Bishop Albino Luciani had been Patriarch of Venice for nine years when he was elected to the papacy in 1978, succeeding the deceased Pope Paul VI. He was quickly dubbed “The Smiling Pope,” popular with the public for his gentle disposition and winsome smile. He took the name of Pope John Paul.
But the new Pontiff served only 33 days in the papacy before his unexpected death on September 28, 1978. In that brief time, he published no encyclicals and convened no councils. He did, however, give several major addresses.
On September 21, just a week before he died, he spoke to a group of visiting U.S. Bishops. A self-described “beginner” in the papacy, he sought to choose topics that deeply touched the life of the Church, and topics which would be very relevant to his guests’ episcopal ministry. He spoke about the family.
The Christian family is so important, he explained, and its role is so basic in transforming the world and in building up the kingdom of God, that the council called it a “domestic church.” He encouraged the American bishops to never grow tired of proclaiming the family as a community of love.
The Pope continued:
We were all given the great gift of being born into such a community of love: it will be easy for us to uphold its value. And then we must encourage parents in their role as educators of their children — the first catechists and the best ones. What a great task and challenge they have: to teach children the love of God, to make it something real for them. And by God’s grace, how easily some families can fulfill the role of being a “primum seminarium” (Optafam Totius, 2): the germ of a vocation to the priesthood is nourished through family prayer, the example of faith and the support of love.
What a wonderful thing it is when families realize the power they have for the sanctification of the world: the mutual sanctification of husband and wife and the reciprocal influence between parents and children.
And then, by the loving witness of their lives families can bring Christ’s Gospel to others. A vivid realization of the sharing of the laity — and especially the family — in the salvific mission of the church is one of the greatest legacies of the Second Vatican Council. We can never thank God enough for this gift. It is up to us to keep this realization strong, by supporting and defending the family — each and every family. Our own ministry is so vital: to preach the word of God and to celebrate the sacraments. It is from them that our people draw their strength and joy. Ours too is the role of encouraging families to fidelity to the law of God and the church. We need never fear to proclaim all the exigencies of God’s word, for Christ is with us and says today as before: “He who hears you hears me’” (Lk. 10:16).
In particular, the indissolubility of Christian marriage is important. Although it is a difficult part of our message, we must proclaim it faithfully as part of God’s word, part of the mystery of faith. At the same time we are close to our people in their problems and difficulties. They must always know that we love them. Today we want to express our admiration and praise for all the efforts being made to guard and preserve the family as God made it, as God wants it. All over the world Christian families are trying to fulfill a wonderful calling and we are close to all of them. And priests and Religious are trying to support and assist them — and all these efforts are worthy of the greatest praise.
Our special support goes to those who help couples preparing for Christian marriage by offering them the full teaching of the church and by encouraging them in the highest ideals of the Christian family. We wish to add a particular word of praise also for those, especially priests, who work so generously and devotedly in ecclesiastical tribunals, in fidelity to the doctrine of the church, to safeguard the marriage bond, to give witness to its indissolubility in accordance with the teaching of Jesus, and to assist families in need. The holiness of the Christian family is indeed a most apt means for producing the serene renewal of the church which the council so eagerly desired. Through family prayer, the “ecclesia domestica” becomes an effective reality and leads to the transformation of the world.
And all the efforts of parents to instill God’s love into their children and to support them by the example of faith, constitute a most relevant apostolate for the 20th century. Parents with special problems are worthy of our particular pastoral care and all our love.
Dear brothers, we want you to know where our priorities lie. Let us do everything we can for the Christian family, so that our people may fulfill their great vocation in Christian joy and share intimately and effectively in the church’s mission—Christ’s mission—of salvation. And be assured that you, yourselves, have our full support in the love of the Lord Jesus, and we give you all our apostolic blessing.