SAN DIEGO (CNS) — Bishop Robert W. McElroy of San Diego, in a pastoral message to Catholics of the diocese, announced he would convoke a synod in October on marriage and family life.

“A diocesan synod is the most significant level of dialogue, discernment and decision in the life of a diocese. It brings together the bishop, the priestly leadership and lay and religious representatives from throughout the diocese to wrestle with the most important questions that a diocese faces,” Bishop McElroy said in the message, “Embracing the Joy of Love.”

In the message, published in the May issue of The Southern Cross, San Diego’s diocesan newspaper, Bishop McElroy said the synod would focus exclusively on “the topics of marriage and family life that Pope Francis has raised in ‘The Joy of Love,'” also known in Latin as “Amoris Laetitia.” Each of the diocese’s 100 parishes would have a representative at the synod, he added. “The majority of the representatives will be lay men and women, which is particularly important on this topic of marriage and family,” he noted.

The synod will explore five themes — all of which Bishop McElroy described as challenges — from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, which was issued in April.

They are the challenge to witness to both the beauty and realism of the Catholic vision of marriage and family life; the challenge to form a culture of invitation and hospitality to unmarried couples; the challenge to welcome, nurture and form children; the challenge to provide authentic pastoral support for those who are divorced; and the challenge to bring spiritual depth to family life.

“‘The Joy of Love’ is breathtaking in its portrait of the beauty of married love. Yet the apostolic exhortation also unceasingly points to the reality that the beauty of married love is not confined to an ideal world or exceptional relationships, but is realistic and attainable for most men and women,” Bishop McElroy said.

At the same time, he noted, “the declining number of Catholics who marry in the church is an enormous pastoral problem in the Diocese of San Diego and throughout the nation. Thus it is essential for our parishes to reflect a deep culture of invitation and hospitality toward all couples who have not yet celebrated Catholic marriage.”

Bishop McElroy said, “The chief obstacle to building such a culture effectively is that most Catholic young adults are not involved in the life of the church. Sometimes this results from active estrangement from the church because of disagreements with Catholic doctrine or past hurts, but more often the lack of involvement of young adults in Catholic life is merely a product of a gradual drift away from ecclesial life.

“The diminishing participation of young adults between 20 and 40 constitutes the most significant pastoral challenge to the church in the United States. Until we address it effectively, we will not be able to build effectively a strong culture of Catholic marriage in our nation or our diocese.”

On the other side of the coin, “what of Catholics who have remarried civilly after a divorce?” Bishop McElroy asked. “‘The Joy of Love’ powerfully asserts that the church’s pastoral care for those in second marriages must ‘allow them not only to realize that they belong to the church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it,'” he said, quoting Pope Francis.

“Many Catholics who have been divorced and remarried conclude for a variety of legitimate reasons — many of them arising out of caring concern for the effects that an annulment process might have on the feelings of adult children or former spouses — that they cannot initiate the annulment process,” Bishop McElroy said.

“What is their status in the church? ‘The Joy of Love’ emphasizes that no abstract rule can embody the many complexities of the circumstances, intentions, levels of understanding and maturity which originally surrounded the action of a man or woman in entering their first marriage, or which surround the new moral obligations to a spouse or children which have already been produced by a second marriage.”

The birth of a child, Bishop McElroy said, “fundamentally changes the lives of mothers and fathers and their marriages. At once a supreme joy and a source of challenge, children bring a new dimension to married love, as well as an increasing recognition by parents of the deepest realities of life that we come to take for granted as we grow to adulthood.”

Parenting, he added, “must take into account the serious challenges in our culture to the formation of children — consumerism, individualism, hypercompetitiveness, a distorted notion of sexuality, and secularism. Moreover, parents must struggle with the difficulties created ‘by current lifestyles, work schedules and the complexity of today’s world, where many people keep up a frenetic pace just to survive,'” the bishop said, again quoting Pope Francis.

The challenge of bringing a spiritual depth to family life is often complicated by the fact that “parents find it harder to share with their children the traditions of faith which enriched their own childhood because in their young adult and early married years these prayers and traditions have come to seem distant and foreign to them,” Bishop McElroy said. “Moreover, increasing numbers of young couples are unable to build and sustain a spiritual dimension in their marriage.”

Bishop McElroy said the months leading up to the synod will be filled with preparatory meetings to approach questions prompted by the challenges he outlined in his pastoral message.