A lot of attention has been focused lately on the family. A worldwide meeting of families was held last month in Philadelphia, and a three-week gathering of bishops is beginning this month in Rome to discuss the “vocation and mission” of the family.
This emphasis on the family highlights the incredible importance of the family within God’s plan for mankind. God willed that new human life come into the world within the context of a family. God could have done it any way he wanted, but he designed it so that a baby is created through the loving embrace of his or her father and mother.
Handing on the Faith
This communion of life and love — called a family — is actually a reflection of God himself, who is a communion of persons united in love. A family is created out of love and for love.
“Love is Our Mission” was the theme of the recently-held World Meeting of Families. This emphasizes the mission and purpose of every family: to receive God’s love and to reflect that love to the world.
God’s love is manifest in many ways within a family. This occurs most profoundly when a family is formed through the marriage covenant. A husband and wife make visible the invisible characteristics of God’s love when they freely promise each other a permanent and faithful love. They further reflect the life-giving love of God through their openness to God’s creative work within their marriage. Becoming co-creators with God, they bring new life into this communion of love.
Within the intimate communion of the family, a person experiences God’s love as family members learn to love and serve, teach and share, comfort and forgive, invite and nurture, welcome and provide.
God’s love wills the true and the ultimate good of another. Thus, the family is called to imitate the love of Jesus Christ, with each member laying down his life for the good of the others. “Love is a mission we receive, a disposition that we accept, a summons to which we submit” (Love is Our Mission 31).
It is within the Christian family that children first encounter and learn to imitate the love of Jesus Christ. For this reason, the family has been called the “domestic church,” which means the “church of the home.”
“The Christian home is the place where children receive the first proclamation of the faith. . . . The family home is rightly called ‘the domestic church,’ a community of grace and prayer, a school of Christian virtues and human charity” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1666).
A child comes to know Jesus Christ through the prayers said by his parents over his crib, from the stories read to him in a children’s Bible and most importantly through the day-to-day Christian witness of his parents.
A child learns to forgive as he sees his parents forgive. He learns to give when he witnesses his parents’ generosity to others. He learns to be grateful each time his parents take a moment to thank God for his blessings. He learns to trust God whenever he sees his parents demonstrate their faith in God’s providence.
More than anyone else, parents have the greatest influence in helping their children grow in virtue. Within the family children have opportunities every day to grow in patience and purity, in self-control and generosity, in kindness and gratitude.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has created a web page entitled “Tools for Building the Domestic Church.” Many helpful tips can be found here: www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/parents/tools-for-building-a-domestic-church.cfm.
The reason the church has placed such emphasis on the family is due to the many challenges the family encounters, which potentially draw it away from its mission of love.
Searching for the root of these difficulties, one uncovers the work of Satan. This fallen angel is the one who deceives, places stumbling blocks, and tries to lead persons away from God’s plans (cf. John 8:44, Matthew 16:23, Mark 1:13). Since the family is the icon of God, it only makes sense that the Evil One will work hard to attack the family.
Some of the challenges faced by the family come from external sources, such as poverty, war and violence. It becomes difficult for families to form and thrive when extreme poverty forces one’s attention to mere survival. War, terrorism and violence pose great threats, as families become separated, are forced to flee their homes, and suffer the loss of its members.
Other challenges come from within.
The opposite of self-giving is selfishness. Within a family, selfishness turns one’s affections from desiring the good of others to the attainment of one’s own good. Families suffer when one or more of their members fail to lay down their lives for the other.
Another internal challenge is rooted in the desire for sensual pleasure. It is expressed in the philosophy, “If it feels good, then do it.”
Pornography, contraception and sexual activity outside of marriage result when sexual pleasure is sought in a way that is disconnected from God’s purposes. God wants us to be joyful, but we will only attain true joy when we use his gifts in the way they are intended.
Pope Francis has provided a great example by inviting persons and families to a renewed encounter with the source of love, Jesus Christ.
This encounter is fostered through the love and compassion of others and realized within the Body of Christ, the church. “With patience, forgiveness, and trust, in the Body of Christ, we can heal and live in ways that might otherwise seem impossible” (Love is Our Mission 173).
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.