June 24, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

The vocation of the family is ‘to teach love’

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

The mystery of the Christian family can be fully understood only in the light of God’s tender mercy. To discover the vocation of the family—today and always—we must look to Jesus who treated everyone he met “with love and tenderness, accompanying their steps in truth, patience and mercy as he proclaimed the demands of the Kingdom of God.” The Lord is with our families today “as we seek to practice and pass on the Gospel of the family” (“The Joy of Love,” #60).

Scripture teaches, and our Catholic faith affirms, that marriage is a gift to be honored. This divine gift includes sexuality, which unites a man and a woman in love and provides for the further gift of children. Jesus teaches that the marriage bond is “indissoluble,” a permanent, unbreakable bond that “should not be viewed as a ‘yoke’ imposed on humanity but as a ‘gift’ granted to those who are joined in marriage” (#62).

How is this possible—a bond that is liberating not burdensome? The answer is the grace of Christ which allows families “to bear witness to the love of God and to live the life of communion” (#63).

Our model is, of course, the Holy Family of Nazareth. Pope Francis tells us that “the incarnation of the Word in a human family, in Nazareth, by its very newness changed the history of the world.” How did “the mystery of Christmas and the secret of Nazareth, exuding the beauty of family life” change world history (#65)? By revealing that the vocation of every human family since Adam and Eve is to give witness to the unconditional love of God in every time and circumstance. “Nazareth teaches us the meaning of family life, its loving communion, its simple and austere beauty, its sacred and inviolable character,” Pope Francis teaches, quoting Pope Paul VI’s Address to Nazareth on Jan. 5, 1964.

The Church sees marriage as a community of life and love, with love at the very heart of what it means to be a family. In chapters 4 and 5 of “The Joy of Love,” Pope Francis devotes serious attention to defining what “love” means—not in the abstract, but very specifically and concretely.

But for our purposes here, it’s enough to say that the vocation of marriage and family life is to teach love—both within the family circle and as a witness to others including extended family, neighbors and friends, the larger Church and society as a whole. According to God’s plan, the family is a “school of love” and a “domestic Church” that bears witness to the intimate and loving relationship that exists between God and his people.

“The sacrament of marriage is not a social convention, an empty ritual or merely the outward sign of a commitment.” This is what distinguishes our view of marriage from the secular understanding. We see marriage as something holy—“a gift given for the salvation and sanctification of the spouses” and a sacramental sign of the relationship between Christ and his Church (#72).

Mutual self-giving in the sacrament of marriage grounds the couple in Christ’s love. “Sexual union, lovingly experienced and sanctified by the sacrament, is in turn a path of growth in the life of grace for the couple” (#74). Whatever challenges confront married couples and their families, the grace of the sacrament is present—to encourage, support and sustain them in spite of their imperfections and failings.

The Church does not teach that the sacramental grace given to married couples makes them somehow perfect or impervious to sin. That’s why families that are serious about their love and fidelity to each other, and their witness to the world, are strongly urged to participate fully in the sacramental and communal life of the Church. The old saying that “the family that prays together stays together” should not be passed over lightly. There is a fundamental truth here. The more we practice it, the stronger our families will be.

Pope Francis concludes his chapter on the vocation of family life by affirming—yet again—the sanctity of all human life. “Here I feel it urgent to state that if the family is the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for, it is a horrendous contradiction when it becomes a place where life is rejected and destroyed” (#83).

May God bless our families. May he keep them tender, loving and safe from all harm! †

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