A Reflection on How Families find their Identity and Strength in Religion

 

Rev. Fr. Frank Pavone

 
  1/1/2001
 

Does religion make a difference for the family in the modern world? If so, in what ways? How does the practice of religion assist the family to be a better family? The answers to these questions can be found in four basic points:

In knowing God the Creator, the family comes to a better understanding of its own identity.

Religion enables us to make family commitments which are humanly impossible.

Religion enables us to give ourselves away.

Religion enables the family to transcend itself.

In briefly commenting on these points, I will also make reference to some of the concrete programs offered by the Catholic Church and by our Pontifical Council for the Family.

 

1. In knowing God the Creator, the family comes to a better understanding of its own identity.

When I was stationed in a large parish in New York city, I had the pleasure of assisting the programs of marriage preparation offered by the Archdiocese of New York. These programs bring engaged couples together during the time between their engagement and their wedding, and offer them the Christian teachings about marriage and family, while also giving them a chance to reflect and talk with each other about their relationship with each other and with God. This marriage preparation program is called "Pre-Cana," because it was in Cana of Galilee that Jesus Christ attended a wedding and blessed it with His presence as He performed His first public miracle.

In the talks I gave to the couples, I always began by asking why I, a priest who was neither married nor planning on being married, was speaking about marriage. I answered the question with another question: Who made marriage? By leading the couples to understand that God made marriage, I led them to see that He therefore is the One to whom we go to best understand marriage. I sought to raise in their hearts the question, What is God's plan for my marriage? Either God has a plan, or marriage is something of our own creation, fashioned only out of our limited natural experiences and imperfect knowledge.

In affirming that God both has a plan and has communicated it to us, I then brought them to the answer to the first question. I was speaking about marriage not as a married person, but as a representative of the One who made marriage in the first place.

To understand marriage, we need to look to God. To understand sex, we need to look to God. To understand the family, we need to look to God.

Faith in God gives these realities a meaning beyond that which we want to place there, and beyond the shifting sands of human opinion. If God is the Creator, then by creating He has also inscribed a meaning into creation. It is there before we are. When we arrive to take part in that creation, we discover the meaning placed there by God. Because we too are created by the same God and have a meaning inscribed in us as persons, there is a real unity and harmony between us and the rest of creation which, when used properly, helps fulfill us as persons.

The fact that there is meaning inscribed in creation does not rob us of creativity or freedom. Rather, it calls forth a free, creative response from us that is able to reach much higher thanks to the fact that we acknowledge a truth that frees us from harmful errors.

The Second Vatican Council speaks of all this beautifully in the document entitled, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Latin title: Gaudium et Spes). The document affirms that when one loses sight of the Creator, the creation itself becomes unintelligible.

We can therefore speak about the truth about marriage and the family, and about objective rights of the family.

In our office of the Pontifical Council for the Family, which is basically the Pope's office for concerns related to family and the defense of human life, we follow closely the proceedings of the various United Nations Conferences. We note that in these conferences, and elsewhere, there are often efforts made to re-define the family, as if its identity is whatever we want to make it. Yet to speak about the truth of the family means to acknowledge that there is a plan to which we are accountable. To speak of the rights of the family is to acknowledge that there are norms higher than those of any government or multi-national organization. These affirmations are necessary to protect the family from the whims of whoever is in power.

Among the truths inscribed in creation is that of the equal dignity of every human person, whether young or old, man or woman, healthy or sick, rich or poor, born or still in the womb. Because every human life is a human person, and because every human person is equal, then no person may ever use another as an object. People freely give their time and talents to one another, but the mistake of using a person is that one values their usefulness more than their personal well-being and freedom, and can even come to see that usefulness as the whole purpose for which that person was made. This is a grave moral error which tears apart marriages and families.

Another truth about the person is that he/she has an eternal destiny. The Christian affirmation of eternal life is not to make us less concerned about this world, but rather more concerned, since the Church teaches that the relationships and fruits of peace and love that we bring forth in this world will endure in the next. Family relationships, in other words, begin here and continue forever. Every aspect of family life takes on a whole new dimension when one realizes that he/she is not only shaping a lifetime, but an eternity.

