Tag Archives: family

Rooted and Grounded in Love

Ellie Norby
Ellie Norby
Notre Dame Vision Mentor-in-Faith (2014)
University of Notre Dame,
Class of 2016

During my sophomore year of high school, I thought I had the basics down.  God loves us:  check. He should be worshiped in Mass and prayer:  check. He wants us to live according to the example set by His son: check.

But beyond the basics, I didn’t realize God cared about the details of my life – so when I was tested by the news of my parents’ intention to divorce, I couldn’t trust Him. When my family was dragged through a cycle of indecision that lasted from 10th grade until I left for college, I assumed my problems where too small for someone that listened to a gazillion prayers every day. My dad would decide he wanted to leave my mom, but stay because of the kids; my mom would convince him to work on the marriage, but they would not get along because my dad clearly wanted out. Then the whole thing would start over again.

As the only daughter, I was getting a huge share of the emotional splash. Life was messy, and I was bitter. I felt that my problems were strictly of human origin and would only be solved when the adults figured themselves out. I did not believe that God was a part of my life. Even though my mom encouraged me to trust Him, God seemed uninvolved in the gradual collapse of my family.

Although I couldn’t see it, I now believe that God was working in my life the whole time. His grace led me to keep seeking him, even though Mass and prayer led me nowhere. His Spirit helped me to attempt to trust, even though it seemed hopeless. His love allowed me to continue to care for my parents and my brothers, even when my bitterness made the situation miserable.  And then, after years of just surviving, God moved in my life so that I could finally see his presence.

In October of my freshman year of college, my mother (who I already worried about because of the divorce and her empty nest status) developed a freak intestinal condition and spent four weeks in the hospital. She faced two emergency surgeries, an infection, no eating or drinking whatsoever, and loneliness. All this was happening to her while I was nine hours away, so I couldn’t be with her! The situation was so far out of human control, I finally brought my problems to God. It was not my mom’s fault, or my dad’s fault, or my fault – it just happened, so God allowed me to turn to him. I prayed for her healing, and most of all I begged that she would feel God’s presence in my absence. Slowly, she started to get better. I couldn’t tell if her improvement was from God or the power of medicine, but I could not deny what happened when she finally got permission to eat after three weeks of nothing more than IVs.

eucharistTwenty minutes after the doctor gave her the okay, a volunteer knocked on the hospital room door and asked if she wanted to receive Communion. The first thing to touch her chapped lips in
almost a month was the Body of Christ. It was as if God proclaimed: She abides in Me, and I in her. She feeds on Me, and so she will live because of Me.

That moment was so powerful that I could not just accept it as temporary comfort during my mother’s illness and move on with my life as before. It forced me to realize how much energy I had wasted being angry at God, and angry at my parents. And in letting go of my anger, I realized that God had been present not just in the hospital with my mom, but in the entire mess of the last few years. While I was lost among each of my individual sufferings, He was actually drawing them together into one path that led closer to Him. I could not see God’s presence at the time, because I was blinded by sadness and confusion.

Somewhere in the emotional discussions with my parents, somewhere in leaning so heavily on the rest of my family and my friends, somewhere in seeing my mom and my dad vulnerable, broken, and crying – God was there. How do I know this? Because love was there. Love. We all easily could have drifted apart, but we remained committed to each other, and to what could be salvaged of the family. Those gritty situations, however painful, were rooted and grounded in love.

God didn’t want me to suffer, but He did use my burdens as an opportunity for grace. The divorce was a cross that free will and human choices placed on my shoulders, so under its weight I could not look to God. But He found me, with my head bowed, vulnerable, and His grace drew me down a certain path. And then, when he lifted my burden in the moment he came to my mom in the Eucharist, I was
able to look up again. And I saw that He had led me to a new place. A place where I was a little closer to him, and a little closer to the person He created me to be.

holy family iconIn the world’s eyes, my family is broken. But the Lord can always see the possibility of bringing more love into our lives with each other and with him. So as my family continues to struggle, I pray that our reconfigured relationships are based on love and devotion and not hurt or resentment. I pray, again and again, that I may trust in the Lord with all my heart, and lean not on my own understanding; that I may acknowledge Him in all my ways, and He will direct my paths.


Families Are Pumpkiny

MLewisMadeline Lewis ’17

Theology and English

Undergraduate Fellow, Center for Liturgy

Recently, my family and I attempted to go to the pumpkin patch together. Because, you know, it’s autumn, and picking out pumpkins is a nice family ritual. I’d like to be able to report that we all bundled up in perfectly unplanned matching plaid flannels, took family pictures where everyone looked photogenic and no one blinked, and then sipped apple cider and talked about how much we love each other. And I’m sure this is what would have happened, had it not been for the unfortunate minor detail that we actually never made it to the pumpkin patch in the first place. Because actually, despite my mother’s loving and adamant efforts to corral us all into a Perfect Family Memory, we never made it further than a couple of minutes away from campus.


Here’s what actually happened: after coming to terms with the difficulty of making my college schedule and that of my two high school brothers fit harmoniously, we settled for a Saturday morning excursion to the South Bend Farmer’s Market rather than a further-away bona fide pumpkin patch. But the funny thing is, we never actually made it to the Farmer’s Market, either. What we actually did was far more mundane: we ended up waiting for an hour for my brother to finish taking the SAT, listening to my younger brother rant about how icky he thinks girls are, and slowly watching the clock tick tirelessly into what would have been our pumpkin picking time. When my family dropped me off back at campus, I felt woefully pumpkin-less, and more than a little miffed at the “waste” of what could have been an otherwise productive morning.

Though I admit I was a tad miffed, I certainly wasn’t surprised. How often it is, in families, that things don’t go as planned. Being part of a family means that we find ourselves bound to others: we are messy, others are messy, and the result is, unsurprisingly, messy. We plan for a nice dinner out and then hungriness turns to grumpiness. We plan to be out the door by a certain time and then forgetfulness turns to tardiness. We plan to keep the house clean all week and cleanliness turns to dirtiness. I was miffed, but not surprised, that we seemed to miss the mark that Saturday morning.

When I was little, I used to watch wide-eyed as my dad scooped out the insides of our pumpkins in order to ready them for carving. I would watch as he lovingly spooned out the stringy, gooey, sloppy seed bits in order to help the glow of the candlelight shine clearly through. I always stared with wonder at the clumpy pile that would build up as the pumpkins were emptied out. It seems to me that families can be, at times, quite pumpkiny. There is gooeyness and stringiness to our family relationships, all sort of sloppy seed bits that we find in heaping spoonfuls. And yet, it is precisely in the sheer wondrous existence of the family that we find ourselves emptied out lovingly by the Father, and spooned out ourselves in the long process of becoming less clumpy and more able to glow.


I was thinking about the particularly pumpkiny clumpiness of family when a friend shared with me a delightful excerpt from G.K. Chesterton’s Blatchford Controversies. In this excerpt, Chesterton talks of the miracle that pumpkins remain in existence as pumpkins. While we may wish for our pumpkins to be magically transformed into fairytale coaches, Chesterton reminds us that it is no less magical that they should remain their pumpkin selves: after all, they are held into existence wondrously by the Father who loves all things into existence:

“Christianity holds that the world and its repetition came by will or Love as children are begotten by a father, and therefore that other and different things might come by it. Briefly, it believes that a God who could do anything so extraordinary as making pumpkins go on being pumpkins. (…) If you do not think it extraordinary that a pumpkin is always a pumpkin, think again. You have not yet even begun philosophy. You have not even seen a pumpkin.”

Perhaps, in Chesterton’s words, we may not only learn to see pumpkins clearly, but also the great wonder that is the family, for in these words we are reminded of a God who does extraordinary things, and who holds all things into existence lovingly. This is a God who dwells with us as we learn to dwell with each other: and it doesn’t matter if we are a little bit messy, a tad bit pumpkiny. Seeing the family with this sort of vision means that it doesn’t matter that we didn’t make it to the pumpkin patch that Saturday morning. What matters is the way it is simply magical to be called to love humans that we haven’t handpicked ourselves: the way that God has designed our existence to be fundamentally in relation to others, the exact particularly pumpkiny others that He has chosen to play a role in both our glowing and clumpy moments. In the end, to measure the wonder of the family by a fairytale picture of perfection would be to miss the miracle: simply that we exist together, held together and related to each other by the love of the Father.

