working with parishes to form mentor couples for the engaged and newly married and help integrate them into parish life. The archdiocese also created retreats for parents struggling with children who have left the faith. In addition, they are also working on developing pastoral-response teams for domestic physical or sexual violence and created a resource database for pastors to utilize when confronted with members of their flocks who are dealing with pastoral issues who would benefit from a specialist’s care or one of the ministries in the archdiocese such as Retrouvaille.

She said the archdiocese has even begun to anticipate the upcoming Synod on Youth and Young Adults by trying to encourage mentoring relationships between older and younger adults in parishes.

But the archdiocese’s aim is to keep these ministries as close to the people in the pews as possible, through the parish level, where people can really experience the closeness of Jesus Christ and his Church through personal relationships.

The archdiocesan pastoral plan is in advance of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral plan, which is under development and will be released in 2019.

Andrew Lichtenwalner, executive director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, told the Register that Pope Francis set out the blueprint for what he wanted the Church to be for people in his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). He said the two synods on the family and the upcoming youth synod all have unfolded from that vision.

The Church in the U.S. also made a historic response to Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium with the “Convocation of Catholic Leaders,” called by the U.S. bishops in summer 2017 to discuss how to implement “The Joy of the Gospel” at all levels of the Church’s life.

Lichtenwalner said Pope Francis has not offered so much a change in direction for the Church in the United States as a focus on “confirming and galvanizing” the pastoral direction the U.S. bishops have been setting for their flock.

He said the forthcoming USCCB pastoral plan will help bishops get pastoral care in concrete ways to the local level and take into account that the U.S. has a diversity of communities — urban, suburban, rural and encompassing Native-American reservations — which require tailored approaches.

Marriage Catechumenate

One major accomplishment of Pope Francis already bearing fruit is the “catechumenate for marriage.” The marriage catechumenate is a catechumenal model where couples would be formed for marriage within the context of the parish community, with their pastor and mentor couples working together, both before the wedding and into their first years as a new family.

This catechumenate was originally envisioned by St. John Paul II and the 1980 Synod on the Family. Pope Francis has used the megaphone of the papacy repeatedly after the 2015 Synod on the Family to call the Church’s bishops into action and finally implement the marriage catechumenate throughout the universal Church.

“Honestly, that is the most important thing that has come out of Pope Francis’ pontificate,” Mary Rose Verret, co-founder of the “Witness to Love”  marriage formation method, told the Register.

Verret said the Pope has put a spotlight on Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II’s vision for marriage and family ministry, which never was fully implemented.

The catechumenal model of “Witness to Love,” she said, went from being a presence at parishes in four dioceses before the 2015 synod to being fully implemented by 70 dioceses to date.

Verret said priests have enjoyed “Witness to Love” because it integrates engaged and newly married couples into parish life. The marriage catechumenate works because of what Pope Francis has emphasized: loving relationships.

“The answer is Jesus, relationships and a lot of hard work,” she said. “We have to love them into community.”

 Divorce Ministry Neglected

Despite these strides underway, ministry to divorced Catholics continues to languish as one of the Church’s unfulfilled promises since Familiaris Consortio.

Gregory Mills, executive director of the national Catholic Divorce Ministry, told the Register that he has seen no noticeable difference in how the Church approaches divorced people over the past five years.

“By his actions and writings, Pope Francis has opened the door,” he said. “But there’s no traffic coming through.”

Pope Francis has altered how the Catholic Church handles the process of annulments, by streamlining the tribunal process, calling for dioceses to shoulder the financial costs entirely, and implementing a procedure for the bishop personally to adjudicate cases of potential nullity.

But Mills said a cohesive pastoral blueprint for how parishes should minister to divorced Catholics still does not exist. He hoped the forthcoming U.S. bishops’ concrete pastoral plan to implement Amoris Laetitia at the local level would fill that need and make clear at the outset how divorced and separated persons are welcomed in the Catholic Church.

Going Out to Peripheries

The Holy Father’s emphasis on going to the “peripheries” of one’s life has also had a profound impact on ministries.

Kevin Cotter, a Fellowship of Catholic University Studentsmissionary headquartered in Denver, told the Register that the Pope has inspired Catholic campus missionaries to realize they have to get out of the Newman Centers and go to the ends of campus culture to announce the Gospel.

Kathleen Buckley Domingo, director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Life, Justice and Peace, told the Register that Pope Francis has reshaped the conversation about how the Church carries out pro-life and other social-justice ministries by emphasizing they need to be personally close with those they serve.

At the parish level in the archdiocese, she said, the younger adults have been working to bring the Pope’s vision of a “culture of encounter” mentality to the heart of parish life.

Domingo observed the epidemics in the U.S. of opioid addiction, loneliness, social disconnection and suicide are deeply related to a loss of authentic relationships.

But the Pope’s fundamental approach for the Church’s ministers to seek out people in all these circumstances, Domingo said, keeps coming back to the same thing: “Look people in the eye and get to know them.

“That is going to change the world.”

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.