 

2. Religion enables us to promise what is humanly impossible.

The Catholic marriage ceremony contains the question, "Will you love each other as husband and wife for the rest of your lives?" Unless the intention of permanent fidelity is present in both spouses, the priest cannot proceed with the ceremony, and even if he did, the Church would consider it invalid. No marriage occurs without a commitment to permanence.

Yet what a courageous act such a promise is! After all, how do I know who this person I marry will be five years from now? How will his or her physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual characteristics change? Not only do I not know what will happen five years from now; I don’t even know what will happen five minutes from now.

To make the permanent commitment that marriage requires means to say yes to a future I do not know. It means I will be faithful to this person no matter what.

Where do we find the courage, or even the rationale, to make such a promise?

We find it in the fact that at the marriage ceremony, there are not only two persons making vows, but three. God Himself makes a promise at that ceremony. He promises that the couple will never lack His presence, and that His grace will be available at every moment, in every circumstance, to enable them to be faithful.

Grace, the presence and activity of God in our lives, does not simply "help" us, as if we were doing something and then God came along to make it easier. Rather, Jesus Christ taught His followers, "Without Me, you can do nothing." Every good action starts and proceeds enveloped in grace.

The Catholic Faith teaches that this concrete power of grace, which we cannot do without, comes in a primary way through the seven sacraments, some of which we receive only once (like marriage, normally), and others of which we receive repeatedly (like Reconciliation and Holy Communion).

In the preparation of couples for marriage, therefore, and in the counseling of couples and families in difficult circumstances, Catholic programs always stress the need to receive the sacraments frequently. There are various retreat programs for couples and families, whereby they take a weekend away from their normal duties and surroundings, and focus only on their relationship with God and each other. Prayer and the sacraments provide the centerpieces of these retreat experiences. A number of movements for youth retreats are growing quite rapidly. Along with retreats are programs whereby couples and families meet regularly in small groups for prayer, spiritual guidance, and discussion. One of our activities at the Pontifical Council for the Family is to encourage and guide the development and growth of such movements.

 

3. Religion enables us to give ourselves away.

A wise man was once asked, "If you were given the power to do anything you wanted, what would you do?" He answered, "I would restore words to their original meaning."

The most misused, abused, and confused word in the English language is "love." We use it to speak of a wide variety of good things, and of more than a few bad things. How do we recover its original meaning?

Christians look to the Word of God in the Bible to discover the meaning of the word "love." Here is how we know love, St. John writes in his first letter. "Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers" (1 John 3:16).

To understand love, Christians look to the cross, where Christ gives Himself away, freely, for the life of the world. He was not forced to die; He chose to die, to offer His life so that we could receive the forgiveness of sin and the gift of eternal life. Christ’s death on the cross was not pleasant or nice, but the day it happened is called "Good Friday." What is good is not always nice, and what is nice is not always good.

Love is good, but it can mean crucifixion. Love means I sacrifice myself for the good of the other person. The cross symbolizes that reality. What is good for the other is paramount to me, and more important that what I might lose in the process of securing the good of the other.

Is this not what is needed for a strong marriage? Is this not what spouses are called to do for each other? Is this not what parents are called to do for their children? I sacrifice myself for the good of the other person.

On the night before He died, Christ had supper with His disciples. He broke bread at one point and gave it to them saying, This is My Body, given up for you. He was teaching them what would happen the next day, and He was teaching them the meaning of love. These words are at the center of the life of a Catholic, and they are at the center of our central act of worship, the Mass. But are they not the words of spouse to spouse in faithful marriage? This is my body, given up for you. Are they not the words of parents to their children? This is my body, my time, my money, my very life, given up for you, that you may live, that you may grow, that you may flourish.