Follow Madeline on Twitter @madlew4

The Rosary in Real Life

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

October is the month of the Rosary, and today we honor the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title Our Lady of the Rosary. At this time of year I always find myself reflecting on the ways in which praying the Rosary (and not praying the Rosary) has shaped my life of faith, and inevitably, my mind returns to my childhood days of praying the Rosary with my family.

When I was eight, I was the only girl in a family of four children (there are six of us now). My mom was pregnant with my sister, and my dad was traveling for work pretty much all the time. It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I realize how chaotic these few years were, and yet I recall them with tender fondness, recognizing them as the years when our family was knitted—soldered together—into an incredibly close unit. It’s only with the benefit of theological reflection that I realize how much the Rosary was a part of this. When my dad began traveling, my mother began the practice of gathering us children together every night to pray the Rosary as a family. We prayed for my dad’s safe return home each weekend. We prayed for the security of his job. We prayed that our home would be kept safe in his absence. We prayed for the health of our mother and the baby she carried in her womb. We prayed for our extended family. We prayed that we would do well in school and in our extracurricular activities. We prayed that we would all make good friends and that we would learn to be better siblings to each other. In other words, we offered up in our family prayer the heights and depths, the profundities and the mundanities of domestic life, and in praying the Rosary in particular, we placed ourselves under the loving maternal gaze of Mary.

Lest you get the wrong idea about my family, though, let me clarify. Here is a picture of what we decidedly did not look like when we gathered together each night for our family Rosary:

Family Rosary

No photos were ever taken during our nightly prayer gatherings, so let me paint a word picture of what actually transpired each night. First, there was The Great Debate about whose bedroom we would use for prayer. Since the kid whose room it was usually got to lie down in his/her bed while everyone else either knelt on the floor or squeezed onto the bed to sit, this was a crucial part of the process. Naturally, the next step was to figure out who was going to sit/kneel/lie down where. Someone would always snag the extra pillow to kneel on and there would be a brief but intense battle for comfy real estate for one’s knees. Next, we had to determine whose turn it was to hold the cool glow-in-the-dark rosary and who would have to use the not-quite-as-cool rosaries with the non-glowing plastic beads. And all of this usually transpired in a span of 5 action-packed minutes, before we even made the Sign of the Cross.

These are still the coolest.
These are still the coolest.

Inevitably, though, my mother would call us all to order with an “All right, we’re starting!” and begin “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” And we were off. For the next 20-ish minutes, there would be moments of quiet grace and moments of unbridled pandemonium. My mother would recite the opening prayers and the first decade, and then my brothers and I would each be called upon to lead a decade in turn, starting with my oldest brother and moving down through the lineup. Like our behavior during the pre-game action, our recitation of the Rosary itself was usually far from perfect. Without fail, someone would forget which mystery we were on; someone else would say either too many Hail Marys (an unforgivable error) or too few (usually a welcome mistake). Someone’s knee or elbow would encroach on neighboring territory, resulting in a furious yet silent turf war; someone would yawn or sneeze or cough or emit some other bodily noise that would elicit uncontrollable, shoulder-shaking, repressed laughter. Most commonly, we would just get bored and count down the beads until it was all over and we could finally go to sleep.

This is what it’s like to pray the Rosary in a real family, in the real world. It’s messy, it’s chaotic, it’s discombobulated, but it’s also authentic. Real family life is messy, chaotic, and discombobulated, so why would the life of prayer be any different? Prayer is the way in which we lift up our lives to God exactly as they are, not as we would have them be. And by continuing to turn to God even and especially when life it at its most chaotic—when, for example, the sole breadwinner is constantly traveling to provide for his growing family while his wife cares for the children and runs the household—that chaos is infused with meaning and transfigured into the precise way by which that family is drawn closer to God and to one another.

Whether it was prayed while crowded in a darkened bedroom, driving through the Kansas countryside in the family mini-van, gathered in the living room with extended family on occasions of great need, or even before Mass with our parish family on Sundays, the Rosary was a leitmotif that continuously ran throughout life in my parents’ household, and without even realizing it, my siblings and I were being formed in a life of faith that was rooted in and indeed inseparable from daily practice. We were being drawn together as the domestic Church (though we would never have called ourselves that)—a tiny community united around Jesus and Mary that was being immersed and slowly formed in the mysteries of God’s love poured forth in the Incarnation.

In his recent address for the Meeting with Families in Cuba, Pope Francis stated:

The family is a school of humanity, a school which teaches us to open our hearts others’ needs, to be attentive to their lives. When we live together life as a family, we keep our little ways of being selfish in check. . . . No doubt about it: the perfect family does not exist; there are no perfect husbands and wives, perfect parents, perfect children . . . Those families don’t exist. But that does not prevent families from being the answer for the future. God inspires us to love, and love always engages with the persons it loves. Love always engages with the persons it loves. So let us care for our families, true schools for the future. Let us care for our families, true spaces of freedom. Let us care for our families, true centers of humanity.

In praying the Rosary as a family, we were participating in an intensive course of study in this “school of humanity.” We weren’t perfect, our prayer wasn’t perfect, yet we learned to forgive one another’s imperfections and also acknowledge our own. We became better at being a family.

MaryRosary_0Pope Francis’ description of the family as the “school of humanity” resonates with Pope St. John Paul II’s description of the Rosary as the “school of Mary” (Rosarium Virginis Mariae, §§1, 14, 43). What better way to learn how to be human than by placing one’s family under the tutelage of the Blessed Mother, who taught her Son how to be a part of his human family? Through the Rosary, we contemplate with wonder and awe the mystery that Jesus experienced life on earth precisely as a member of a family, or as Pope Francis said so beautifully in his recent off-the-cuff remarks at the Festival of Families, “God came into the world in a family.”

I’ll admit it: there are times when I struggle with the Rosary as much as I did when I was eight, probably for the same reasons that many people struggle with it. My mind wanders. I still get bored sometimes with the repetitiveness, even as I try to focus on the mystery at hand. If I attempt the Rosary lying in bed at night, I fall asleep 99% of the time. There have even been phases in my life when I’ve let the practice of daily recitation go by the wayside altogether. And yet, despite the manifold struggles I face with the Rosary, I keep coming back to it. Because every time I pick up my beads, I remember with deep love the many chaotic nights spent in prayer surrounded by my mother and brothers (and my father when he was home). I realize again the truth of the well-worn adage that “the family that prays together, stays together,” a phrase my mother repeated often (usually when we children were secretly griping under our breath about having to pray the Rosary—no perfect families, remember?), and taken up by Pope St. John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae. In this letter, John Paul II encourages families to take up anew this practice of praying the Rosary together:

The Holy Rosary, by age-old tradition, has shown itself particularly effective as a prayer which brings the family together. Individual family members, in turning their eyes towards Jesus, also regain the ability to look one another in the eye, to communicate, to show solidarity, to forgive one another and to see their covenant of love renewed in the Spirit of God.

