October 17, 2014

Rejoice in the Lord

Families are called to holiness, the great vocation of love

Archbishop Joseph W. TobinThe “working document” prepared for the third extraordinary general assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which concludes this week in Rome, contains some remarkable insights on “The Pastoral Challenges of Families in the Context of Evangelization.”

One sentence that caught my attention reads, “The mercy of God does not provide a temporary cover-up of personal misdeeds, but rather radically opens lives to reconciliation that brings new trust and serenity through true inward renewal.” The statement goes on to observe that the pastoral care the Church provides to families should not be limited to “a legal point of view,” but should focus instead on “the great vocation of love to which each person is called and to help a person live up to the dignity of that calling.”

In other words, we shouldn’t pretend that today’s families are perfect. Instead, we should encourage family members to acknowledge their failings, seek God’s forgiveness, forgive one another, and find new trust and serenity through inward (spiritual) renewal. The statement also challenges bishops, priests and all pastoral leaders not to approach the brokenness of family life from a legalistic or moralistic point of view, but from the perspective of “the great vocation of love.”

I think the insight that God’s mercy doesn’t “cover up” our sins is especially powerful. Nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus deny human sinfulness (or excuse it). He always confronts evil, calls it by its name, and then forgives those who are repentant and whose faith has opened their hearts to reconciliation and renewal. “Neither will I condemn you. Go and sin no more,” the Lord tells the women caught in adultery (Jn 8:11). To the woman who anointed his feet (whose many sins were forgiven because of her great love), “Your faith has saved you, go in peace” (Lk 7:50).

In the 1950s and early 1960s, television programs often portrayed families as perfect (in a rather simplistic and superficial way). I think it’s fair to say that a whole host of problems confronted by families then and now were “covered up” by social conventions that extended to the news and entertainment media. Everyone knew that married couples and families faced many challenges, but we didn’t talk about them, and we certainly didn’t show them on television!

Some would say that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction—with everything out in the open now and family dysfunctions portrayed as “normal” on television and in movies. One of the challenges being discussed in Rome this month is how to communicate positive images of the modern family without resorting to stereotypes or false images that cover up problems that need to be addressed with patience, forgiveness and a genuine awareness of the great vocation of love that each family member is called to accept. 

Two images seem to me to be essential. The first is the family at prayer. The second is the family at play. 

I think we need to show that contemporary families take their faith seriously, and that they pray and celebrate the sacraments as individuals and as a family unit. Images of the family living its faith should, of course, include instances of charity and service, which are prayer in action. These images should not be sentimental or excessively pious, but they should genuinely portray modern families (with all their challenges) expressing their faith prayerfully. 

I also think it’s critical for us to see families enjoying life and celebrating the gifts of life and love that marriage and family make possible. We know that family members quarrel and that tempers flare, especially in tense situations or times of stress. But healing often comes through laughter and games and times of shared appreciation for the sacrifices made by parents for their children and by siblings for each other. Let’s see more of the real joy of family life even as we acknowledge the sorrow and suffering all families must endure. 

The Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) is our model. The Gospels record the serious moments in this family’s life when things were hard, dangerous and filled with pain. But surely there were also moments of joy, laughter, singing and dancing. We know that Mary and Joseph were anxious and disappointed when they lost their young son on the journey home from celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem. Imagine their joy when he was found at last! 

The great vocation of love that each of us is called to accept is first discerned in a holy family—not a perfect family, but one in which respect, forgiveness and joy are lived day in and day out. May God bless the family! †

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