Fr Billy Swan
‘Family Love - a Vocation and a Path to Holiness’ was the theme of the tenth World Meeting of Families that took place in Rome recently from 22nd to 26th June. Here in Ireland, we are coming up on four years since we hosted the World Meeting of Families in August 2018 that included a visit of Pope Francis. Here I would like to reflect on the theme of this year’s gathering in the light of family life today and the wisdom Francis shared with us in his 2016 Apostolic Exhortation ‘The Joy of Love’.
The first thing to note is the crucial role of the family in helping parents and children grow in wisdom, maturity and moral character. ‘The Joy of Love’ emphasizes what the Church has consistently taught about the family being a living center of character formation for all members but particularly for children who are growing up and acquiring the values and habits they see around them. The family unit is the seedbed for the training of people of moral fiber, virtue and service who are imbued with a lively sense of community, respect for all and a connection with the wider good and broader society. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that ‘The Joy of Love’ reiterates the link between the health of family life and the well-being of the wider community. Solid human and spiritual formation received in family bodes well for the society in which families live. A weakening of the family unity leads to a parallel deterioration of society and an undermining of civilization itself. In the words of Pope Francis: ‘The family is the primary setting for socialization, since it is where we first learn to relate to others, to listen and share, to be patient and show respect, to help one another and live as one’ (The Joy of the Gospel, 276).
In this light, although the theme of the World Meeting of Families describes family love as a path to holiness, it could also have described it as a center of holiness and the place where family members discover their vocation given by God. This requires further exploration. For the sake of clarity, let’s breakdown the theme into three parts, all of which are related. We begin with ‘Family Love’ followed by ‘Vocation’ and ‘Holiness’.
Family life is messy. There is no such thing as a perfect family for each family is made up of imperfect people. With that in view, any teaching on family life must take this into account and not idealize or sentimentalize the reality that is living in close proximity. It is refreshing therefore that when the Pope comes to discuss family love, he is fully aware of the dynamics involved. These dynamics include the basic common courtesies that cannot be taken for granted but must be learned and practiced in every day family living. Here Francis talks about the importance of good habits that are essential to the training of people to be good and to relate well to others. He teaches:
“Good habits need to be developed. Even childhood habits can help to translate important interiorized values into sound and steady ways of acting. A person may be sociable and open to others, but if over a long period of time he has not been trained by his elders to say “Please”, “Thank you”, and “Sorry”, his good interior disposition will not easily come to the fore. The strengthening of the will and the repetition of specific actions are the building blocks of moral conduct; without the conscious, free and valued repetition of certain patterns of good behaviour, moral education does not take place” (The Joy of the Gospel, 266).
There are a few issues that are noteworthy here. First, the link Francis makes between the development of good habits and the interiorization of values. And so, to use his own example of saying “Please, thank you and I’m sorry”, the habitual use of “please” cultivates an interior attitude of respect towards another, of not taking another for granted, of being patient and not being demanding. The frequent use of “Thank you” cultivates a disposition of gratitude, of not thinking that people owe me and recognizing everything as gift. The frequent use of “I’m sorry” nourishes our humility and brings home the truth that we sometimes sin, make mistakes and therefore need to apologize to those who have been affected by our actions or omissions.
The other link that Francis makes in this extract from “The Joy of Love” is between good habits and the strengthening of the will. This link reaches back to an ancient tradition in moral theology whereby good habits make it more easy to be good whereas bad habits make it more difficult to break the cycle and return to a virtuous life. This wisdom has been verified for centuries of human experience and is employed in rehabilitation of those caught in a cycle of destructive addiction. In other words, if I am addicted to alcohol, helping me break the habit of drinking is more likely to be successful that telling me to “just stop drinking”. As Francis puts it in a later paragraph: “The virtuous life thus builds, strengthens and shapes freedom, lest we become slaves of dehumanizing and antisocial inclinations” (The Joy of the Gospel, 267).
Here Francis touches on a point that colours every aspect of what it means to be a responsible and upright human being – how we use our freedom. In our culture, human freedom is increasingly understood as “doing what I want and when I want to”. It is a freedom that empowers me to choose who I want to be, what gender I prefer and even whether I live or die. In this view, freedom is associated with power and the will.
In ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, Francis teaches that human freedom cannot be reduced to this. He understands freedom in more expansive terms as something that we perfect by choosing the good and when it comes to family life, the formation of a rightly ordered freedom. For parents, this means rearing their children in such a way that sometimes affirms their good and positive choices while at other times correcting them. For Francis, the painful necessity of correcting their children is a sign of their love for them: “Children who are lovingly corrected feel cared for; they perceive that they are individuals whose potential is recognized” (The Joy of the Gospel, 269).
Then Francis warns what happens if children are never corrected: “Such children will grow up with a sense of their rights but not their responsibilities” (The Joy of the Gospel, 270). Therefore, “the family is the first school of human values, where we learn the wise use of freedom” (The Joy of the Gospel, 274).
Finally, the Pope highlights the importance of communication in family life – something that is essential to the renewal of love between family members. While acknowledging the gift of modern communication technology, he insists that there is no substitute for real time spent with each other of speaking and listening: “These media cannot replace the need for more personal and direct dialogue, which requires physical presence or at least hearing the voice of the other person” (The Joy of the Gospel, 278).
To summarize this sketch of family love as highlighted by Pope Francis, the family is a community united in love and a school of formation in which we grow to become virtuous human beings and Christians. These virtues and interior dispositions are acquired by good habits that are put into practice in daily life. For children this formation will require the accompaniment of their parents whose duty is to affirm the good and challenge the bad as they acquire the good habits that will prepare them for healthy interactions with others and to become valuable contributors to society and the common good. Family life is the setting for acquiring a responsible use of the gift of freedom – not as an end in itself - but rightly ordered by habits that are directed towards the good and based on truth.
We will explore the other two aspects next week – Family Life as a seedbed of Vocations and a path to holiness.