Many of the problems facing contemporary families, especially in economically developed societies, result from their increasing difficulty in communicating. Families seldom manage to come together, and the rare occasions when they do are often taken up with watching television. To return to the recitation of the family Rosary means filling daily life with very different images, images of the mystery of salvation: the image of the Redeemer, the image of his most Blessed Mother. The family that recites the Rosary together reproduces something of the atmosphere of the household of Nazareth: its members place Jesus at the center, they share his joys and sorrows, they place their needs and their plans in his hands, they draw from him the hope and the strength to go on. (§41)

Having grown up in a family that prayed the Rosary together, I can attest to the truth of this passage and many others like it in John Paul II’s letter. To this day, I share an incredibly close relationship with my parents and siblings, and I firmly believe that the strength of our collective relationship is largely due to the life of prayer that we cultivated together (sometimes willingly, sometimes very unwillingly). The messiness and chaos of family prayer not only makes for vivid and often hilarious memories later in life, but most importantly, it makes for stronger families. If you are blessed with the gift of children, do your family a favor. Tonight, before bedtime, gather together, dust off the rosary beads, and start with just one decade. Embrace the mistakes that will inevitably occur, and persevere through the messiness. Practice this life of prayer, then practice some more, and years from now, through the grace of God and the intercession of Mary, you will see your children’s children immersed and schooled and formed in the same inexhaustible mysteries of God’s unfathomable love that form the very heart of the Rosary.

Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.


Follow Carolyn on Twitter: @carolyn_pirtle

Cultivating Practices of Life in a Throw-Away Culture

Jessica KeatingJessica Keating, M.Div.
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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In the ancient Roman world unwanted children—girls, the disabled, those conceived out of wedlock—were abandoned to the elements and wild animals. The practice of infant exposure was a matter of routine in ancient Rome. Though there is historical evidence for the practice of abortion at this time, exposure was the more common way to dispose of an unwanted child. Indeed, we might interpret infant exposure as the ancient version of Western modernity’s widespread practice of abortion. Christians, however, not only rejected the Roman practice of infant exposure, but also rescued children who had been left to die in the city’s outskirts and trash heaps. Indeed, Christian families were easily identified by the presence of multiple female children and disabled children.

We live in a time when it is tempting to adopt a kind of nostalgic amnesia with regard to the past. Faced with the appalling revelation of Planned Parenthood’s horrendous practice of fetal dismemberment and organ harvesting, it is enticing to imagine a piously pristine time, untouched by the disregard for life, which today seems so insidiously pervasive. In every age life has been threatened and it does us little good to imagine that we inhabit a world that is more depraved than the past. What actually sets modernity apart is not the human capacity for holiness or wickedness, but the dramatic scale on which we can both preserve and destroy life. At nearly every point in history, children have been cast out of society, discarded and thrown away. They have endured death, poverty, war, and disease. But we also see that in every age we are called to embrace life, to be concrete signs of witness to the beauty and dignity of the fragile and vulnerable among us.

To be a child is a dangerous thing because childhood resides perilously close to death. It was not until the advent of modern medicine that Western countries began to dissociate childhood and death. This dissociation has a macabre irony: as childbirth became safer and childhood disease rarer, Western countries, under the aegis of autonomy and choice, also began the large-scale practice of abortion.

In many parts of the world, including the United States, children continue to bear the burden of humanity’s failures. They are collateral damage in war and the victims of human trafficking. They bear a disproportionate burden of death from disease, poverty, migration, and persecution. They are disposed of as medical waste, before their first smile, before they gaze into the eyes of their mothers, before they shed a single tear, before they draw a first breath.

In a world where to be small or weak is to reside dangerously close death, the Church dares to proclaim that children are a gift. We dare to say that children are neither reducible to questions of biological reproduction, nor are they one of the many options available to fulfill consumer desire. And we must also dare to take up practices that embody this reality—to open the doors of our hearts and our homes to children.

In the ancient world, Christians rescued children left to die on the dung piles and trash heaps. Today, Christians are called to new forms of hospitality to life, to continue the history of adoption, to provide safe homes of respite for children shuffled around the foster care system, to support struggling families in our neighborhoods and communities, to offer childcare for these families. We are called reach out to women experiencing the confusion and fear of an unplanned pregnancy.

We are called quite simply and quite radically to create communities that make it easier to welcome life. We are called to participate in the transformation of the world, to infuse it with the tenderness of God’s love for the little ones. Such communities require personal sacrifice from every member. We can no longer leave families and individuals to struggle anonymously, claiming, “It is not my responsibility.”

In his Wednesday audiences, Pope Francis has been developing a theology of the family. He has devoted three of these short catecheses on children—more than any other figure or facet of family life. He declares that children fundamentally inhabit the reality of gift. “Children are a gift, they are a gift: understood? Children are a gift” (General Audience, February 11, 2015). He speaks of the tenderness of child, the spontaneity of child, the gift of the child, the generosity that the child calls forth from others.

Yet, to affirm that children are a gift is not to deny that they also elicit a sacrifice. Indeed, children bring consolation and joy, but not without thorns. At the Festival of Families, Francis remarked on sacrifices children call forth.

Children, yes they bring their challenges. And we also are the cause of work and worry. Sometimes at home, I see some of my helpers, they come to work and they look tired. They have a one-month-old baby, and I ask them did you sleep? And they say I couldn’t sleep, Holiness, because they were crying all night. (Festival of Families, September 26, 2015)

Sometimes children cry all night. It is one of the many thorns that pierce parents. Yet in the quiet rhythms of daily life, gestures of hospitality are extended to the family: grandparents who care for grandchildren, friends and neighbors who do not hesitate to comfort a crying child or offer the gift of childcare. These small gestures of love make the challenges of parenting a little easier.

It is dangerous thing these days to say that children are a challenge or that they require sacrifice. We live in a world that has become profoundly adverse to sacrifice. Often I hear people say that if one does not want to bear the burden of a pregnancy, does not want to make the sacrifices a child demands, then it is better that that child never be born. We can never affirm this! In the first instance, children are a gift and sacrifice borne of love.

Yet, when we fail to love, when we fail to cultivate a society that make it is easier to be good, children bear the burden. Thus, Francis has also spoken of the many “passions” children endure in their fragile bodies—neglect, disease, poverty, abortion.

From the first moments of their lives, many children are rejected, abandoned, and robbed of their childhood and future. There are those who dare to say, as if to justify themselves, that it was a mistake to bring these children into the world. This is shameful! Let’s not unload our faults onto the children, please! Children are never a “mistake”. Their hunger is not a mistake, nor is their poverty, their vulnerability, their abandonment — so many children abandoned on the streets — and neither is their ignorance or their helplessness… so many children don’t even know what a school is. If anything, these should be reasons to love them all the more, with greater generosity. How can we make such solemn declarations on human rights and the rights of children, if we then punish children for the errors of adults? (General Audience; Wednesday, April 8, 2015)

In this age, children, along with the elderly, the disabled, and the infirm, have carried the wounds of society’s failures. They are the “victims of the culture of consumerism, the culture of waste, the throwaway culture” (Francis, Sunday Homily, October 4, 2015). Who can forget the photographs of the Syrian toddler, Aylan, lying dead on a Turkish beach? Who can un-see the image of a child’s leg being held up for examination over a pie dish? Adults have the capacity to inflict upon children the most grievous wounds.

We are invited, however, to imagine what society might look like if children were not subjected to the mechanisms of power and the laws of expediency and efficiency.

Think what a society would be like if it decided, once and for all, to establish this principle: “It’s true, we are not perfect and we make many mistakes. But when it comes to the children who come into the world, no sacrifice on the part of adults is too costly or too great, to ensure that no child believe he or she was a mistake, is worthless or is abandoned to a life of wounds and to the arrogance of men.” How beautiful a society like this would be! I say for such a society, much could be forgiven, innumerable errors. (Francis, General Audience; Wednesday, April 8, 2015).

To be sure, such a society requires international, national, and state legislation to ensure that at a bare minimum life is respected and that parents have adequate, meaningful work to support their children, and access to education and affordable childcare. But the society, Francis describes needs more than this. It needs to be animated by the warmth of a smile, the tenderness of an embrace. It needs the little way of love that St. Thérèse learned in the Martin home, noticing the other and caring for the poor and forgotten in their midst. It needs a love that overflows, a love that takes up the small gestures of mercy, gestures “which break with the logic of violence, exploitation, and selfishness” (Laudato Si, §230). A love that makes it safer to be vulnerable and easier to be good.

