ROME – At the opening of the 10th World Meeting of Families, Pope Francis took a secondary role, allowing the families to take center stage, telling their own moving and sometimes challenging stories, which showcased the many ups and downs families face around the world.

The families recounted very personal tales to the 2,000 participants of the WMOF being held in Rome, June 22-26. After listening to each one, Pope Francis asked the family and the audience to take “one more” step forward to meet the challenges they had laid out before him.

“A step forward” towards marriage

Italians Serena Zangla and Luigi Franco told the pope about their three children, their decision to baptize them even though they aren’t married – “Despite our noblest human efforts, we are not sufficient unto ourselves” – and their struggles to find a community that “affectionately supported us for who we are.”

The pope said that their struggle to find a parish community that welcomed them even though they are not married is something that “should make us reflect.”

“We must convert and walk as church, so that our dioceses and parishes may be more and more communities that hold everyone with open arms,” Francis said.

But he didn’t give them a free pass. He reminded Zangala and Franco that God offers a man and a woman in love “a gift: Marriage.”

“A wonderful gift, which has in itself the power of divine love: strong, lasting, faithful, capable of recovering after every failure or fragility,” he said. “You don’t get married in order to be ‘card-carrying’ Catholics, to obey a rule, or because the church tells you to. You get married because you want to build your marriage on the love of Christ, which is solid as rock. In marriage, Christ gives himself to you, so that you can find the strength to give yourselves to one another. So take heart: Family life is not ‘mission impossible!’”

Francis also said that the family is not just a beautiful ideal or an unattainable reality, and that a sacramental marriage guarantees the presence of God not only on the wedding day but throughout life.

“A step forward” in embracing the Cross

Roberto and Maria Anselma Corbella, also from Italy, are the parents of Servant of God Chiara Corbella, an Italian lay woman who chose the life of her unborn child over her own when receiving treatment for cancer while she was pregnant.

“Our family is the greatest gift God could have given us, with moments more and less beautiful, with moments of grace and others suffering,” they said.

They summarized the life of their daughter Chiara: She married Enrico in 2008. Their first two children, who had been diagnosed with mortally dangerous birth defects, were born and baptized “before they went back to the house of the Father.”

After the doctors confirmed there was no genetic link to the birth defects, they once again “opened themselves to life.” During the fourth month of Chiara’s pregnancy with Francesco – today 11 – she was diagnosed with cancer. She received treatment, including undergoing surgery, but postponed any treatment that might threaten the life of her unborn child. A year after delivering a healthy boy, she died, “after showing us that in every situation it is possible to seek the maximum of happiness, already in this life, with God as a guide.”

The diocese of Rome opened the process to declare Chiara a saint in 2018.

“As a family we have experienced the importance of growing and educating our daughters, remembering that they are not ours, and that we do not have the ‘right’ to, at all costs, have children,” they said. “They are first and foremost a gift, and our job is to accompany them for as long as we are asked to do so. Because as Chiara wrote to her son, the opposite of love is to possess the other.”

Francis thanked the couple for having given witness to the fact that “the heavy cross of Chiara’s sickness and death did not destroy your family or eliminate the serenity and peace of your hearts. We can see this in your faces. You are not downcast, desperate or angry with life.”

“In Chiara’s heart also entered the truth of the cross as a gift of herself, with a life given to her family, to the church and to the whole world,” the pope said. “We always need to have great examples to stimulate us. May Chiara be an inspiration to us on our path to holiness, and may the Lord sustain and make fruitful every cross that families have to carry.”

“A step forward” towards forgiveness

Paul and Germaine Balenza from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) spoke of a major crisis they experienced in their marriage: Twenty-six years after their wedding, Germaine found out that Paul had been unfaithful to her. Leaving her husband and their three “grown-up” children, she moved to her sister’s house for a year, a time during which she went to Facebook to publicly shame her husband – a national deputy in the country – for what he had done to her.

Germaine recounted having lived through situations that she considered unacceptable, including “my husband’s repeated infidelities, his lack of sincerity towards me, and his mismanagement of the family’s assets. I felt that power had gone to his head. I felt that he was no longer interested in me.”

Left alone with their three children, Paul said, his life became unbearable, and he went through many difficulties. As the president of the DRC Catholic deputies, he had never contemplated the possibility of getting divorced.

