Although I offered a reflection upon the Holy Family at the beginning of my book on prayer, I would like to return to this subject in this post. Reflecting upon the Holy Family, we are not only guided as to what a Christian family should be, but stand convicted in our lives over what it is not. While the modern concept of liberty is often moral license, theirs was responsibility and fidelity. We cater to individualism and a preoccupation with self that runs counter to the claims of familial bonds. The immediate family in the time of Christ was expanded to include aunts, uncles, cousins and others. (Indeed, the brethren of Christ were precisely these other relations.) Catholics realize, or at least should, that our relationship to God and to one another is in the context of family. We are not alone.
While these brief words can only offer a quick brush-stroke on the subject of “family,” a few thoughts might be beneficial. Something is wrong. No amount of beating around the bush or a pretense at greater enlightenment can take away this nagging perception in all segments of society. Determining what is wrong, and for that matter right, is where public debate becomes quickly frozen and polarized.
Politicians clamor about “family values” and then argue about what this means in a pluralistic society. Advocates of alternative lifestyles seek through the media and legislatures to socially engineer the family into something past generations would think unimaginable. It is in the midst of this confusion that we come to terms with that most central of human relationships. If it were not hard enough, even our traditional family units are plagued by communication that is absent or dysfunctional.
God sends his Son that repentant children might be added to his family and given eternal life. And yet, in our sinfulness, we can and often do offer a counter-witness to this truth. I know a couple whose girl ran away at seventeen. She eventually realized her foolishness and sought to return home. However, she discovered the locks changed. Her father had told her that if she went out the door she would not be welcome back. He gave away her clothes and personal things to charity. He would not allow his wife to display her picture. It was as if she had never been born. This couple, with their older daughter, were active in the parish and regularly at Sunday Mass. When their youngest returned to Mass, they refused to sit beside her. They even maligned her to neighbors. I overheard one of her father’s parish friends tell her, “You did it to yourself. You made your own mess, now you have to live with it! This is what tough love means!” Well, yes and no. Tough love means discouraging selfishness and nurturing self-reliance. This was not that at all; it was cruelty. The girl, as it turned out, was not only a foolish teenager, she suffered from bipolar disorder. When I first met her, she was just out of a mental institution and living with her boyfriend and his grandmother. It was either this or the streets. She had nowhere else to go. She had no job because employers did not want a “crazy” girl working for them. When informed of an upcoming family reunion, she decided to attend. Her mother dismissed her at the back door: “You will just embarrass us. I planned long and hard for this party and I will not have you ruin it. Go away.” When her boyfriend smacked her around, she again tried to go home. But they were gone to Europe. The wife confided that with the younger daughter gone, they had regained their freedom, and could finally live for themselves.
As a pastor of souls I have heard many variations of this story. The happy ending of the prodigal son parable is not always revisited in the lives of those who claim to be Christian, and yet, it is precisely the witness that our Lord gave us from the Cross. We read in Colossians, “Because you are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness, and patience . . . Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you” (Colossians 3:12-13). This is the challenge and the transformation for those who would truly be Christian. Neglectful parents today might have astonished the worst sinners and unbelievers of yesterday. Our Lord says, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13; see also Matthew 7:9-11). A rhetorical question is now a frighteningly real one.
Among those who call upon the saving name of Jesus are those who engage in unlawful sexual activity and infidelity, destroy children in the womb, and discard those labeled defective. Instead of a forgiving love, they harden their hearts against those who share their blood and their name. This is the way it is, not the way it should be, and definitely not the way true believers should want it to remain.
Sirach 3:2-6,12-14 points, not to the parents’ obligations, but to those of children, particularly regarding the 4th commandment stipulation of honoring (obeying) one’s father and mother. But increasingly preachers are forced to confront parents. How can a child honor parents if they are dishonorable? When Jesus demanded, “Call no man your father,” (Matthew 23:9), he precisely meant that true fathers, indeed parents of either gender, are only worthy of the title when their role is reflective of the loving and merciful fatherhood of God. Parents have responsibilities toward those whom they give life. Many churches have to offer remedial instructions for uncatechized but baptized Catholics. Their parents failed to take them to Sunday Mass, to teach them their prayers, and to transmit to them our holy faith. This implies that parents themselves do not believe; nevertheless, they are still culpable for the damage to their children’s immortal souls. Such neglect is a form of child abuse and ranks with murder in the hierarchy of sins.
In return, just as we read in Sirach, children have a lasting obligation toward their parents. When parents grow older and need the support of grown children, it is not merely a matter of charity but of duty. However, such a turn-of-events is increasingly considered an unwarranted burden. I know of cases where the children fight each other, no one wanting to take the personal and immediate responsibility for an elderly parent. The children, in some cases, have learned from the example of their parents all too well. I also know good parents who did little or nothing wrong in raising their children; and yet their brood contains both the holy and the wicked.
Familial roles are not limited to a few years but have lasting consequences and obligations. Mary followed her Son and quietly emerges at various stages of the Gospel and in the public life of Jesus. She was his mother at the Annunciation, at the Nativity, indeed, all the way to the Cross. Love brings with it responsibility and often much worry. Jesus was disowned by many of those who knew him; Mary’s testimony of love and loyalty is one that needs to be ours. She always claimed him. Jesus claims her and gives her to us, his new family, on Calvary. As for good St. Joseph, tradition has it that he died in the loving arms of Jesus and Mary. Perhaps this was God’s greatest gift to this noble man? After all, as our Gospel relates, when an angel told him that Herod was seeking Jesus “to destroy him,” Joseph sought refuge for them in Egypt until it was safe to return. The aged guardian of Mary and Jesus might have found it impossible to remain passive when his adult Son underwent his betrayal and passion. When his earthly role was finished, the foster father to Christ was taken from this world to await his Son and Savior in the abode of the righteous dead.
We need to put on the mind of Christ regarding family life. Can we conceive of God being well pleased with parents who killed their children through abortion? Along with contraception that breeds distrust between spouses, the abortion holocaust has attacked the very nucleus of family life. Pregnancy, once called the “blessed state” is now considered a disease to be medicated away. There is no reconciling such a mentality with that in Psalm 128:1-5 where the psalmist praises the wife as “a fruitful vine.” The child, instead of being prized as a precious gift from God, is considered a tragic accident, a problem to be disposed of as quickly as possible. Freedom, or rather license, as well as economic and upward mobility, is all hindered by the presence of a child. We are forced to think of another’s needs and wants before our own. Some just do not want to do this. Sex is recreation, nothing more. Such a mentality is inherently opposed to the Gospel. When such is the point of view of believers in Jesus, one has to wonder if even their concept of God is counterfeit?
Can we suppose that God cares little about marriage vows made in his name “to death do us part?” No, and yet divorce is at an epidemic high. Alternative living arrangements, including polygamy and homosexual liaisons would dismiss it entirely. Some critics argue that the dilemma is not the loss of the traditional family but rather because we are trying to force old codes of behavior (like the commandments) and expectations upon new forms of familial relationships. This post-Christian group insists that transitory unions are ideal and most reflective of modern experience. Some actually say that people live too long for lasting relationships. Prenuptial agreements posit a theoretical doubt in the permanence of a marriage bond, already. Certain states are considering marriages with easy escape clauses and some have even suggested built-in term limits. Logically, if spouses can separate at will, it would seem that offspring might have similar rights? Several years ago a child attempted to divorce his parents.
For more such reflections, contact me about getting my book, CHRISTIAN REFLECTIONS.
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