ROME – In a letter to spouses around the world, Pope Francis offered comfort and encouragement to families enduring the ups and downs of the coronavirus pandemic, telling them to lean on God together and to get involved in their parish communities.

In the letter, the pope said that “Families have always been in my thoughts and prayers, but especially so during the pandemic, which has severely tested everyone, especially the most vulnerable among us”

“The present situation has made me want to accompany with humility, affection and openness each individual, married couple and family in all those situations in which you find yourselves,” he said.

Signed on the Dec. 26 feast of the Holy Family, the pope’s message comes as part of the year for “Amoris Laetitia Family,” which is dedicated to implementing his 2016 post-synodal document on the family bearing the same name.

In his letter, the pope noted that in marriage, two lives become one, saying, “you become a ‘we’ in loving communion with Jesus, alive and present at every moment of your existence.”

“God is always at your side; he loves you unconditionally. You are not alone!” he said and urged couples with children to set a good example, saying the younger ones especially “watch you attentively; in you they seek the signs of a strong and reliable love.”

Children are a gift, but raising them “is no easy task,” he said, telling parents that children also “raise us.”

Pointing to the increased emphasis the Church is placing on lay people and their roles in the Church, he told couples that they “have the mission of transforming society by your presence in the workplace and ensuring that the needs of families are taken into due account.”

Married couples, he said, “should take the lead in their parochial and diocesan community through their initiatives and their creativity,” especially when it comes to the pastoral care of families.

There is a “shared responsibility” between couples, priests, and bishops in spreading the Gospel, he said, adding, “New creativity is needed, to express, amid today’s challenges, the values that constitute us as a people, both in our societies and in the Church, the People of God.”

Noting that marriage can often be turbulent, Pope Francis said that as a vocation, marriage “calls you to steer a tiny boat – wave-tossed yet sturdy, thanks to the reality of the sacrament – across a sometimes-stormy sea.”

“Let us never forget, though, that by virtue of the sacrament of matrimony, Jesus is present in that boat; he is concerned for you, and he remains at your side amid the tempest,” he said, telling couples to invite Jesus into difficult moments, when they feel “buffeted by rough winds and storms.”

“Only in this way, will you find peace, overcome conflicts and discover solutions to many of your problems,” he said, noting that the problems themselves will not necessarily go away, “but you will be able to see them from a different perspective.”

Francis also pointed to the strain the pandemic has placed on families and relationships, with lengthy lockdowns forcing family members to stay confined together indefinitely in the same space.

On one hand, COVID lockdowns have been a unique opportunity to strengthen family ties, but this requires “a particular exercise of patience,” he said, telling families not to let tiredness and irritability get the better of them.

“In this way, the time you spend together, far from being a penance, will be become a refuge amid the storms, he said, and urged couples to put the words “please,” “thanks,” and “sorry” to use often.

If one spouse is angry, “take him or her by the hand and force a complicit smile,” he said, advising couples to say a short prayer together before going to bed.

Noting that some relationships have ended as a result of the pandemic, when couples quarantined together were faced with pre-existing problems that proved irreconcilable, the pope offered his “closeness and affection” couples in this situation.

“The breakdown of a marriage causes immense suffering, since many hopes are dashed, and misunderstandings can lead to arguments and hurts not easily healed,” especially for children, he said, and urged couples in the middle of a split to seek help in resolving conflicts without inflicting further hurt.

Pope Francis stressed the importance of forgiveness in these and any situation, saying it “heals every wound.”

Mutual forgiveness is a product of maturity in prayer and it is a gift “born of the grace poured out by Christ upon married couples whenever they turn to him and allow him to act,” he said, adding, “Our human love is weak; it needs the strength of Jesus’ faithful love.”

He also offered a special piece of advice to engaged couples who might be struggling as a result of the pandemic to find jobs or afford wedding costs.

“Even before the pandemic, it was not easy for engaged couples to plan their future, due to the difficulty of finding stable employment. Now that the labor market is even more insecure, I urge engaged couples not to feel discouraged,” but to get creative, he said.

Francis urged couples preparing for marriage to trust in God’s providence, no matter how limited their resources are, saying “difficulties can bring out resources we did not even think we had.”

If difficulties arise, the pope told engaged couples, “Do not hesitate to rely on your families and friends, on the ecclesial community, on your parish, to help you prepare for marriage and family life by learning from those who have already advanced along the path on which you are now setting out.”

In a special shout-out to grandparents, many of whom were unable to see their children and grandchildren during lengthy months of lockdown, the pope said they are “greatly needed” in families, and called them “humanity’s living memory, a memory that can help to build a more humane and welcoming world.”

Pope Francis closed his message asking couples to foster a “culture of encounter” in their married lives, saying this attitude is “urgently need in order to face today’s problems and troubles.”

“Live out your vocation with enthusiasm,” he said. “Never allow your faces to grow sad or gloomy; your husband or wife needs your smile. Your children need your looks of encouragement. Your priests and other families need your presence and your joy: the joy that comes from the Lord!”

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