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April 18, 2016

Christopher Lasch, the American historian who was the first to describe contemporary culture as narcissist, titled his book on the family, Haven in a Heartless World. Sometimes, however, the family is not even that.

The human condition being what it is, even the best families introduce dysfunction as well as wholeness into their children's lives. In some instances, one's family can be even more heartless than "the heartless world." It is no small contributor to the despair, lost potential and dis-ease that affect young people.

St. John Paul II once said, as the family goes, so goes the society. The pope was correct. Yet, the opposite is also true - as society goes, so goes the family. The family is not a cocoon immune to the hurricane forces blowing through society and, thanks to mass media, right into the home.

Families are buffeted by unemployment, overwork, addiction, pornography, personal debt, abuse, infidelity and individualism. These and other forces limit people's freedom of choice, their ability to make good moral choices.

The Church stands in the maelstrom, leaning against the wind, trying to educate consciences. Despite the Church's much-vaunted wealth and power, in most people's lives, her influence is minor or non-existent. Too often, she is disregarded as a nosey neighbour who loves to create rules that erect barriers and nurture guilt.

Yet, as Pope Francis has often stated, the Church must not only hold up the highest ideals for life, it should also be a field hospital which brings "the balm of God's mercy" to broken lives.

From our first glimpses of the pope's apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), the Church has taken another step in its evolution from a supposed perfect society of the elect to a physician in the midst of the battles of societal and individual dysfunction.

Pope Francis calls us to be "a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness." That is a call, not for a shift in doctrine, but a change in culture.

For many Catholics, this cultural change is not coming fast enough. However, changing a culture is no easy thing; it typically takes generations.

Meanwhile, society is changing more rapidly than the Church. Today's leading edge issues were barely on the radar 20 years ago - same-sex marriage, transgenderism and assisted suicide. Our first impulse - and it is the right one - is to uphold the truth about the human person, human life and marriage.

Yet, we must also staff the field hospital which sends stretchers out to meet the wounded at their point of pain, a pain which can be intractable. The Church offers instruments of God's grace which provide the balm of mercy. We must go the distance in offering that mercy to families and a world that suffer in sorrow.