Many intervened during the crisis, with some trying to make her reconsider her decision to ask for a divorce, while others added fuel to the fire.

After a process of five months, accompanied by another couple, and moments of great sincerity, they decided to save their marriage, apologizing to their children in front of their families.

Forgiveness, along with prayer, Francis said, “helped them save their lives.”

“All of us have relived the experience of pain that is experienced in the face of similar situations of divided families,” the pope said. “Seeing a family break up is a drama that cannot leave us indifferent. The smile of the spouses disappears, the children are confused, everyone’s serenity vanishes. And most of the time you don’t know what to do.”

However, Francis said, their story conveys hope because “right in the darkest moment of the crisis, the Lord answered the deepest desire of their heart and saved their marriage.”

“Even in the midst of the storm, God sees what is in the heart,” he said. “Forgiveness heals all wounds, it is a gift that flows from the grace with which Christ fills the couple and the whole family when we let him act, when we have recourse to him,” he added.

“A step forward” towards acceptance

Iryna and her daughter Sofia (17), whose last names remained undisclosed, gave a voice to the millions of Ukrainians forced to flee their homes. With them were the Italian Pietro and Erika Chiriaco who, together with their six children, have welcomed the mother and daughter into their homes.

Iryna spoke about fleeing her country, about leaving her husband behind, as he is a soldier in the Ukrainian army, and the many doubts she faced when choosing to leave many members of her family behind to give her daughter a life free from the war.

“I am suffering a lot,” said Sofia. “I miss my life in Ukraine, I have left my friends and family behind. I miss my grandparents, and I am worried about studying, as I am supposed to start university. I am grateful to those who help us, and to my mother, who took me away from the war.”

Pietro spoke for the Chiriaco family, and acknowledged that their first child was born out of wedlock. They were welcomed, he said, both by God and their parish, that invited them to live a moment of preparation for marriage living in chastity, without moving in together, as a time of preparation.

“The Lord illuminated our path, we got married, and faith has allowed us to be open to life, transmitting our faith to our children,” he said. “To us, welcoming Iryna and Sofia is out of gratefulness to God, since we can only give freely that love we received from God and the church. Without the faith, we would not have welcomed anyone. To welcome the stranger is to welcome Christ.”

During his remarks, Francis answered to these witnesses by saying that “in the family there is a dynamic of welcoming, because above all the spouses have welcomed each other, as they said to each other on the day of marriage: ‘I receive you’. And then, by bringing children into the world, they have welcomed the life of new creations.”

“While in anonymous contexts we tend to reject those who are weaker it is natural to welcome them: A child with a disability, an elderly person who needs care, a relative in difficulty who has no one,” he said. “This gives hope. Families are places of welcome and what a problem it would be if they were missing. A society without welcoming families would become cold and unlivable.”

“A step forward” towards fraternity

The last talk came from Zakia Seddiki, a Muslim, whose husband Luca, the Italian ambassador in the DRC, was murdered 18 months ago. He was killed on his way to visit a UN project to feed children.

“I don’t like to speak about him in the past tense, because I feel him close to me,” she said, as she shared both her family’s life with Luca and without him.

When their daughters met the pope for the first time, she said, they thought he was a doctor because he was wearing white. “The pope is a doctor, who heals the souls of all Christians and all those who need comfort,” she told them.

Love was the key to overcome every difference and difficulty, she said.

“With my husband, we learned the importance of communication,” Seddiki told the pope. “We learned, step by step, to live together without judging each other, because we always believed in this same God, who asks us in two holy books, the Bible and the Quran, to love our neighbor, to seek the good and to respect each other.”

Francis told her that, in the family she built with Luca, the ideal of fraternity is expressed.

“In addition to being husband and wife, you have lived as brothers in humanity, as brothers in different religious experiences, as brothers in social commitment,” he said.

This kind of family unit provides an invaluable type of learning, Francis argued. Living together with those who are different from oneself inside a family, one learns how to be a brother and a sister.

“We learn to overcome divisions, prejudices, closed-mindedness and to build together something great and beautiful, starting from what unites us,” he said. “Lived examples of fraternity, like that of Luca and Zakia, give us hope and make us look with more confidence at our world torn by divisions and enmities.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma