It All Begins in the Family
“As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live.”
Pope St. John Paul II famously spoke these words in a 1986 homily, delivered in Perth, Australia. This prophetic sentence is often quoted by Catholic pro-family activists. However, it is only one sentence in a longer homily, dedicated to a strong, unapologetic defense of the Church’s teaching on life and family.
It is a homily that is well worth re-reading today, as we witness the destruction caused by widespread dissolution and degradation of marriage and the family.
The Family as ‘Domestic Church’
In that homily, the sainted pope recalled his audience to the great dignity of the family and reminded them of the profound responsibility that husbands and wives have in living out the Church’s rich teaching on marriage.
The Church, he pointed out, has always referred to the family as the “domestic church.” “The meaning of this traditional Christian idea,” he explained, “is that the home is the Church in miniature. The Church is the sacrament of God’s love. She is a communion of faith and life. She is a mother and teacher. She is at the service of the whole human family as it goes forward towards its ultimate destiny.”
In the same way the family is a community of life and love. It educates and leads its members to their full human maturity, and it serves the good of all along the road of life. The family is the “first and vital cell of society.” In its own way it is a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church. The future of the world and of the Church, therefore, passes through the family.
These are lofty words! However, it seems to me that all the evidence has proved the Holy Father correct.
It little matters how good our schools are, how elaborate and well-funded our government social programs are, or even how slick and well-marketed the Church’s marriage preparation programs are, if individual husbands and individual wives do not embrace the calling to make their families into domestic churches, characterized by love, faith, and communion.
Without individual couples heroically living out their vocations in the hiddenness of the home, there is very little that the broader culture can do to repair the damage. In so many important respects, the strength of a society, and the strength of the Church, is predicated upon the strength of the smallest cell of society: the families in which individuals receive their deepest, most-formative education.
Recover the Moral Foundation of Marriage
As Pope St. John Paul II said in that 1986 homily, when it comes to the family, “society urgently needs ‘to recover an awareness of the primacy of moral values, which are the values of the human person as such’, thus ‘recapturing the ultimate meaning of life and its fundamental values’.”
On the one hand, noted the pope, the Church goes out of Her way to reach out in compassion to those people who have found it difficult to live up to the moral truths of marriage and family. On the other hand, however, the Church cannot give into the demands of those who argue that the Church should abandon Her teachings or ideals, to make them more palatable to our age.
“The Church,” he explained, “cannot say that what is bad is good, nor can she call valid what is invalid. She cannot fail to proclaim Christ’s teaching, even when this teaching is difficult to accept. She knows too that she is sent to heal, to reconcile, to call to conversion, to find what was lost. Hence it is with great love and patience that the Church tries to help all those who experience difficulty in meeting the demands of Christian married love and family life.”
The reason that the Church cannot abandon Her teaching, he suggested, is not because the Church is a rigid taskmaster who resists the appeals of Her suffering children. It is, rather, that the Church has a divinely-given responsibility to show people the path towards true fulfillment and happiness, even when they initially find that path difficult or distasteful!
“The Church is always the true and faithful friend of the human person on the pilgrimage of life,” Pope St. John Paul II continued. “She knows that by upholding the moral law she contributes to the establishment of a truly human civilization, and she constantly challenges people not to abdicate their personal responsibility with regard to ethical and moral imperatives.”
In the end, true charity, the charity of Christ, “can only be realized in the truth: in the truth about life and love and responsibility,” he added. “The Church has to proclaim Christ: The Way, the Truth, and the Life; and in so doing she has to teach the values and principles which correspond to man’s calling to ‘newness’ of life in Christ.”
The Challenge of Virtue
In other words, the Church must ever call people to embrace a life of virtue. To lower the standard would be to encourage people in moral mediocrity, or worse, in which they fail to live up to their fullest human potential.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: virtue is “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good. It allows the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of himself. The virtuous person tends toward the good with all his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions. The goal of a virtuous life is to become like God” (no. 1803).
Thus, virtue requires much more than simply performing good deeds when it is convenient, easy, and beneficial. A virtuous person does not act virtuously because it is utilitarian, but because it is ultimately the right thing to do. After all, it is easy to be generous, patient, and kind to others when things are going well in our life. But will we be generous, patient, and kind to the person who frustrates us? Will we be virtuous when we’re experiencing stress or feeling overwhelmed in life?