The Local Renewal of Family Life: Marriage Formation

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Some years ago, I heard John Allen give a talk in which he was asked when the bishops of the Church would institute some particular reform that the questioner found important for ecclesial renewal. Allen responded by reminding the entire audience that it is not the primary ministry of the bishops to “renew” the Church. That the body of bishops gathered in Rome at the Vatican is fundamentally a “conservative” one (for good reason) and for that reason ecclesial renewal is best accomplished through charisms of both lay and ordained Catholics, who renew their parish at the local level. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, and Dorothy Day were not participants in a Synod of bishops sponsored by the Vatican. Yet, their witness to holiness has renewed the Church for countless generations.

While not belittling in the least the gathering of bishops in Rome over the coming weeks, it is important to remember that the renewal of family life will not ultimately be accomplished by the Apostolic Exhortation that follows the Synod. Nor for that matter will the Synod lead to doctrinal development around marriage itself, specifically related to divorce (although reading secular media’s portrayal of this ordinary Synod, either conservative or liberal, you get a sense that this is the purpose of the entire gathering). The orientation of this particular Synod is the pastoral state of family life and marriage in the present not simply Western world. The document preparing for this Synod notes:

Today’s society is characterized by a variety of tendencies. Only a minority of people lives, supports and encourages the Catholic Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, seeing in it the goodness of God’s creative plan. Marriages, whether religious or not, are decreasing in number, while separation and divorce is on the rise. People are becoming increasingly aware of the dignity of every person — man, woman and child — and the importance of different ethnic groups and minorities, which — already widespread in many societies, not only in the West — are becoming prevalent in many countries.

In various cultures young people are displaying a fear to make definitive commitments, including a commitment concerning a family. In general, an extreme individualism, increasingly becoming widespread, focuses uppermost on gratifying desires which do not lead to total personal fulfilment.

The development of a consumer society has separated sexuality from procreation. This fact is also one of the underlying causes of an increasing decline in the birth rate, which, in some places, is related to poverty or the inability to care for children; and in others, to the unwillingness to accept responsibility and to the idea that children might infringe on freely pursuing personal goals.

The Synod on the Family is concerned about ways of responding in mercy to those who have experienced divorce. But it is at least equally concerned about a crisis of commitment; about the separation of sexuality from self-gift; about the decline of marriage as a whole; and the poverty that makes family life difficult throughout the world. Bishops, though having teaching authority in the Church, can only do so much about the “crisis” of family life in this broader sense. For this reason, what is most needed is renewal from the ground-up.

Thus over the coming weeks, I will be introducing three things that a parish might do, which will in the end be more important for ecclesial renewal than the Synod itself. These three things include a renewal of marriage formation, seeing the family itself as agent of mission, and ministering to those on the margins in particular.

A Renewal of Marriage Formation

ChauvetLouis-Marie Chauvet notes that one of the consequences of the renewal of the rites of the Second Vatican Council is a clash between an anthropological reason for asking for a sacrament and the liturgical-sacramental reason presumed by the Church. He writes:

Whereas the ritual of baptism, for instance, proclaims that baptism is the sacrament of the faith in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, numerous people who ask for the sacraments are faraway from this faith that they have not just forgotten everything they learned in catechism but in many cases believe only in a vague deism, when they have not reached a sort of practical atheism. The least one can say is that the ‘system of the practice,’ the faith content which theoretically precedes the practice, is in disharmony, even in contradiction with the ‘practice of the system,’ the request addressed tot he church for the sacraments (The Sacraments: The Word of God At the Mercy of the Body, 175-76).

For example, it is likely that a couple approaches a parish looking to participate in the rite of marriage for reasons that include parents’ who insist that they be married in the Church; because the parish provides a proper aesthetic background for marking this occasion; because they have a vague sense that the Church should be part of this momentous occasion. And on and on. Yet, the Church’s own theology of marriage assumes (or hopes) that the couple comes to the sacrament out of faith–because the couple desires their union to become an image to the world of Christ’s love for the Church.

These are competing narratives, neither of which may be dismissed with ease. Catholicism has continually baptized “anthropological” reasons for receiving a sacrament. Still, it is ultimately dishonest to undervalue the Church’s robust sense of marriage for the sake of welcoming couples (with the vague hope that the rite will have its effect no matter what). Marriage formation requires acknowledging and purifying the anthropological reasons for approaching the sacrament, while also announcing the nuptial kerygma at the heart of the liturgical rite.

For this reason, marriage formation will have a three-fold character.

Social and Cultural Analysis of One’s Own Assumptions Around Marriage

RiteofMarriageMuch is presumed on the part of the marrying couple about the nature of the marriage that they are preparing to undertake. Their own cultural view of marriage may be informed by a nearly impossible standard of personal and social happiness that marriage brings about (“you complete me”). They may imagine that the universe has placed a single person in their lives whom they are destined to marry; and thus if they find themselves attracted to another person, then they must move on. On an individual level, they may not acknowledge how their own view of marriage is shaped (or misshaped) by their parents. They may imagine that their love is the most “unique” love in the world, such that there will be nothing in the world that would rip them apart (there is; it’s called sin).

For this reason, the first thing that marriage formation must do is to invite the couple to consider those assumptions that serve as potential obstacles to the sacrament of marriage. In fact, this cultural analysis should begin not when the couple has come for marriage but should be apart of the kind of formation for marriage that begins in adolescence. And should continue even after the marriage has taken place. Approaches to marriage formation that simply build communication skills around finance, child-rearing, etc. without dealing with these problematic assumptions is akin to building an earthquake proof structure on top of a rotten foundation.

Of course, the way to address these cultural assumptions is not to tell the couple how wrong they are. Rather, marriage formation at whatever stage should invite the couple to come to see marriage anew alongside the Church’s ministers. It must invite the couple or the adolescent into a form of apprenticeship in which well-formed families provide the counter-narrative that is ultimately healing.

In good parishes, this happens organically. When I think about the four years that we spent in Boston as a married couple, I cannot help but think about Peg and Bill LaRoche. During our first years of marriage, the LaRoche’s manifested to us what hospitality looked like; how to love one another in the midst of suffering; how to serve the poor as apart of one’s married life. These years of informal formation were integral to discerning what it meant for us to be infertile. How our infertility could become to the world as gift of love instead of a disease affecting only us. The assumptions that we had about the ease of marriage were transformed by the LaRoche’s who said little. But provided us an icon of sacrament love that was purifying.

Proclaiming the Kerygma

LoveAt present, one rarely hears the Church’s proclamation of the Good News of marriage, even in homilies for the Rite of Marriage itself. These homilies tend to devolve into a panegyric of the uniqueness of this couple’s love. That this marriage, above all others, will survive the test of time because this couple shares in common a love of hiking, of singing, of whatever was discerned during the preparation for the sacrament.

Yet, this kind of strategy is to place the focus of the rite of marriage not on God’s activity but upon the couple’s. The Good News of marriage (as in all the sacraments) is that this human relationship, this mundane reality of love, this particular history, is precisely one of the ways that God has chosen to save humanity.

O God, who consecrated the bond of Marriage

by so great a mystery

that in the wedding covenant you foreshadow

the Sacrament of Christ and the Church,

grant, we pray, to these your servants,

that what they receive in faith

they may live out in deeds.

The couple is to present to the world a sacrament of divine love not simply at the moment of their nuptial consecration. Rather, they mediate to the world the love of Christ and the Church in the context of their relationship, of their family life, of their vocation to serve one another.

The family created out of this union, present already before children are born (if they are to be born), is a blessing and responsibility to the Church. It is the entire Church, particularly at the parish level, that is responsible for assisting this couple in fulfilling their vocation. The kerygma of marriage, the proclamation of Good News, means that we are responsible for one another. That we must be in solidarity with all families, especially those on the margins (a topic to be dealt with later).

The kerygma of marriage is thus not an instrument to bludgeon the couple with. Rather, it is a reminder to the whole Church that the sacrament of marriage is a vocation that each of us is responsible for. Do we open new couples into our home? Do we provide a space in our parish that acknowledges the difficulty of this vocation, rather than holding up some idealized 50s vision of what family life consists of?

