Sacred Scripture tells us in the second story of creation, “The Lord God said: ‘It is not good for the man to be alone’” (Gen 2: 18). Eve was created to complete Adam and to form “one flesh” (Gen 2: 24). They are told to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen 1: 28). God entrusts to Adam and Eve and to all parents the work of procreation and they thus become co-workers with God the Creator.
To share in God’s will and God’s creation of life is an awesome endeavor for man and woman as husband and wife. Thus it is that the Church teaches, “The family, in fact, is born of the intimate communion of life and love founded on the marriage between one man and one woman” (Compendium of the Catholic Social Doctrine, CCSD 211). From this union comes a family which is presented in the Creator’s plan as the primary place of humanization for the person and society and the “cradle of life and love” (CCSD 212). No greater force than that of the family exists in any society in the world to humanize persons. Vatican Council II reminds us, “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life” (Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes).
The importance of the family cannot be overstated for it is “the first school of how to be human” (Letter to Families). It is the place where one first experiences love and learns to love in return. “The family is both the fruit and school of love” (Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine, ECD). The Catholic Church clearly teaches that the parents are the first teachers of their children. There is no greater responsibility for parents than teaching their children by word and example about God’s love for them and how they are to respond to that love. Here, a child learns what it is to be a person and as growth occurs the child learns what it means to be a man, a woman, father and mother, husband and wife.
Jesus, far from exempting himself from family life, embraced it by accepting the features of it with Mary and Joseph and extended relatives. He thus “conferred the highest dignity on the institution of marriage, making it a sacrament of the new covenant” (CCSD). In the Holy Family, Jesus was no doubt taught by Mary and Joseph how to pray to his Father in Heaven. Today’s parents also have the responsibility of teaching their children the prayers of their Catholic faith.
Those people who do baptismal preparation and the ordained ministers of baptism encourage parents, grandparents and godparents to teach the children for whom they are responsible how to pray. Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., was famous for saying, “The family that prays together, stays together” (ECD). At one time, for many families, this meant praying the rosary together. While this spiritual practice may not occur as regularly today as it once did, families can certainly pray grace together at family meals. (Even meals together can unfortunately be a challenge to schedule for today’s busy families).
We do not come to the Catholic faith by ourselves. Others have taught us the faith. Consequently, children often arrive at school already knowing the Our Father and Hail Mary. Knowing these prayers by the age of receiving First Penance is essential, since the confessor will often give these prayers as a penance to the children. Parents are to be examples in word and deed for their children. Again, among all their responsibilities, parents can set the standard for their children by never missing Sunday Mass or Holy Days of Obligation, going regularly to the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation and by monitoring TV programs. In this way, the Catholic family is itself evangelized.
The family is itself a small community. “The Christine family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church” (Familiaris consortio). Those two words, “domestic church” are a wonderful expression for us to keep in mind when we think of the family members growing and developing continually from children into adults, and the spouses growing in their own covenant love and in their responsibilities as parents; all of this happening in Christ. “It is a community of faith, hope and charity…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC 2204). We may not always think of the profound meaning of the family, but it is a “communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit” (CCC 2205). So our own families are meant to be a reflection of the communion of the Holy Trinity, and yet, this is a challenge to families today since our society is increasingly individualistic.
The Fourth Commandment calls us to “Honor your father and mother…” (CCC 2196). Young people often confide in priests that they have not “respected” their parents as they should. Clearly they know they are to respect their parents, and they want to do what is right. As a wise old priest once told me, priests need to help teenagers to see the difference between “respect” and “agreement.” Teens may not always agree with what parents rightly expect of them as far as behavior and attitude. However, at this young age, they need to see that respecting their parents means doing what their parents want them to do, even though they disagree. Obeying their parents is a show of respect, not necessarily agreement. (However, that agreement will often occur when the teens become adults and parents with children of their own). “As they grow up, children should continue to respect their parents. They should anticipate their wishes, willingly seek their advice, and accept their just admonitions. Obedience toward parents ceases with the emancipation of the children; not so respect, which is always owed to them.” (CCC 2217).
