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Fr Billy Swan

Dear friends. The feast of the Holy Family is always celebrated on the Sunday after Christmas Day. This is timely and appropriate given the importance of family at Christmas and when thousands who have returned home to be with their families at Christmas, are still with them this weekend.

As a priest, I have always found the task of preaching on the feast of the Holy Family tricky. On one hand the life of the Holy Family is put before us as a model and the ideal of every Christian family. Jesus grew in wisdom and maturity in a family, working until he was thirty and living with his parents; on the other hand, you don’t want to exclude anyone either given that family life in Ireland today has changed so much over the years with different families and models of family part of every parish. In every parish including our own, there are people who are single, widowed, those without children, grand-children, gay people, separated people and divorced. Who or what is family for them? Perhaps belonging to a sports club, a society, the local pub or the parish community is the only experience of family they have.

Yet, I believe that today’s Feast of the Holy Family is not exclusive but helps us get the balance right between honouring the ideal and yet recognising other models of family that are not conventional. First, the importance of the ideal of family life and the institution of family itself. What is the most important institution of the human race? It’s family – not schools, churches, banks or governments but family. This is because it is the first place where we learn life’s most important lesson: unselfish love and the love that consists in the gift of your very self and life to others. Family is the place where we grow, mature, are affirmed and are corrected when necessary. It is the place where we first learn how to say ‘Please’, ‘Sorry’ and ‘Thank you’. It is the place where we acquire good habits that serve us for life.

That said, the family as an institution is in crisis. The sexual revolution has done terrible damage by breaking the link between marriage, commitment and family life. The number of Church weddings and indeed marriages overall are at an all-time low in the Western world. There is confusion about what difference marriage makes at all and what is a family to begin with. In March this coming year, we will be asked to vote on a change in the constitution about women’s place in the home and a re-definition of the family from the current definition to ‘a group whether founded on marriage or on other durable relationships’. The problem with this re-definition is that it devalues the importance of marriage and reduces fatherhood and motherhood within the family to roles that anyone can perform. No one can deny that fatherhood and motherhood matter. Just ask someone who grew up without a father or mother or who lost a father or mother or whose Mam or Dad wasn’t there for them. Motherhood and fatherhood matter. Period. Being inclusive is important but not at the cost of making everything the same, denying that motherhood and fatherhood are categories of nature or entrusting the welfare of children to a vague description of durable relationships. Because if you de-stabilse the family, you de-stabile society. This leads to more loneliness, more dysfunction, more crime, more sadness and more problems.

Today’s Feast of the Holy Family speaks to all models of family. We must remember that Jesus was not born in a conventional way. Neither was his family tree pure as we might think. His ancestry was made up of saints and sinners. This was part of God’s plan to draw close to human imperfection. Therefore, the Church that bears his Spirit must also be a family filled with merciful love where there is a place for everyone. She must be or rather, we must be, people who ‘are ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope and above all to integrate’ (Pope Francis, The Joy of Love, 312). We must remember that the Church is not a club belonging to the perfect but the family of God where we all grow in holiness and truth together without feeling judged or frowned upon.

Friends, I conclude this homily with a word of appreciation and encouragement to all of you. To parents, children, grand-parents and parishioners - thank you for all you do and for who you are. On this Feast of the Holy Family, let us remember that we are not just individuals but members of the same family, people called together, as St Paul says in the Second Reading, to ‘be part of one body’. Together let us commit ourselves to building up that one body to which we belong and the family we call home.

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