Through baptism and the sacrament of marriage, Catholic families have a special grace and are a gift to the church even if, too often, that grace and gift have not been recognized, said Cardinal Kevin J. Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life.

Writing in the Vatican newspaper, the cardinal welcomed Pope Francis' announcement Dec. 27 that in March the Catholic Church would begin a special year dedicated to the family and to deeper reflection on "Amoris Laetitia," the pope's 2016 apostolic exhortation on family life.

During the COVID-19 pandemic with its "very serious social, health, relational and spiritual difficulties," he said, "the family has shown itself to be the fundamental and original 'glue' that each of us needs and that must be taken care of with love, with solicitude and determination."

At the same time, in many places, the pandemic shined a light on "the weaknesses and the most urgent needs of families" and on situations that are "pastoral emergencies" calling for a response by the church, he said. They include crises in marriages, violence in relationships, confusion about how to educate children at home, "a sense of loneliness, fear of entering marriage, poor understanding of the salvific meaning of the sacraments and, above all, an unperceived radical fracture between faith and practical life."

Not surprisingly, Cardinal Farrell wrote, those issues already had been common topics of conversation when bishops from around the world make their "ad limina" visits to Rome and meet with officials of the dicastery.

The bishops, he said, "explicitly ask for help in the face of societies that are changing faster and faster -- the 'rapidacion' of which Pope Francis speaks -- and where values have been radically challenged and family ministry must be completely reset."

The key, Cardinal Farrell said, is not to devise new courses or launch new groups. Rather, the focus must be to help "people perceive the grace inherent in the Christian family, that grace which flows from baptism and the sacrament of matrimony and which, if accepted, permeates the whole of family life."

As "Amoris Laetitia," and St. John Paul II's "Familiaris Consortio" before it, taught, the first step in pastoral ministry with, for and by families must be listening to families describe their real-life joys and challenges, he said. But priests and other pastoral workers also must be educated and encouraged to learn to listen.

And, he said, they must learn to support Catholic families in their role as leaders of the church's outreach to families, recognizing not only the grace imparted to them through the sacraments, but also the power of their witness.

Seminarians and priests also need more and better education to respond competently to the questions people will raise, he said. They must have morally and scientifically sound responses to questions about procreation, reproductive technologies and educating children about morality, affectivity and sexuality.

And, the cardinal said, to help families overcome the temptation to separate their faith from their daily lives and decisions, they need help in learning to read "the events of life in the light of the Holy Spirit."

"Giving families a listening ear, time and -- ultimately -- an attitude of tenderness and spiritual paternity on the part of priests is necessary in order to bring together all those verbs that, in 'Amoris Laetitia,' the pope has set as the basis of pastoral action: welcome, accompany, safeguard, discern and integrate, in the light of mercy and truth."

The aim of the "Amoris Laetitia Family Year" is not primarily to help people reread and deepen their understanding of a document, he said. Rather it is "to discover in the postsynodal document all the pastoral richness that is necessary to walk concretely together with families and support them in the most complex challenges."

"It is necessary to help them discover that they have a gift and that they are a gift for the church and for society," Cardinal Farrell wrote.

The cardinal called on bishops' conferences, dioceses and parishes to prepare for the year with enthusiasm, "that enthusiasm that comes from a serious commitment, that places itself in service in a joyful and responsible manner, acting as if everything depended on us, but knowing that in the end everything is in the hands of the Father."