Parents, of course, also show respect and affection to their children by their devotion to their physical and spiritual wellbeing. As the children age, parents begin to let their children have more freedom and eventually let them follow their own calling in life. “When they become adults, children have the right and duty to choose their profession and state of life” (CCC 2230).
“The fourth commandment [also] reminds grown children of their responsibilities toward their parents. As much as they can, they must give them material and moral support in old age and in times of illness, loneliness, or distress” (CCC 2218). Parish visitors charged with the task of visiting the elderly sometimes find the elderly parents being cared for in the home of one of their children. I also know of young men and women who delayed a vocational call to the priesthood or religious life in order to continue to care for elderly parents.
The community aspect of the family is also expressed in the love and care shown for the senior members of the family who may or may not live within the family home. Their presence, especially to the younger members of the family, can be of great value. Both the young and old benefit from this relationship. “Grandchildren are the crown of the aged” (Prov. 17:6). My own mother sang a lullaby to her little grandchildren to comfort them and help them sleep. It always worked especially when the child was held close and gently rocked. One of these children, now a married mother, sees her grandmother singing the same lullaby to her great grandchildren and recalls with fond memories how comforting the melody was and remains to her. “The elderly constitute an important school of life, capable of transmitting values and traditions, and of fostering the growth of younger generations, who thus learn to seek not only their own good but also that of others” (CCSD).
The concern for others also takes the members of the family outside of itself to the family of man. The family is to be an active participant in the life of the society in which they live in order to fulfill the responsibility of the laity to transform society. Many families take the first step of participation by being actively involved in their parishes by serving on committees, participating in service projects, working in soup kitchens and accepting positions in particular ministries. In this way, parents and children are able to work as a family to bring care and aid to those who live in poverty, the handicapped, the sick, the elderly and those who mourn. Parishes as we know them in the United States could not exist without the involvement and expertise of parishioners, most of whom are volunteers.
Families are also citizens, and as such participate in the larger society. “It is the duty of citizens to contribute, along with the civil authorities, to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity” (CCC 2239). At the same time, families are called to stand up for their Catholic faith by proclaiming the truths of the faith in a society often deaf to this moral voice. “Their loyal collaboration includes the right, and at times the duty, to voice their just criticisms of that which seems harmful to the dignity of persons and to the good of the community” (CCC 2238). When participating in pro-life activities, I have often seen entire families involved, with parents bringing their children to peaceful prayer vigils before abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood offices. The annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., is filled with families who want their voices to be heard. The Masses celebrated the evening before the march and the day of the march are filled with youth, many of whom made their first trip to this march with their parents and continue to come with friends from the colleges and universities they now attend.
The Church calls for a correctly balanced life of the family with the necessity of human work. “Work is essential insofar as it represents the condition that makes it possible to establish a family, for the means by which the family is maintained are obtained through work” (CCSD 249). In our society, both parents often find it necessary to work outside the home, thus making the balance with family life even more of a challenge.
Participation of the family in the larger society comes with a corresponding responsibility on the part of the society. “Society should never fail in its fundamental task of respecting and fostering the family” (Familiaris Consortio).” “Society, and in particular, State institutions…., are called to guarantee and foster the genuine identity of family life and to avoid and fight all that altars or wounds it” (CCSD).” We can see how recent legislation and court rulings in particular states have not fostered family life and its God-given identity, but in fact have wounded it.
Consequently, we as a Catholic family, composed of many families, continue to be called to do everything possible to strengthen the family as it is understood and given to us within the teaching of the Catholic Church. The Vatican document Gaudium et Spes, as quoted in the Catechism, reminds us of the Church’s social teaching by saying, “It is part of the Church’s mission ‘to pass moral judgments even in matters related to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it. The means, the only means, she may use are those which are in accord with the Gospel and the welfare of all men according to the diversity of times and circumstances (CCC 2246).’”
by Msgr. James Lyons, Pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Hanover.