Fr Billy Swan
The following is the last in a three-part series on the theme of the World Meeting of Families held in June this year in Rome. The theme was ‘Family Love - a Vocation and a Path to Holiness’ . Here I explore family love as a pathway to holiness.
‘The triune God is a communion of love and the family is its living reflection…Our God in his deepest mystery is not solitude but a family for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship and the essence of the family, which is love’ (The Joy of Love, 11). With these words, Pope Francis clarifies early in the document, the fundamental identity of the family as a reflection of the God who is a family of loving communion.
Here is the basis for why the Second Vatican Council famously described the family as a ‘domestic church’ (Lumen Gentium, 11) or a community that helps each member grow in holiness and enduring friendship with God. In one his most innovative phrases, Francis builds on this theology by describing the Church as a “Family of families” (The Joy of Love, 87).
In the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the family is the place where “one learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous – even repeated – forgiveness and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life” (CCC, 1657). In is noteworthy from this paragraph from the Catechism how growth in holiness to which family members are called, takes place through shared activity such as work, understanding and the constant demand of forgiveness. But this shared activity culminates in a common life of prayer and worship where family members habitually come together to pray as a family and join other families for moments of prayer such as Sunday Eucharist.
In the final chapter of ‘The Joy of Love’, the pope’s master image is that of the temple. He writes: “Today we can add that the Trinity is present in the temple of marital communion” (para. 314). The use of the temple image is evocative of the Jewish life of worship in the Old Testament where the temple cult and right praise of God determined Israel’s fortunes. This is also how we Christians still interpret the Ten Commandments, especially the first that directs Israel to faithfulness to and worship of the One true and living God.
On the biblical reading, we human beings become rightly ordered when we praise God aright and become corrupt when we begin to worship creatures instead of the Creator.
Therefore, with his description of the family as a temple, Pope Francis is re-stating the importance of family as the place where children learn to put God first above all things, to love God above all things and to love everything else in his name. This means that in the life of every family, God’s presence is acknowledged and honoured. Space is left for God at the center of every family. It requires that every family be open to God as the source of love that renews the love between spouses and their children. In response, God renews his own divine life in each member of the family but also in the family unit as a whole.
For Francis, the family is the single most important vehicle for the communication of the faith (The Joy of Love, 287). Typically, he again emphasizes the importance of good example by parents who introduce their children to consistent lives of prayer: “Moments of family prayer and acts of devotion can be more powerful for evangelization than any catechism class or sermon” (The Joy of Love, 288). For Francis, “family prayer is a special way of expressing and strengthening paschal faith” (The Joy of Love, 318). What he means by this is that moments of family prayer open up its members to the needs of the family, the needs of humanity and that those needs have been redeemed by Christ who grew up in a family committed to prayer. All of this wisdom serves to remind parishes, priests, catechists and teachers of how important it is to help parents to be the ‘first and best witnesses to their children in the ways of faith’ (The Rite of Baptism). No one can replace parents as the first evangelizers of their children.
A final word on what Francis teaches on the love between spouses and the truth that each is called to help the other grow in holiness. Although couples share a deep intimacy in body and soul, this intimacy is a participating of a greater intimacy of each with God. Here Francis warns against spouses placing divine expectations on human shoulders as if married love is a substitute for the divine love for which we all hunger. Realizing this is key to a committed unity but also a healthy autonomy that happens “when each spouse realises that the other is not his or her own, but has a much more important master, the one Lord. No one but God can presume to take over the deepest and most personal core of the loved one; He (God) can be the ultimate center of their life” (The Joy of Love, 320). What Pope Francis advocates is a space between the spouses for God – a space that serves to strengthen their love and not diminish it. He continues: “The space which each of the spouses make exclusively for their personal relationship with God not only helps heal the hurts of life in common, but also enables the spouses to find in the love of God the deepest source of meaning in their own lives” (The Joy of Love, 320). Finding this space takes time and effort but is also a gift from God to be prayed for: “Each day we have to invoke the help of the Holy Spirit to make this interior freedom possible” (ibid).
With this teaching, Pope Francis is directing the love of couples and their children outwards towards God so that the experience of love shared between them becomes a reason for them to give glory to God and return thanks to Him. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to talk about how it takes three to get married – a husband, wife and the God of love who created them and brought them together. This idea was not new but extends right back even to pre-Christian times with Aristotle who taught that the love between two people is made stronger in the measure that both of them love a transcendent third. In Christian families, this translates into the love between families made stronger by uniting together in the love and worship of the same God.
A Scriptural example of this dynamic is seen in the book of Tobit in the passage that is often proclaimed at wedding (8:4-8). There, Tobit and his new bride Sarah unite in prayer to God on the evening of their wedding day. In a beautiful prayer, both of them assured the Lord of their purity of heart in giving each other their lives. Now both of them give their lives to Him. Both of them concluded the prayer with a solemn ‘Amen, Amen’. Here is the spirituality of married and family life grounded in God where spouses and family members turn towards each other in love but sometimes turn together in the direction of God in order to praise him. The prayer of Tobit and Sarah bears witness to their deepest conviction that their married love is not just about them but includes the source of that love who is God. Here is a model for all couples to follow whose vocation is to marriage or towards marriage. The love of each for the other helps all to grow in holiness and deeper communion with God. And to the extent that we grow closer together to God, the more we grow closer to each other.
These articles have attempted to unpack the profound theme chosen for this years World Meeting of Families: ‘Family Love - a Vocation and a Path to Holiness’. They began with a reflection on family love as explored by Pope Francis in ‘The Joy of Love’ where he accurately names the reality of family living today. He identifies that family life is not easy but yet is the setting where both parents and children can grow in love and virtue. He encourages parents to cultivate good habits in their children by their own example and to interiorize the values that good habits foster. The family is the training ground for the responsible use of freedom which at times necessitates loving correction.
In terms of vocational discernment, every family has a collective vocation outwards and each family environment is a seedbed for vocational discernment by the children, aided by the parents who are conscious of their own vocation.
Finally, the family is the environment where together we grow in holiness through moments of common prayer where we turn to the Lord in praise and thanksgiving. Family is the place where parents introduce their children to the story of Jesus and teach their children how to pray in the Holy Spirit. Faith and prayer are the channels through which the grace of God flows in a way that helps the family grow in love through times of crisis and times of shared joy.
I will leave the final word to Pope Francis with whom we have shared this journey of reflection on the family and its missionary orientation:
“All of us are called to keep striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families, and every family must feel this constant impulse. Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together. What we have been promised is greater than we can imagine. May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us” (The Joy of Love, 325).