The Mission of Family Life

FamiliesservingPerhaps, the area where family formation is most impoverished around the sacrament of marriage is the dearth of attention paid to the responsibility of “mission” in married life, a theme that I will treat more fully in a later piece. Marriage, like all other sacraments, is not simply for those who receive sacramental grace. Rather, marriage is for the world. As the document preparing for the Synod notes, the mission of the family is one of tenderness:

Tenderness means to give joyfully and, in turn, to stir in another person the joy of feeling loved. Tenderness is expressed in a particular way in looking at another’s limitations in a loving way, especially when they clearly stand out. Dealing with delicacy and respect means attending to wounds and restoring hope in such a way as to revitalize trust in the other. Tenderness in family relationships is the virtue which helps people overcome the everyday conflicts within a person and in relations with others. In this regard, Pope Francis invites everyone to reflect on his words: “Do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today! The patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God.”(Homily for the Midnight Mass on the Solemnity of Christmas, 24 December 2014).

The virtue of tenderness cultivated among spouses, among siblings is very same virtue that incarnates Christ’s love for the world. A family whose tenderness moves out to the margins, to the unloved, is perhaps the most effective agent of evangelization in the modern world.

I have seen this in my own recent vocation to adopted fatherhood. In spending time with my son, I have learned the virtue of tenderness in a way that I have never known before. I have learned of the smallness of my own heart, how quickly I am annoyed by my son’s cry for attention. I have discovered how I am opened ever more deeply to prayer by watching my son kiss an icon. I am now far more cognizant of the needs of my undergraduate students, fatherhood making me more deeply attuned to the care I must offer to the sorrows and joys that make up their life.

Family life has formed me anew for Christian mission in a way that nothing else could. The pastoral care of all families, for this reason, is not simply one aspect of the Church’s mission. Rather, it is the privileged way of renewing the Church in the vocation toward self-gift, which is at the heart of evangelization. If marriage formation does not begin with this sense of mission as the end goal, then it is impoverished from the beginning.


Marriage and the Priesthood: The 2015 Symposium

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Next week, the Center for Liturgy will be gathering over a 100 participants for our fourth annual Symposium on the reformed rites of the Second Vatican Council. The goal of this event has been from the beginning to consider the cultural, sociological, liturgical, and theological facets of these rites as they are practiced in the early 21st century. In 2012, we treated the celebration of the Eucharist. In 2013, the rites of initiation. In 2014, the rites of healing. And now in 2015, the rites of vocation including marriage and the priesthood.

OrdinationFrom the beginning, the staff of the Center believed it was necessary to consider marriage and priesthood together in particular. That is, it has become common to speak about a vocations crisis today in the Church. One in which the dearth of priestly vocations (which do seem to be on the rise) has left the Church in the United States and Europe scrambling for those to preside over the rites of the Church. Rectories once populated with three or four priests are now lucky to have two. Priests are made pastors of large parishes before they have a chance to develop the necessary pastoral and administrative competencies, often leaving these young men burnt out early in their priestly vocation.

Yet, to the one attentive to pastoral realities, Christian marriage itself is experiencing its own crisis. The number of sacramental marriages have been on the decline over the last several years. Divorce among Catholics is high. Many young couples are afraid of marriage (even when in long-term relationships), fearful that committing oneself to another person too early will disable one’s ability to achieve success. Once married, the challenges faced by families are real. The Lineamenta in preparation for the upcoming Synod of Bishops on the family notes:

 Cultural tendencies in today’s world seem to set no limits on a person’s affectivity in which every aspect needs to be explored, even those which are highly complex. Indeed, nowadays the question of affective fragility is a pressing one; a narcissistic, unstable or changeable affectivity does not always allow a person to grow to maturity. Particularly worrisome is the spread of pornography and the commercialization of the body, fostered also by a misuse of the internet and reprehensible situations where people are forced into prostitution. In this context, couples are often uncertain, hesitant and struggling to find ways to grow. Many tend to remain in the early stages of their affective and sexual life. A crisis in a couple’s relationship destabilizes the family and may lead, through separation and divorce, to serious consequences for adults, children and society as a whole, weakening its individual and social bonds. The decline in population, due to a mentality against having children and promoted by the world politics of reproductive health, creates not only a situation in which the relationship between generations is no longer ensured but also the danger that, over time, this decline will lead to economic impoverishment and a loss of hope in the future. The development of bio-technology has also had a major impact on the birthrate (9)

If there is a crisis, then, in both priesthood and marriage alike, it is necessary to ask ourselves whether it is possible to offer a theological and pastoral response to this crisis. And to discern whether the liturgical and sacramental life of the Church includes resources to respond to this pastoral problem. Of course, we think yes.


Thus, next week from June 8-11, 2015, we will be featuring live updates through Twitter (#NDSymposium2015) and our Facebook Page from our various speakers and seminars, as we begin to explore this common problem together. Some of the questions that will be integral to our gathering  will include:

  • What images from the Scriptures and theological tradition of the Church might we employ in the formation of those discerning a vocation to marriage or priesthood?
  • What is a liturgical theology of vocation? And how might this liturgical theology inform practices of discernment relative to marriage and priesthood alike?
  • What might those involved in marriage formation learn from those engaged in priestly formation? And vice versa?
  • What are the political and social implications of these vocations today?
  • How can one perform marriage preparation as an evangelizing activity in the Church today, reaching out to the very margins? What role does liturgical music itself have in this activity of evangelization?
  • What resources are available for a liturgical and sacramental theology of the ministerial priesthood, one that can sustain a priest over the long haul?
  • Who is the deacon? And how might he contribute to this renewal of family life and Church alike?

Even if you can’t make it to our Symposium, we invite you to join along in asking these questions with us through social media or through attending to the study guides that we will produce after the Symposium. We look forward to hosting yet another Symposium that seeks to carry out the liturgical movement’s deep concern to connect liturgy and life, enabling liturgical prayer to transform not simply the life of the believer but society as a whole. Join us in this liturgical approach to carrying out the New Evangelization.


Thanksgiving and the Liturgical Life

Jessica KeatingJessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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Yesterday’s Washington Post ran a front-page story on the growing popularity of “Friendsgiving.” Though reasons vary for preferring friends over family, one young Washingtonian explains the logic of “Friendsgiving”: “You get to be with people you actually want to be around and aren’t just obligated to be around—crazy aunts and uncles and brothers you might not get along with” (26 Nov 2014). 635520672806510009-air-travelYet despite the growing popularity of a family-free Thanksgiving, each year millions of Americans still flock to the roadways and take to the airways, traveling hours to celebrate Thanksgiving with mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. In fact, AAA reports that over the past few days more than 46 million Americans traveled 50 miles or more to celebrate Thanksgiving, the most since 2007. Yesterday I was among these millions of travelers, journeying over 600 miles to spend Thanksgiving with my family.

x1cdd2d84Despite its depiction in TV shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother, most Americans do not spend Thanksgiving with a small self-selected and self-enclosed group of like-minded and amiable people. We spend Thanksgiving with family, with parents and siblings, children and spouses, with people we have either known since infancy or with whom we are bound through marriage. These are people we have not chosen, and if we have chosen, as in the case of a spouse, there are likely moments when, truth be told, we’d like to unchoose our choice. These are the people with whom we argue, laugh, and cry. They are people we may find difficult or prickly. These are people who may greatly resemble us in taste, disposition, and interest, or we may find it difficult to wrap our mind around the absurdity that—for better or for worse—we are but one member of this family.

Whether or not we enjoy spending time with our families, Americans expend considerable time and money to travel great distances with spirited children and endure long delays in order to share a meal together and to enact the well-worn practices of Thanksgiving particular to our family. It’s likely that we know when we will eat. We know the kinds of conversation we will have and who will make a characteristically inappropriate remark. We generally know when and on what grounds we will argue. We know the movies or football games that will be watched. We’ve got the contours of our particular family rituals down, and we continue to gather annually to re-enact them, and indeed, in some way, to express gratitude for them.

