Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy
On Sunday, foregoing the trip to Philadelphia for the Papal Mass, I found myself at my “slightly-less-crowded-than-the-Ben-Franklin- Parkway” parish with toddler in tow. My wife was the cantor, and I was thus charged with toddler liturgical care during the celebration of the Mass. Sitting in the very first row and kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, I whispered into the ear of my son during the Institution Narrative that it was “Jesus up there.” He responded with his usual acclamation that recognizes something important: “That!,” he exclaimed rather loudly.
This, as it turns out, was simply one of the many moments in which I would ponder with my son the joy of the Gospel on this particular Sunday. My wife had a choir concert, and therefore, we spent the evening together at an Irish pub in downtown South Bend, where the Eucharistic feast gave way to the pub burger. We then went to Vespers at the Basilica, only to return home seemingly drunk on incense. We ended our evening together as we kissed an icon together and bid night-night to Jesus, Mary, and St. Thomas.
I could not help but think of these moments as I re-read the Pope’s various comments on the Gospel of the Family during his days in Philadelphia. Nearly all attention relative to the Synod on the Family is being devoted to the question of divorced and remarried Catholics being allowed to receive the Eucharist. In reality, the Pope drew our attention elsewhere, to the very heart of the family itself. In his off-the-cuff remarks at the Festival of Families, the Holy Father noted:
Being with you makes me think of one of the most beautiful mysteries of our Christian faith. God did not want to come into the world other than through a family. God did not want to draw near to humanity other than through a home. God did not want any other name for himself than Emmanuel (cf. Mt 1:23). He is “God with us”. This was his desire from the beginning, his purpose, his constant effort: to say to us: “I am God with you, I am God for you”. He is the God who from the very beginning of creation said: “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gen 2:18). We can add: it is not good for woman to be alone, it is not good for children, the elderly or the young to be alone. It is not good. That is why a man leaves his father and mother, and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24). The two are meant to be a home, a family.
From time immemorial, in the depths of our heart, we have heard those powerful words: it is not good for you to be alone. The family is the great blessing, the great gift of this “God with us”, who did not want to abandon us to the solitude of a life without others, without challenges, without a home.
God does not dream by himself, he tries to do everything “with us”. His dream constantly comes true in the dreams of many couples who work to make their life that of a family.
That is why the family is the living symbol of the loving plan of which the Father once dreamed. To want to form a family is to resolve to be a part of God’s dream, to choose to dream with him, to want to build with him, to join him in this saga of building a world where no one will feel alone, unwanted or homeless.
In this way, the family is not simply the “object” of evangelization; rather, it is the agent of divine love in the world. Every family, no matter their particular religious background, serves as an icon of God’s vision of the destiny of human life as solidarity with one another. If families disappear, if commitment dissipates, if children are not born, if grandparents are not cared for, then a sign of divine love dries up in the world. The proclamation of God’s love does not have a place to take flesh.
For this reason, Pope Francis urges bishops attending the World Meeting of Families to avoid treating families as a problem to be dealt with. He exhorts:
For the Church, the family is not first and foremost a cause for concern, but rather the joyous confirmation of God’s blessing upon the masterpiece of creation. Every day, all over the world, the Church can rejoice in the Lord’s gift of so many families who, even amid difficult trials, remain faithful to their promises and keep the faith!
I would say that the foremost pastoral challenge of our changing times is to move decisively towards recognizing this gift. For all the obstacles we see before us, gratitude and appreciation should prevail over concerns and complaints. The family is the fundamental locus of the covenant between the Church and God’s creation. Without the family, not even the Church would exist. Nor could she be what she is called to be, namely “a sign and instrument of communion with God and of the unity of the entire human race” (Lumen Gentium, 1).
The existence of families, even if taking a different form than previous generations, should be a cause for celebration not dismay. The pastor is one who is to make the joys and sorrows of family life his own. A parish’s pastoral approach must not view the couple who comes to you for marriage suspiciously; to set up exceedingly difficult regulations for having a child baptized; to merely deal with parents of confirmation candidates, who don’t seem to care. Rather, the Gospel of the Family demands that everyone responsible for pastoral ministry recognize the seeds of the Gospel already flourishing in the midst of any family life.
For it is precisely the unique constitution of the family itself, which makes it rich soil for the proclamation of the Gospel in the modern world. In his closing homily in Philadelphia, Pope Francis preaches:
Faith opens a “window” to the presence and working of the Spirit. It shows us that, like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. “Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name — a small gesture — will not go unrewarded”, says Jesus (cf. Mk 9:41). These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children, by brothers. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life grows in faith.
Secularization will not be forestalled through setting up ramparts against modern ways of thinking. Individualism cannot be defeated simply through reading tomes against it. Rather, one learns the Gospel as a father whispers into the ear of his child the glorious mysteries of divine love revealed in the Eucharist; as that same child spends an afternoon with his father, delighted to play with a toy giraffe for hour upon hour in his presence, forming his father in learning to delight in the smallest things; as father and son eat a meal together in perfect contentment (one watching football, the other enjoying Elmo); as they attend Vespers on a warm, autumn day, singing along to the Salve Regina; as they come home and the father gives his wife a hug, as the child squeals in delight at the sight of his mom. As they read stories together and pray together and go to bed, aware of the gift of their way of life.
You see, the miracle of the Gospel of the Family is that is shows once again that proclaiming the Good News, evangelizing the world, is no more complicated than practicing the art of self-giving love day after day within one’s life. The Synod on the Family will hold this mystery up to the world, inviting pastors to think anew about the role of families in the new evangelization of the world. It won’t be about new regulations alone or modernizing annual proceedings. This is precisely the legalistic way of thinking, which the Pope deplores. It will instead show how divine mercy manifests itself day-after-day in family life. It will, perhaps, propose to the Church that the great next moment of evangelization will not occur through missionary orders but through those everyday meals that form a family in the art of hospitality. It will remind us that the greatest threat to the family is not divorce but the terrible poverty that often makes this self-giving love impossible in the midst of worries, of forced immigration of one parent. And the Synod on the Family will announce that this is the way of death, not the way of life.
This is the Gospel of the Family that the Pope has proposed to the world. I, for one, have heard it as Good News.