The coronavirus pandemic has made clear that the family is a "barometer" of challenges facing the global community, but also that it is the place best equipped to help people face those challenges, said Msgr. Philippe Bordeyne, new head of the Pontifical John Paul II Theological Institute for Marriage and Family Sciences.

At the official inauguration of the institute's academic year Oct. 22, Msgr. Bordeyne, the former rector of the Institut Catholique de Paris, said the Rome center's focus on multidisciplinary studies about marriage and family life cannot ignore the impact of the pandemic nor the social pressures and inequalities it laid bare.

"The family is a barometer of global challenges," he said. "It is deeply touched by the great shocks of our time: unemployment and poverty, mass migration, the digital revolution, the generation gap, the disregard for human life, the ecological crisis."

At the same time, he said, "the family holds up quite well in these stormy times. Founded on the spousal love of a man and a woman, nourished by affection and mutual respect between generations, the family manages to preserve, against all odds, spaces of peace and joy, of celebration, of solidarity, of gratuitousness, of retreat that allow it to invent new ways of living for the benefit of the home, but also of a broader social life."

Msgr. Bordeyne's appointment was seen as the final piece in a process Pope Francis began to overhaul the institute. While the pope has said those it trains to minister to families must have a broader understanding of the challenges families face today, critics worried that he was watering down the focus on passing on traditional church teaching on marriage and family life.

In his speech Oct. 22, the monsignor said Pope Francis' changes indicate that "its mission continues to be principally in the theological field because it draws resources from the Christian faith," but its offerings have been expanded to include "a more decisive dialogue with all the sciences that touch on marriage and the family, also with an openness to the diversity of cultures and socioeconomic contexts."

"At the same time, in deciding to maintain the patronage of John Paul II for our institute, Pope Francis has invited us to cherish the theological and pastoral solicitude of the holy Polish pope for marriage and the family," he said.

Msgr. Bordeyne also urged the students and professors to remember that families are not just the object of their study and concern but must be seen as subjects with wisdom and experience to share, including in the church's missionary outreach.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, chancellor of the institute, told staff and students that promoting "the life-giving bond between each individual family" and the whole church is a pastoral challenge.

"The reduction of the conjugal alliance between man and woman to the individual and private dimension is an irreparable impoverishment for the individual and the community," he said. And "Christianity itself has not been immune from the virus of individualism."

The archbishop cited retired Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical "Spe Salvi" ("Saved Through Hope"), which asked: "How could the idea have developed that Jesus' message is narrowly individualistic and aimed only at each person singly? How did we arrive at this interpretation of the 'salvation of the soul' as a flight from responsibility for the whole, and how did we come to conceive the Christian project as a selfish search for salvation which rejects the idea of serving others?"

"The family is the place of initiation into life as a community, and not simply the appendage of its enjoyment as a couple," Archbishop Paglia said. It is the "hospitable community that embraces the world."

"In Christian understanding," he said, "no gift, no charism, no blessing of created life is simply 'for oneself,'" but they are for the edification of the church and the good of the world.