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Pope decries Italy’s ‘demographic winter’ of falling birth rates, family size

ROME – On the Catholic feast of the Holy Family, Pope Francis criticized his adopted country’s “demographic winter,” saying an increasing preference not to have children is doing damage not just to families but to the country and society at large.

When thinking of the family, “a concern comes to mind, a real concern, at least here in Italy: the demographic winter,” the pope said in his Dec. 26 Angelus address.

Speaking to faithful gathered in a rainy St. Peter’s Square, he noted that many couples seem to have given up on the idea of “going ahead with children,” and that couples increasingly “prefer to have none, or to have just one.”

“Think about this. It’s a tragedy,” the pope said, noting that the Sunday morning A Sua Immagine program on Italy’s public broadcaster RAI had covered the issue earlier that morning.

“Let’s do everything possible to regain an awareness to overcome this demographic winter, which goes against our families, against our country, and against our future,” he said.

As of 2020, the birth rate in Italy, which is the second oldest country in the world behind Japan, was just 6.8 births per one thousand inhabitants, one of the lowest in Europe and in the world. Italy’s birth rate has steadily fallen since the 2008 financial crisis and has gotten worse year to year as families continue struggling to make ends meet.

With a population growth rate of just 1.2, Italy faces further demographic challenges in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused heightened financial instability and, in some instances, an increase in divorce rates.

In his Angelus speech, Francis reflected on family life. Noting that Jesus chose to be born into a family, he said, “It is beautiful to see Jesus inserted into the warp of familial affections which were born and grew in the caresses and concerns of his parents.”

“This is important for us as well: we come from a story composed of bonds of love and the person we are today were born not so much for the material goods that we make use of, but from the love that we have received,” he said.

While not all family situations are ideal, and while there are problems to work out in every family setting, “his is our story, these are our roots,” he said, adding, “if we cut them off, life dries up! God did not make us to be lone rangers, but to walk together.”

Even the Holy Family faced problems, anxieties, and sufferings, Pope Francis said, insisting that “the Holy Family on holy cards does not exist.”

He pointed to the Gospel scene in which Jesus wandered off and was missing for three days, causing Mary and Joseph to worry. When he was finally found in the temple, saying he had to do “his Father’s business,” they did not understand.

Mary and Joseph needed time to get to know Jesus and his unique mission, the pope said, saying the same goes for every family.

“Each day, a family needs to learn how to listen to each other to understand each other, to walk together, to face conflicts and difficulties. It is a daily challenge, and it is overcome through the right attitude, through simple actions, caring for the details of our relationships,” he said.

To do this, “the dictatorship of the ‘I’ needs to be fought,” he said, adding, “It is dangerous when, instead of listening to each other, we blame each other for mistakes; when, rather than showing care for each other, we are fixated on our own needs; when instead of dialoguing, we isolate ourselves with our mobile phones;

Problems arise when “we mutually accuse each other, always repeating the same phrases, restaging an old scene in which each person wants to be right and that always ends in cold silence,” he said.

To avoid this, Pope Francis repeated a familiar piece of advice, telling couples to always make peace, and to “Never go to bed without having made peace, otherwise there will be a ‘cold war’ the next day!”

“How many times, unfortunately, conflicts originate within the domestic walls due to prolonged periods of silence and from unchecked selfishness! Sometimes it even ends up in physical and moral violence,” he said, saying this type of unresolved conflict “lacerates harmony and kills the family.”

“Let us convert ourselves from ‘I’ to ‘you.’ And please, each day, let us pray a little bit together to ask God for the gift of peace,” he said.

After reciting the Angelus prayer, Francis offered a special greeting to spouses, asking God to give them “the strength and the joy to continue the path taken together,” and urging couples to begin preparing for the World Meeting of Families in 2022.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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