Family is close to Pope Francis's heart -- in fact, it is "the primary reason for my present visit" to the United States, he said Wednesday. The pontiff plans to lead a synod, or meeting of bishops, on the subject in October. And on Saturday, he addressed close to a million people gathered in Philadelphia for the Festival of Families, one of the closing events of the World Meeting of Families.
The pontiff abandoned a prepared script to deliver an impassioned sermon on the importance of love as a healing force in the family.
“In the family there are indeed difficulties, but those difficulties are overcome with love,” Francis told the cheering crowd. “Hatred is not capable of dealing with any difficulty and overcoming any difficulty. Division of hearts cannot overcome any difficulty. Only love can overcome.”
He told a story to emphasize the point. A child once asked him: “Father, what did God do before creating the world?”
“I assure you, I found real difficulty to answer the question,” the pope told the crowd. “I said what I’m now going to say to you. Before creating the world, God loved. Because God is love.”
The pontiff offered several pieces of advice to families to embody that love. First, he said, is to care for children. “They give future and strength that moves us forward. We place our hope in them.”
He encouraged attendees to honor grandparents' role as “the living memory of the family."
"They passed on the faith," he said. "They transmitted the faith to us.”
In a nod to couples, Francis repeated advice from previous addresses: “Never let the day end without making peace. In a family you can’t finish the day off not being in peace."
The pontiff had just listened to the stories of several families from different countries, each of which spoke of the unique challenges they had faced.
“Families have a citizenship which is divine,” he said. “The identity card that they have is given to them by God, so that within the heart of the family truth, goodness and beauty can truly grow.”
He joked that couples in the audience might see him as being out of touch because he is not married and admitted that family life carries many challenges and “sometimes plates can fly.”
“But just as there are problems in families,” Francis said, “we have to remember there is the light of the resurrection afterwards because the son of God created that path.”
The pontiff focused his remarks on straight couples without making any specific references to LGBT people or same-sex marriage -- a topic that had become contentious before the World Meeting of Families when LGBT Catholics said they were shut out of the conference.
“[God] created man and he created woman and he gave them everything," Francis said, paraphrasing the Bible. "Multiply, cultivate the land, multiply and grow. All that love [God] made in creation, he gave it and shared it and bestowed it upon a family.”
The pontiff's address came amid a festive evening of entertainment that was hosted by actor Mark Wahlberg and included musical acts by Aretha Franklin, Andrea Bocelli and Sister Sledge. Sunday will mark the final day of Francis' six-day visit to the U.S. He plans to visit with inmates at a correctional facility and celebrate Mass for the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families before flying back to Rome.
Jaweed Kaleem contributed to this article.
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