To live virtuously in our marriages, families, and society, requires much more than occasional good deeds or acts of kindness. The virtuous spouse or parent is someone who can be counted on to give the best of himself consistently, no matter what the circumstances may be, to his spouse or children. Such virtue, while difficult, is not only the fulfillment of the individual person’s potential, but it is also the foundation for peace, first in the family, then in the wider community, and ultimately in the world.
Certainly, living virtuously requires much more than listening to the noxious messages of the world, which encourage vice in the name of “self-realization.” And so it is that we find marriages infected with sexual immorality and infidelity, spouses abandoning one another at the slightest pretext, and parents either refusing the gift of children or paying little heed to the children they have, frustrated by the fact that their children demand a kind of self-giving love that the parents find threatening to their autonomy or happiness.
And so, our world goes the way of the family: superficial, fractured, riven with mutually imposed wounds, hedonistic, and self-enclosed.
The Church’s Constant Message
In the midst of widespread confusion about the nature and importance of marriage and sexuality, which is to be seen all around us, the Church has remained firm in her message of hope for families: calling and encouraging them to become emblems of the Church Herself.
“[H]ow important is the witness of married couples for the formation of sound consciences and the building of a civilization of love!” said Pope Benedict XVI in a homily at the Mount of Precipice in Nazareth, in 2009. “[I]n the family,” he added, “each person, whether the smallest child or the oldest relative, is valued for himself or herself, and not seen simply as a means to some other end.”
Pope Benedict XVI went on to suggest that children need the benefits of a “human ecology.” That is, they need to be raised in “a milieu” where they “learn to love and to cherish others, to be honest and respectful to all, to practice the virtues of mercy and forgiveness.”
And echoing Pope St. John Paul II’s prophetic statement, he noted, “It is in the family that peacemakers, tomorrow’s promoters of a culture of life and love, are born and nurtured” (World Day of Peace, 2013).
Here, I am reminded of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the family, emphasizing the role of parents as “primary and principal educators.” “Parents,” wrote the Council Fathers,
are the ones who must create a family atmosphere animated by love and respect for God and man, in which the well-rounded personal and social education of children is fostered. Hence the family is the first school of the social virtues that every society needs. It is particularly in the Christian family, enriched by the grace and office of the sacrament of matrimony, that children should be taught from their early years to have a knowledge of God according to the faith received in Baptism, to worship Him, and to love their neighbor. Here, too, they find their first experience of a wholesome human society and of the Church. Finally, it is through the family that they are gradually led to a companionship with their fellowmen and with the people of God. Let parents, then, recognize the inestimable importance a truly Christian family has for the life and progress of God’s own people” (Gravissimum educationis, no. 3).
In the face of such words, it is perhaps easy for parents to become discouraged, knowing their own sinfulness, and seeing their failures of love towards their spouses and their children. And yet, as Pope St. John Paul II rightly noted, such words and such teachings are not meant to discourage.
The Church always accompanies and calls sinners, acknowledging the reality of the fallenness of our nature, and fending off discouragement by offering the healing power of the sacraments, in which we can find grace and healing. And yet, at the same time, She calls us higher, urging us to become the best versions of ourselves.
Our world is desperately in need of holy families: families that imitate the joy, peace, communion and love that characterized the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth. It is from such families that will come the generous, loving individuals who will transform our culture in whatever sphere to which they are called. When children are formed in a home where virtues are taught, stressed, and lived, they become the sort of adults that society needs to redirect its path from that of darkness to light.
I urge husbands and wives reading this column to commit yourselves, today, to making your family into a domestic church. Begin by loving your spouse with the kind of self-giving love that Christ modeled for us in His death on the cross. Pray together as a couple. Be gentle and tender with the faults and failings of one another. Find new, creative ways to express your love. Create peace in the heart of your home: a peace in which your children will grow and thrive as disciples of Christ.
Empowered by the daily experience of love in the home, your children will go out into the world, and will bring that love with them, into their own vocations, and to their own jobs. And thus, we will see the truth of Pope St. John Paul II’s words, but in their most positive light: as the family goes, so goes the world.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.