We renounce something of our personal preferences and lay aside the pride of independence and something of our sense of absolute self-determination, however momentarily, to participate in the common celebration. The practice of Thanksgiving demands sacrifice.

It is in this way that the holiday millions of Americans celebrate today bears something of a liturgical imprint. Despite the problematic histories that form its foundational narrative and the increasing encroachment of commercial enterprise into these precious and precarious moments, whatever else Thanksgiving may entail, it still points, however imperfectly, to the reality that learning to express gratitude entails sacrifice.

17776_w185In his seminal work The Spirit of the Liturgy, Romano Guardini observes that learning to say thank-you, learning to praise God in the communion of a Church composed not only by “one or two neighbors, or a small circle of people, congenial by reason of similar aims or [even] special relations, but with all, even with those who are indifferent, adverse, or even hostilely-minded” requires a sacrifice (39). Such sacrifice “consists in the renouncement by the individual of everything in him which exists merely for itself and excludes others, while and in so far as he is an active member of the community: he must lay self aside, and live with, and for, others” (38). Sacrifice is particularly difficult for modern men and women because we tend to imagine it in the first instance as a loss or a deficit. But in the sacrifice of the Mass, at the Eucharist, sacrifice does not bear the modern connotations of loss but rather the ancient understanding of sacrifice as praise, as an enactment of gratitude. 2008-corpus-christi-receiving-holy-communionThe sacrifice of worship precedes from and culminates in gift. It proceeds from the gift of God’s ingathering of His people to worship, into the “we” of the Church; this “we” which “signifies the he who employs it is expanding his inner life in order to include that of others, and to assimilate theirs into his” (40). Culminating in the gift of Christ in the Eucharist, in the sacramental re-presentation of Christ’s offering of Himself on the Cross, we participate intimately in His gift of thanksgiving to the Father.

Hold on Loosely: Ebola’s Assault on Human Contact

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.
Director, Notre Dame Vision

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The short, sharp cries slowly disturbed the peaceful silence of our living room. “Isaac’s calling you,” I said to my wife, presuming that the child stirring in bed and troubling the sacred tranquility of the post-bedtime downtime was our 11 month old, for whom only his mother can provide comfort. I’m usually spot-on with my audio diagnoses, but this time I was wrong. It wasn’t Isaac, it was Josiah: our nearly three-year-old whose nighttime rumblings generally fall within my zone of nocturnal responsibility.

So up the stairs I went, quickly ticking off in my head the possibilities of what might await me in his room. The best-case scenario would be that he just woke himself up, was disoriented and groggy, and would simply need me to lie down next to him for a couple minutes as he drifted back to sleep. A much less desirable scenario would be that the stomach bug had visited him and he either already had or soon would undo the cleanliness of his bed and the surrounding area, with many similar acts of expulsion to follow in the coming hours. I’ve quickly flipped through such scenarios so many times before as I made the quick ascent to one of our kids’ bedrooms that it happens without effort now. And yet, regardless of how daunting the possibilities I think about might be, I don’t remember ever hesitating on the way. The reflex is natural to a parent: child crying, child sick, child in need… go to him, hold him, make him well.

nuevas_aficionesOn this occasion, there actually was something bothering Josiah. Uncertain of what exactly the problem was, I just held him in my lap as he cried—and the more he cried, the more I held him. After several minutes, the cries softened then dissipated and he drifted off to sleep. When he awoke the next morning, all was well. I think it was his stomach that was bothering him, but I’m not really sure. There are many nights like this in raising children—most of these occasions end up being about nothing at all while others have to do with some sort of sickness. In any event, the first and most trusted remedy of all is unfailingly applied, one that is never a placebo: human contact. We hold our kids when they are not well. It is less something we are taught and more something we just know. Maladies make apparent what is always the case but all too often neglected in adult life: we want to be held and we want to hold.

I wouldn’t have thought twice about that otherwise commonplace calming of Josiah had I not read a startling article in the New York Times the very next morning. The headline speaks of a cruel paradox: “For a Liberian Family, Ebola Turns Loving Care Into Deadly Risk.” What would have otherwise seemed to me a sad predicament as I quickly read this article before moving to the next one, struck me deeply as a cruel and hidden tragedy within the already well-publicized tragedy of Ebola in West Africa. Just the night before I had done the most typical thing in the world: held my child in his discomfort. But as the article describes, when five-year-old Esther fell ill, her “father faced the anguish of going to see his ailing daughter […] but too afraid to get close enough to comfort her. ‘She tried to get to me, but I stood at a distance.’”

The only way to understand that kind of tragedy and misery is through our humanity. Science can’t tell you how bad that is, nor can medicine or protocols or politics or statistics. A father stopping himself from holding his sick child is a confounding sorrow that can’t be explained. You can only empathize with that kind of sorrow. And you can’t imagine the unimaginable suffering of a child whose parent won’t go to her except by remembering yourself as a child, or else remembering the children you yourself have held.

Ebola-outbreak-west-africa-1-537x331This is a hidden side of Ebola, where perhaps the most beautiful thing about the most afflicted societies is the very source of contagion. No institution is trusted more in Africa than the extended family, and nothing is more natural than to be with and care for one’s loved ones. It is a very human thing that is culturally engrained there in a way that it is not in most Euro-American cultures. This is why, “For most West Africans infected during the outbreak, the virus was transmitted quietly, through tender acts of love and kindness, at home where the sick were taken care of, or at a funeral where the dead were tended to.” Ebola makes compassion the most dangerous thing.

Because the family is the strongest institution in Liberia and other West African countries, this virus tears at the fabric of society there in a way it wouldn’t in a country like the United States. Ebola forces Liberian families to become the opposite of what they are if contagion is to be avoided. Even as Ebola has dawned on the consciousness of Americans in the past couple months (a recent poll showed that Ebola is one of the three most serious health concerns for Americans, along with access to and cost of health care and well above concerns about cancer and obesity), this horrifying dimension doesn’t seem to register, at least not strongly. While the crucial concerns about containing the virus are common to both Africa and the United States, the African focus on the family and human connection gives way to an American focus on civil liberties.

In response to the state imposed quarantines of returning health workers in New York and New Jersey, one commentator opined that, “What’s going on is the systematic governmental destruction of the presumption of liberty in the name of public safety.” Certainly, a concern for public safety has become as much an issue in West Africa as it clearly is in the United States, but the “presumption of liberty” is a peculiarly American thing. The question in the United States isn’t exactly about the tragedy of separating loved ones from each other and obstructing human contact; rather, it is about the perceived injustice of forcing individuals to be somewhere they don’t want to be, do something they don’t want to do, or, more precisely, not be where they would want to be and do what they want to do from moment to moment. As another American commentator put it, the “other Ebola fear” for Americans is our “civil liberties.” The argument about what to do is waged on those grounds and the added drama pertains to what individuals can and cannot do, where they can and cannot be (see this Washington Post article, for example). The free range of potential actions seems to define Americans much more than the capacity to care for one another.

I found myself on the “American side” of the ledger several weeks ago when visiting with my brother-in-law (Justin Pendarvis of USAID, Notre Dame Class of 2002) who had just returned from Western Africa for a brief visit at home before returning to the other side of the Atlantic. Justin has been in thick of the Ebola response in West Africa for the past several months, not in terms of direct care but rather as an expert coordinator from whom even U.S. army generals are taking orders due to his extensive experiential knowledge of healthcare issues in Liberia and surrounding countries. The question I asked him over a drink betrayed my predominant conception of an individual among other individuals: “How have you psychologically and emotionally coped with all the death these past few months?”

His response was secretly jarring to me not so much because it wasn’t what I expected but because I immediately recognized it was what I should have already expected. To paraphrase, he said that,

Death is really common in Liberia. People die all the time. It’s just part of life there. What is really challenging is that people can’t help each other how they normally would.

