by Fr Mark James OP
When we normally think of the Holy Family we think of the perfect family. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were the holiest of families otherwise why would God have chosen them for the task of raising his Son. However, is this the reason why God chose them? If we take the incarnation seriously then there is good reason to recognise that this family too had its share of hardships.
In today’s gospel, we see Mary and Joseph suffering the anguish of having thought they had lost their child. It took them three days to find him again. Mary even asked Jesus: ‘Why have you done this to us? We have been so worried?’
When we look at most families there are often many hardships and challenges to face. Family life is always a work in progress. There is sibling rivalry, there is the day-to-day conflicts to be negotiated, how the tasks that need to be done will be assigned and not to forget sometimes the parents who are grouchy, tired or not talking to each other.
Then there is the reality that not all families manage to conform to the nuclear family ideal of father, mother and children. Due to life circumstances, some families are single parent families, or families of the grandparents raising their grandchildren, mixed faith families and even sometimes child-headed families. There are also families where the spouses have not yet been married in the eyes of the church. All these families do not fit the Church’s ideal.
However, the Church’s task is not to judge families but to support them and help them. While it is important that families try to conform to the teachings of the Church, it is not always possible. Death, divorce, abuse, marital breakdown, economic circumstances mean that families are already doing the best they can within the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is vital that the church encourage them and support them to become places of human enrichment, places where people grow in their love for each other, and places of prayer where the grace of God in their life together can be recognised and acknowledged.
One of the ways in which the Church can do this was spelt out in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (Light to the Nations), §11. It is important to see the family as a domestic church. This idea is based on the idea that the faith needs to be alive and lived first and foremost in the homes of each Catholic family. Parents need to take seriously the promises they made at the baptism of their children to be the first educators of their children in the ways of the faith. The family is the first place where spouses and children experience love. Children learn from their role models. Parents (even single parents) can reveal God’s love for us. They play a sacramental role in revealing God’s love in within the family context. It is also in the family where children learn how to live the Christian virtues. In this respect, the family is a school of love and virtue.
In the family, they learn about love but also how to forgive. How to build up good relations with others within and outside of the family. They are taught concern for the less fortunate and the poor as well as how to treat people of different races, religions and creeds.
But the home also needs to be a school of prayer. Like Church, the home needs to be decorated (not excessively so) with a crucifix, with a picture of a patron saint, a statue of Mary or the Sacred Heart. There need to be Christian symbols within the home. The family should spend some time together in prayer. Parents should teach their children the prayers of the Church like the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be. Becoming a domestic church means they could read the Bible together, share out the saying a decade of the rosary, or at least say grace together before meals.
But most importantly of all, the family needs to reflect on how God’s grace is working in their lives. Can the children or even the parents share what blessings they have received as individuals or as family during this day? For what mistakes or oversights does pardon or forgiveness need to be sought? What can be done that the same mistakes do not get repeated tomorrow?
In the Church, the priest brings the people of God to a deeper appreciation of how God’s grace is working in their lives. A parent can do something similar within the context of his or her own family. Our church needs strong families who can help their members achieve holiness in life and be like the Holy Family in proclaiming the presence of Christ to the world by the way they live together as family.