August 12, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Pope Francis asks: ‘Where are our children?’

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

“Parents always influence the moral development of their children, for better or worse” (“The Joy of Love,” #259).

Children are the concrete expression of their parents’ love and generosity. Born of the self-giving of a man and a woman who have made a lifelong commitment to each other, children should be reared in a loving family that teaches them how to be as loving and generous as their parents. This is the grand vision of marriage and family that informs our Church’s teaching and practice. It’s the traditional view of marriage and family life that is threatened now by all kinds of destructive forces in contemporary culture.

In “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis addresses both the authentic Catholic vision of love in the family and the practical reality of family life today. He challenges us to pursue the vision unhesitatingly, but not to presume that it is a reality in our own lives or in the lives of those around us. That’s why the pope repeatedly calls our attention to the need for mercy—to bring healing and hope into situations that have been bruised or broken by the reality of selfishness and sin.

In the seventh chapter of “The Joy of Love,” the Holy Father turns his attention to the challenge of educating children today. He begins by asking, “Where are our children?” And he means this question both literally and figuratively. “Only if we devote time to our children, speaking of important things with simplicity and concern, and finding healthy ways for them to spend their time, will we be able to shield them from harm” (#260).

To devote time to our children, we have to know where they are, and we have to be with them—not occasionally or superficially, but really and truly “where they are” day in and day out.

“Obsession, however, is not education,” the Holy Father points out. “We cannot control every situation that a child may experience. Here it remains true that ‘time is greater than space.’ In other words, that it is more important to start processes than to dominate spaces” (#261). What is most important, the pope tells us, is not to try to control children, but to guide them, form them and help them grow “in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy” (#261).

As a result, the real question is not where our children are physically (as important as it is to know this), but where they are on life’s journey, on the road to happiness and eternal life.

This is not a question we ask very often: Where are our children on the path to heaven? But it is probably the most important question we can ask ourselves. And next, of course, is the question: What are we doing, or not doing, to help lead our children to heaven?

“Parents, as educators, are responsible by their affection and example, for instilling in their children trust and loving respect,” the pope reminds us. “When children no longer feel that, for all their faults, they are important to their parents, or that their parents are sincerely concerned about them, this causes deep hurt and many difficulties along their path to maturity” (#263). There is simply no escaping the fact that “parents always influence the moral development of their children, for better or worse” (#259).

Parents today rely on schools (including home schooling) to provide basic instruction for their children. But, as Pope Francis says, “The family is the first school of human values where we learn the wise use of freedom” (#274).

Parents who neglect this responsibility do their children grave harm. “In the family, we learn closeness, care and respect for others. We break out of our fatal self-absorption and come to realize that we are living with and alongside others who are worthy of our concern, our kindness and our affection” (#276). Unless these fundamental lessons on what it means to be an authentic human person are learned in the family, children are disadvantaged in every phase of their life’s journey. Regardless of how much they learn in school or “on the streets,” they are not prepared to live fully as adult women and men.

“The virtuous life thus builds, strengthens and shapes freedom, lest we become slaves of dehumanizing and antisocial inclinations” (#267). The Church stands firmly with parents as the primary educators of their children. May we always support and assist them in the great work of rearing their children in faith, love and hope! †

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