1407502809087_wps_1_epa04345634_A_photograph_Without a doubt, the massive task for containing the outbreak is persuading people to take up precautionary measures, remove themselves from situations of direct contact with the ill, and, perhaps most difficult of all, to let go of dead bodies after their loved ones perish. That work of persuasion is really, really challenging, but it doesn’t tell the whole story of the tragedy. That story comes down to the fine line between caution and fear, such that the increasing anxiety about Ebola is leading to the abandonment of those in most need even when they are not themselves infected. This is nowhere more tragic than with the abandonment of women in labor, for whom the need for medical care and accompaniment is greatest at because of their vulnerability. “I personally know of at least seven women who have died in childbirth because nobody cared for them.”

This is a particular issue wherein the medical and human crises intersect in a most vexing fashion. Even with stringent precautionary measures, the amount of bodily fluid and human contact inherent in childbirth makes healthcare workers extremely susceptible to infection if the mother happens to be infected. In the vast majority of instances, of course, the woman in labor is not infected, but fear extrapolates singular cases into general threats. Women in labor have become a threat. Now that the counter-instinct of isolation has been introduced into a society that would otherwise bond people together in times of need, that isolating tendency spreads and becomes the new norm.

In a horrifying segment of an interview recently aired on NPR, Ester Kolleh, the lead midwife at a missionary hospital in Liberia tells of this epidemic of neglect that is sweeping her country underneath the veil of the Ebola epidemic: “Last night we received three ladies. They had been in labor one week, two weeks. Nobody to help.” The three women had gone from hospital to hospital in Monrovia. They were turned away at each one. By the time they made it to ELWA, it was too late for their babies. “All of them had stillbirth,” she says. “They couldn’t get help from anyone. The babies died before they came. Now we have three dead babies in the delivery room.”
In America, people would be justifiably outraged and this would be considered an affront to each of these women’s right to healthcare. In Africa, there is an additional sting to this horror because it is so contrary to the ethic of care that is born in the institution of the family and pervades outwards into society. In either place, it is a tragedy for which Ebola is to blame.

Ebola-Catastrophe-West-AfricaThese are desperate times. The desperation does not come because this outbreak is uncontainable, for it seems as though the vigilant adherence to protocols—including targeted quarantines and the proper handling of dead bodies—along with better communication, organization, and early detection and care will slowly limit the exponential growth of the infection and eventually allow for its containment. What is so desperate is that, in the meantime, Africans are forced to act against the beauty of their humanity: to hold and to heal one another. There is also a sort of desperation in the general lack of recognition of this deeper tragedy on behalf of the rest of the world, especially in the United States. In failing to see the tragedy of parents unable to hold their children, of mothers left alone in their time of greatest need, we are confronted with the reality that perhaps we have lost touch with the beauty and goodness that would and should be there if not for this insidious virus. Even if the virus disappeared today, would we run to hold each other in sickness and in need, or is the urge to isolate that seems to come so much more naturally in the United States indicative of our character? It might serves us well in this instance, but is it a good in itself?

On issue in which the American tendency to isolate exacerbates the very real threat to Africans’ tendency to care is in the dis-incentivizing effect of mandatory quarantines for healthcare workers returning to the United States from West Africa. Without a doubt, this is tricky situation and one for which few would want to be responsible for making policies. At the same time, I can’t help but think that the self-protective impulse of American policy makers and of the American public at large is contributing to an international crisis of abandonment that will only prolong and further exaggerate the intra-familial abandonments that Ebola is forcing West Africans to endure. Governor Cuomo is certainly right that in a region like New York, “you go out one, two or three times, you ride the subway, you ride a bus,” as an Ebola carrier, and “you could affect hundreds and hundreds of people.” Governor Christie may also be right that, as an elected official in a position such as his, “Your first and most important job is to protect the health and safety of the people who live within your borders.” But what these positions are symptomatic of is an underlying mentality that focuses first on the individual: my health, my safety, my right to isolate. In this case, the individual has become a metropolitan area or even a nation, but the meaning is the same. Us-and-ThemThere is “me” and there is “you”; there is “us” and there is “them”. The fact that the forced quarantines don’t bother Americans because of that bifurcation but rather because of the assault on civil liberties is alarming. And lest we think that these policies aren’t having an effect on West Africans, the decline in healthcare volunteers in the past month provides evidence that they do. “The word is out on the street: if you go, you’re at risk of losing your liberty,” says Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University Law School. “And people don’t volunteer because of it.”

It is hard to imagine a practical response to such dire and far-away circumstances for those of us who have neither the power to make policy nor the expertise to help with healthcare. At the risk of proposing an embarrassingly minimalist response, I can’t help but think about that peculiar Spiritual Work of Mercy: to pray for the living and the dead. What would it mean in this instance to pray for the living? It would mean reorienting our hearts to consider the pain that comes from family members pulling apart from one another in order to save one another. It would mean allowing ourselves to imagine that this is not “their problem” that we only fear because it might become “our problem”; rather this is our problem together because it is not just a healthcare issue or a public safety issue but a human issue. And what would it mean to pray for the dead now? It would mean honoring the suffering of ones who have been forced to die not just in pain but also alone. It would mean reaching out through the human contact of prayer towards those who were denied human contact at their time of greatest need. It would mean begging that what has been rent asunder in families and communities and between nations will be put back together in the love of God.

Works of Mercy always appeal to our humanity, and an appeal to our humanity is precisely what this Ebola epidemic and the attendant, hidden epidemic of isolationism require. Unless we learn to see the plight of our African neighbors through the lens of the parent hastening to his crying child in the night, we will continue to miss the real tragedy and thus lose some hold of our own humanity.

The Synod on the Family: A Perspective from Ireland

Oblation Pic LTLaura Taylor 

House of Brigid

Wexford, Ireland

For six long years I was closely involved in the liturgical life of a Catholic university, as a chorister and cantor, sacristan and accompanist, lector, and extraordinary minister of Holy Communion. The majority of faces I gazed upon at Mass were similar to my own: students in their early 20s, bags under their eyes from late nights studying, and possibly wearing pajamas and slippers if it was an evening dorm Mass. Any exceptions to this occurred during the more formal Sunday morning liturgies in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart—I can still picture the shocked, gleeful expressions on my fellow choristers’ faces when we gazed down from the choir loft to see a particularly large, adorable family enter the church and fill an entire pew! These novel experiences grew more familiar during graduate school, as an increasing number of my friends started to navigate the waters of balancing academics, marriage, and budding families. Yet, it was not until I moved to Ireland to serve full-time in a Catholic parish that I began to truly understand the incredible significance of young adults and the family in the life of the Church around the world.

My own reflections on the international Church, family life, and the liturgy happen to coincide with the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, which is currently in full swing at the Vatican. It is a massive undertaking in preparation for the larger Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod in 2015, one that seeks to facilitate open and frank discussion of the pastoral challenges facing families today. Pope Francis, deeply aware of the profundity of the occasion and of the importance of liturgical prayer to the family and to the Church, led a candlelight prayer vigil in an overflowing St. Peter’s Square on the eve of the Synod’s opening. Drawing from his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Francis stressed the profound role of marriage and family life in society:

“the communion of life assumed by spouses, their openness to the gift of life, the mutual protection, the encounter and the memory of generations, educational support, the transmission of the Christian faith to their children…With all this, the family continues to be a school without parallel of humanity, an indispensable contribution to a just and united society” (EG, §66-68).

At its core, the family offers a crucial stability that much in this world cannot provide; and yet, families young and old draw their strength from somewhere.

This wellspring of strength for families, Francis advocates, is the Church—by fixing our gaze on Christ, and by embodying and living out the love Christ shares with us daily. His words on the subject of the synod, therefore, may also apply to the family itself: “If we truly intend to walk among contemporary challenges, the decisive condition is to maintain a fixed gaze on Jesus Christ–Lumen Gentium–to pause in contemplation and in adoration of His Face.” Such contemplation and adoration naturally flows forth from the “fully conscious and active participation” in the liturgy that Sacrosanctum Concilium advocated in 1963. In pastoral practice, I have come to realize just how essential the family is in contributing to the liturgical life of my parish, and thus to the Church at large.

