An Example for All
“As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.” — Pope St. John Paul II
One of the most remarkable things about the Gospels is also one of the least remarked upon – perhaps, in part, because this most remarkable thing is more about what’s not in the Gospels than what is.
The biographers of the world’s “great men” love to trace the genealogy of their subjects’ greatness, relishing tales of their advanced aptitude as children and analyzing the influence of their family and friends, the schools they attended, the books they read and the heroes they admired. Not so with the Gospel writers. Other than a handful of stories about Christ’s birth, and even fewer about his childhood, we are told almost nothing about his first 30 years. After one brief anecdote from when Christ was twelve, Luke says only that Jesus returned to His family home and “was subject unto” Mary and Joseph, and that Mary “kept all these things in her heart” (Luke 2:51). After this, the Gospel writers draw the veil.
I love to imagine what those 30 years in Nazareth must have been like. Jesus, Mary and Joseph must, on the outside, have resembled many other families. Mary must have gone to the market and haggled for a fair price for meat and produce, and labored long hours cooking and keeping the house tidy; as a carpenter, Joseph must have been a typical small businessman, taking orders from his customers, building and delivering the final product and receiving payment; Jesus, eventually, must have worked alongside Joseph in the workshop, probably attached to their home. On the Sabbath, they surely attended the Synagogue like every other Jewish family.
Ordinary . . . and yet the furthest thing from ordinary. For what warmth, what peace, what love, and what full, prayerful silence must have reigned in that little home in Nazareth! I have often been struck by the warmth and welcome I find when I enter the homes of close, loving families. In such homes, love is made tangible, and one catches a glimpse of how humans were made to live alongside one another. But, if this is so in the case of a family of ordinary sinners, how much more must it have been the case with the Holy Family!
If a family peacefully praying the rosary in the candlelight of the advent wreath is a little foretaste of heaven (and it is!), how much greater must have been the peace when Jesus, Mary and Joseph spent time together in prayer. How beautiful must have been their conversations as they gathered for refreshment around the dinner table. How welcome and fortunate their friends and family must have felt when they visited the Holy Family’s humble dwelling and were privileged to observe and participate in the harmony of that home.
“Through God’s mysterious design, it was in that [Holy] family that the Son of God spent long years of a hidden life,” writes Pope St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio. “It is therefore the prototype and example for all Christian families. It was unique in the world. Its life was passed in anonymity and silence in a little town in Palestine. It underwent trials of poverty, persecution and exile. It glorified God in an incomparably exalted and pure way” (¶86).
Love Begins in the Family
The point is this: Nothing that Christ did was by accident. Christ chose to spend the first three decades of his life, not in the kind of conspicuous preparations for greatness that we might expect from a world-changing political or religious leader, but rather quietly serving his earthly parents in their home. The only preparation that he received that we know of, was an outwardly ordinary life lived in an extraordinary way within a family. And it was there that “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
The conclusion is obvious: If the Holy Family glorified God “in an incomparably exalted and pure way,” then every family, insofar as it imitates the Holy Family, also exalts God in a similarly lofty way.
In the last century we were fortunate to have two larger-than-life saints – Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa – who constantly drew our attention to the dignity and value of the family, and its fundamental importance for the common good. St. Mother Teresa’s favored approach to transforming the world was not ambitious political or social reform, but rather practicing daily self-sacrificial love towards those closest to us. And as she never tired of saying, this begins in the family. “The way you help heal the world is that you start with your own family,” she insisted. And again: “What can you do to promote world peace? Go home and love your family.”
If this seems simplistic, it is only because the past century and a half we have become enamored with the search for vast technological solutions to our problems, not realizing that the worst of our problems are not a consequence of bad technology, but the failure to love. Modern technology has alleviated much suffering, but bad technology was not responsible for the Holocaust or the Gulags or the killing fields of Cambodia. Perhaps you remember the idealistic doctor’s pithy saying in The Brothers Karamazov. “The more I love humanity in general,” he lamented, “the less I love man in particular.” To such men as this doctor, St. Mother Teresa replied: “It is easy to love the people far away. It is not always easy to love those close to us. Bring love into your home, for this is where our love for each other must start.”
The family is – or should be – the school of love. If the parents show one another love and create a culture of love that is imbibed by the children, then this interior love spreads outwards. For as St. Thomas Aquinas noted, “good is self-diffusive.” It spreads. Love begins in the family, but it does not stop there. “The problem with our world is that we draw the circle of family too small,” said St. Mother Teresa. The nuclear family is where we learn to be family, which is to say, we learn to love freely and unconditionally. With this knowledge in hand, we are then free to draw the circle of the family larger and ever larger. Children who have learned to love in a family, leave the home and go into their schools, universities, offices, clubs, and churches equipped with the knowledge of how to treat others as if they, too, are family – as indeed they are.
