Father William Byron, S.J.

Father William Byron, S.J.

Pope Francis will visit Philadelphia soon for the World Meeting of Families amid much expectation as to what he will have to say. During his visit to the United States, he will also be speaking in New York and Washington about other topics, presumably, but anticipation runs high in Philadelphia for words of papal wisdom about the unit that is the cornerstone of society — the family.

There is clearly a Catholic viewpoint on the essential meaning of family, on the importance of family and on the sacramental nature of the marriage commitment that constitutes a Catholic family.

This pope has a leadership style that prompts him to listen before he speaks. The past year has been devoted to listening to what others are saying about family by way of preparation for the upcoming October Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome, where the teaching church will speak to issues that affect the future of family life. So we should not be expecting anything definitive from Pope Francis when he speaks in Philadelphia in September; we should, however, expect to receive clear indications from him of what will follow in October.


His “listening,” I suspect, has taken him back in memory to life within his family in his native Argentina. It was a faith-filled family — two loving parents, José Mario Bergoglio and Regina Sivori, who married in 1935, their oldest child Jorge Mario, now Pope Francis, and two brothers and two sisters, Oscar, Marta, Alberto and Maria Elena.

Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, writes that “the single greatest childhood influence on Jorge Bergoglio was his grandmother Rosa, a formidable woman of deep faith and political skill, with whom he spent most of his first five years.” It would not surprise me to find evidence of this when this pope speaks of family life.

His listening could not have missed what the U.S. Supreme Court recently said about same-sex marriage and what so many younger Catholics are saying, by word and choice, about cohabitation and contraception.

When he speaks, words like “love,” “joy,” “happiness,” “commitment,” “service” and “sacrifice” will surely find their way into sentences likely not only to explain but also inspire.

I expect him to say something about marriage as a vocation to the service of life and that this is a call to be responded to in freedom involving a commitment to permanence, fidelity and openness to procreation. Spouses serve each other in facilitating the development of the full human potential that each brings to the marriage. The physical expression of their love opens the way to procreation. The care and education of their sons and daughters amount to a decades-long devotion to the task of helping their offspring mature in their own capacities to love and serve and thus find happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

The attentive listener will find much about the mystery and meaning of life in what Pope Francis will have to say in Philadelphia. It is a privileged moment in the history of the American church to be able to provide the platform for this new chapter of papal teaching.


Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.