According to the 2011 report published by the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, “Practice and Belief among Catholics in the Republic of Ireland,” only 18.6% of 18-24 year-olds attend Mass weekly in Ireland–compared to 67.7% of primary school children and 79.1% in the 65+ age demographic. These statistics play out every day in my parish in a myriad of ways; grandparents often take the lead in bringing their young grandchildren to Mass, and yet our weekly children’s liturgy is packed with entire families. Teenagers are a sight few and far between, but those who make the effort to be involved in the parish provide an inspiring witness to the faith. Sacramental preparation for First Communion and Confirmation allows dedicated parents to take charge of passing on the faith to our little ones. When families come to Mass in full force, their effect is simply awe-inspiring. Pope Francis’ words spill forth faster than I can think:

“The family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis, as are all communities and social bonds. In the case of the family, the weakening of these bonds is particularly serious because the family is the fundamental cell of society, where we learn to live with others despite our differences and to belong to one another; it is also the place where parents pass on the faith to their children (EG, §63).

Francis recognizes that pastoral activity “needs to bring out more clearly the fact that our relationship with the Father demands and encourages a communion which heals, promotes and reinforces interpersonal bonds” (EG, §67). And so, popular piety itself “can be the starting point for healing and liberation” from the breakdown of the family today (EG, §69).Through renewed active participation in the Mass, devotionals, and other forms of liturgical prayer, the family can begin to reverse the breakdown in the way Catholics pass down the Christian faith to our youth. Gradually, we may be able to keep teenagers and young adults interested in the liturgy, and bring an almost entirely lost generation back into the fold.

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger recalled the words of St. Irenaeus (cf. Adv. Haer. 4, 20, 7) in The Spirit of the Liturgy: “The glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God.” I propose, for the purposes of this article, that ‘man’ be replaced with ‘family.’ The glory of God is thus the living family, and the life of the family is the vision of God, reflecting the most Holy Family in the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and Jesus Christ. Through participating in the liturgy, we immerse ourselves in the Church that gives us strength to overcome our sorrows and challenges. Families grow closer, and become stalwart foundations of our parish communities; they become the place where parents pass on the faith to their children in such a way that the very Church itself may be renewed.

Synod 2014: It’s Not Just About Remarriage and Communion

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

I’m not getting a divorce. I do not say this in any way to brag about my willpower relative to marital fidelity. Nor would I ever want to claim that being married and having a family in the modern world is particularly easy. But, I love my wife far more than I did when we got married close to nine years ago. The favorite part of my day is the evening when Kara and I play together with our son, throwing various athletic equipment at his mother. I’m not always a great husband. Nor am I a perfect father. But, I know that being married to Kara has made me a more mature disciple, capable of real love. Marriage and family life is my path to salvation, the way that I am becoming “a partaker in divine life,” to quote one of the Eucharistic prefaces for the Rite of Marriage.

In the midst of much public discourse around the Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and the Family, one would think that the only topic worth talking about relative to marriage and family life is the dilemma of divorce. Based on such coverage, you could easily imagine that the bishops of the Church have gathered together in Rome not to present a vision to the world of the gift of Christian marriage and family. Perhaps, the Synod that is taking place should instead be synodcalled “The Extraordinary Synod for the Possibility of Communion for the Divorce and Remarried.”

Yet, this focus (including by many blogs in the Catholic world) fails to see the opportunity at hand. That is, the sacrament of marriage is not just a rite that the Church performs, one that canonically binds this couple together for the rest of their lives. Rather, marriage is a concrete, bodily way that the couple enters into the Church’s narrative of salvation. It is an encounter with the Good News that Christ is risen from the dead, and that everything about being human (including marriage and sex and raising children and making chili on a Saturday afternoon) is now bathed in resurrection light.

Marriage, in fact, may be the most concrete way for the Church to proclaim what she is ultimately about in the modern world. The Church is not the society of human beings, who gather to escape the world at all costs. We are deeply interested in the world, because it is that which is most human that will be redeemed. The Nuptial Blessings of the Church testify to this:

In happiness may they praise you, O Lord,/in sorrow may they seek you out; may they have the joy of your presence/to assist them in their toil,/and know that you are near/to comfort them in their need;/let them pray to you in the holy assembly/and bear witness to you in the world,/and after a happy old age,/together with the circle of friends that surrounds them,/may the come to the Kingdom of Heaven.

For those of us are married, it is the drama of the salvation of the world itself that plays out in our domestic lives. Kara and I are signs to the world that Christ’s love does not require us to leave behind laughter and joy, watching movies and holding hands, chatting over dinner with non-expensive wine and watching people in public places (a favorite pastime). Marriage is a school of virtue in which we learn to love unto the end, to discover the brilliant light of divine love in caring for a sick spouse or spending 2 AM with a child, who is awake for no discernable reason.

MarriageMore than anything else, this is what the Synod needs to turn its attention to (not my son’s unexplained wakefulness but the vocation of marriage as Eucharistic). If the primary focus remains on threats to marriage in the world, or how the Church responds to divorce, then we’re no better than the disciples who locked themselves up after the Resurrection of Christ. Instead, we need to proclaim to the world that it is the very ordinary, mundane married couple who becomes sacramental signs of salvation for the world. It is this couple, who presents to the Church herself the fullest vision of who she is to become: a sign of Christ’s total self-giving love to the world.

FamilyProcessionPerhaps, then, if the Church really wants to take care of the problem of divorce, the implementation of the Synod at the local level will need to direct more attention to the Good News at the heart of married life. Marriage is not just the source of problems to solve but the primary way that the Church can proclaim and live the Gospel in the modern world. This proclamation is not a series of abstract doctrines proclaimed from on high, a story that remains disconnected from the rest of our lives. Instead, the Good News at the heart of marriage is simply that God has decided to save us through something so mundane, so particular, so bodily, so normal as family life. That God has revealed to us the gift of the created order, and in the context of marriage and family life, we manifest to the world that everything is gift. Marriage and family life is Eucharistic from the beginning: through it we learn to see the fullness of gift, so that we can offer this gift back to the Father.

This Good News of marriage is what the Church must proclaim. We must learn to support those married couples, struggling to live the marriage kerygma in their lives for reasons of poverty, therapeutic understandings of marriage, etc . But, the first step is to offer a vision of married life as so persuasive, so beautiful, so salvific that it actually attracts the attention of the world. And indeed, if Christianity is to survive seculariziation, any form of modern deconstruction, it is probably going to be through the Eucharistic life of the family. For it is precisely here that the heresy of modernity (the separation of the spiritual and the material, the sacred from the profane) is deconstructed:

“If there is a profane song of the world, there must be a gracious canticle of the creatures, a place of prayerful speech on which converges the world’s beauty. We cannot tear ourselves away from the world to offer ourselves to God…” (Jean-Louis Chretien, The Ark of Speech, 120).

The gift of married life for the new evangelization is that it reminds the Church and the world alike that matter really matters. That the Gospel takes flesh not merely in ideas or intellectual assents. But in those hidden offerings of Christian love, never to be seen, that define the domestic sphere. Marriage is, thus, permanent not because the Church wants to make couples’ lives difficult. Marriage is permanent, because Christ’s love is permanent. For this reason, the renewal of marriage won’t occur through new rules and regulations (no matter how well thought through). Rather, the renewal of marriage and family life will take place when every couple married in the Church realizes the wonder of the vocation that they undertake. It will take place when the Church, including her ordained ministers, properly see the couple as a prophetic and sacramental sign of Christ’s own love for the world.

That’s what Synod 2014 should be about. If it were, then we might realize the remarkable vision of married life set forth at the Council. Until then, I’d be happy to address the next Synod about this…