“The family is the first and fundamental school of social living,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio. “[A]s a community of love, it finds in self-giving the law that guides it and makes it grow. The self- giving that inspires the love of husband and wife for each other is the model and norm for the self-giving that must be practiced in the relationships between brothers and sisters and the different generations living together in the family. And the communion and sharing that are part of everyday life in the home at times of joy and at times of difficulty are the most concrete and effective pedagogy for the active, responsible and fruitful inclusion of the children in the wider horizon of society” (¶37).
Again, and even more succinctly, he said: “The fostering of authentic and mature communion between persons within the family is the first and irreplaceable school of social life, and example and stimulus for the broader community relationships marked by respect, justice, dialogue and love” (¶43).
The Family Under Attack
The Catholic Church has always affirmed the importance of health of the family, not just as an intrinsic value, but as the necessary precondition for the health of society at large. The family, says the Catechism, is “the original cell of social life” (CCC, ¶2207). Again: “Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society” (CCC, ¶2207).
The framework, in today’s world, for public discourse is often focused on the rights and freedom of the individual. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, seeks to re-orient our view, looking at the individual as a member of a family, and at the family in relation to society. The Catechism speaks about the duties of children and of parents, of citizens and of civil authorities. It emphasizes the social dimension of human existence and provides the required antidote to an increasingly fragmented and fundamentally anti-social view of humanity.
One of the great challenges of our day, especially in secularized societies, is the attempt to change laws which, over centuries, even millennia, have recognized the plan of God for marriage and family as founded in the created order. “The vocation of marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator,” says the Catechism (CCC, ¶1603). Further: “In creating man and woman, God instituted the human family and endowed it with its fundamental constitution” (CCC, ¶2203).
Tragically, and disastrously, over the past century and a half we have witnessed a concerted attempt by ideologues to either entirely eradicate the institution of the family (an explicit goal of Communism), and, when that failed, to fatally undermine its stability (divorce and “free love”) or fundamentally transform its nature (contraception, same-sex “marriage” and “polyamory”). The results have been catastrophic: an unprecedented spike in divorce, children traumatized by being abandoned by one or the other of their parents, a huge increase in fatherless households and poverty among single-mother homes, huge increases in public spending on welfare, an increasingly hostile war of the sexes, an epidemic of STDs, and, of course, the deaths of millions of unborn children to the violence of abortion.
That’s why I was so delighted recently to hear Fox News Host Tucker Carlson using his highly visible platform to draw attention to the value of the family. “A country without strong families is a weak country,” he noted. “It is a volatile place, a chaotic place. It’s a place susceptible to political demagoguery.” Carlson expressed his fear that this is precisely “what America is becoming,” and exhorted: “If you want to stop that slide, support families. It’s that simple.”
While the ways in which the Democratic Party attacks families are obvious, Carlson also took Republicans to task. “If your supposedly conservative economic program doesn’t make it easier for young people to get and stay married and have kids, how is it really conservative?” he asked. “If couples are too poor to have children and you’re not helping, why should I as a conservative vote for you?” And: “Supporting marriage and children is the best, maybe the only way for Republicans or any of us to save the country.”
To this, I can only say, Amen! One of the great tasks of government is to protect the integrity and stability of the family and to preserve its freedom.
There isn’t space in this column to speak of all the ways that we can work to respond to the many and growing assaults on the family today. However, there is something that we can all do. It is reflected in Pope St. John Paul II’s famous cry in Familiaris Consortio: “Family, become what you are”! Let all families renew their resolve to be the school of love they are called to be. Let every family look for inspiration to the Holy Family, and model themselves on that great emblem of the union of human and divine love.
And, of course, we can all pray for the family. In concluding, I would like to ask you to join me in reciting this prayer of Pope St. John Paul II for the family:
Lord God, from You every family in Heaven and on earth takes its name.
Father, You are love and life. Through Your Son, Jesus Christ, born of woman, and through the Holy Spirit, the fountain of divine charity, grant that every family on earth may become for each successive generation a true shrine of life and love.
Grant that Your grace may guide the thoughts and actions of husbands and wives for the good of their families and of all the families in the world.
Grant that the young may find in the family solid support for their human dignity and for their growth in truth and love.
Grant that love, strengthened by the grace of the sacrament of marriage, may prove mightier than all the weaknesses and trials through which our families sometimes pass.
Through the intercession of the Holy Family of Nazareth, grant that the Church may fruitfully carry out her worldwide mission in the family and through the family.
We ask this of You, Who is life, truth and love with the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.