I wish to draw your attention to a very profound spiritual battle going on in our midst. We have reached here the very foundation of the family and of human happiness. We are called to give ourselves away for the good of others. We are created in order to give and receive love. Anything less than that brings us misery, division, and frustration. Love says, I sacrifice myself for the good of the other person. The opposite of love, therefore, is to say, I sacrifice the other person for the good of myself.

The most destructive way in which this dynamic of the opposite of love manifests itself today is in abortion. Nothing claims more human lives than abortion. In my country of the United States, a child is legally destroyed every twenty seconds by this act. It happens legally, through all nine months of pregnancy, because the child in the womb was declared a "non-person" by the Supreme Court in 1973. The Court did not say the child was not human. The Court merely said that the child would not receive the protection due to persons under the law.

I sacrifice the other person for the good of myself. My full-time work for many years has been to probe the abortion problem and work to reverse it. Identifying abortion as the opposite of love does not mean that those who have abortions are evil people. They are not. They are tormented and usually feel that they have no choice but to do something they know is wrong.

But to examine the dynamic that abortion introduces into the life, family, and society of that person reveals that its effects far transcend an individual person's choice. Those who promote abortion increasingly openly admit that it is an act of killing a human being, but that in certain circumstances such killing is justified. But to say that is not only to make a statement about that particular child being killed. It is to make a statement about how we treat the vulnerable, the inconvenient, the burdensome. It is a statement about family responsibility, specifically to the youngest members of the family. As Mother Teresa has said, "If we accept that even a mother can kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill each other?"

Studies on post-abortion phenomena increasingly reveal how it weakens present and future family bonds and even is a contributing factor to violent activity on the part of teenagers who have grown up in a society that taught them that they were born not because of their inherent dignity, but because of a choice that, after all, could have also gone the other way.

Ironically, as we have shown that the words This is my body reveal the core meaning of love, the bond of a strong family and society, so we see the same words used to justify the very opposite of love, the act of abortion. "This is my body," some say, "So I can have the child removed." "This is my body," Christ says, "Given up for you, that you might live."

 

4.Religion enables the family to transcend itself.

If the human person is called to make a sincere gift of self for the good of others, and in so doing finds his/her own fulfillment, then the same is true for the entire family. The family as a community is called to give itself in the service of the wider community of the Church and society.

One of the fundamental images of this reality in Christian revelation is the teaching of St. Paul on the Church as the Body of Christ. "Just as each of us has one body with many members," he writes,"and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others" (Romans 12:4-5).

Each member belongs to all the others. Those are strong words. A family cannot think only of its own needs, because if the next family has needs, those needs are the needs of the first family as well! The teachings that religion brings again, as we saw in the beginning, clarify for us our own identity. These teachings overcome the kind of individualism which can make families think that if their own needs are satisfied, then everything is OK. The ironic truth is that if a family thinks and lives in this manner, then it threatens its own internal unity as well. This is so because the dynamic of love is indivisible. That which inspires me to give myself away to my spouse and children is, at its core, the same reality that inspires me to give myself to the wider community.

 

Summary and conclusion

Pope John Paul II has frequently taught that "the future of humanity passes through the family." It is a truth we can see from many angles, whether that of Divine Revelation, or of sociological and psychological studies.

What is at stake when we consider the family is not simply one issue among many. What is at stake is the very survival of human civilization.

When, therefore, we consider the role of religion in the modern family, we are considering the role of religion in preserving the world. In 1973, the second Secular Humanist Manifesto was issued, and it declared, "No deity will save us; we must save ourselves." The document asserted that many aspects of religion are an obstacle to human progress and even human rights.

Yet since 1973, the record of evidence has mounted pretty high that despite its best efforts at self-improvement, humanity can do a pretty good job of messing itself up.

Evidence also mounts that movements rooted in God and in the affirmation of the dignity of human life, marriage, and family are renewing peoples’ lives, families, and communities on every continent. Dialogue between religions is not just something good. It is essential, for it is not simply dialogue in the sense of an academic exercise. It is dialogue in the sense of thinking through common problems and challenges, and discerning ways to join hands and solve those problems, for the good of our families and our children's families. Dialogue includes what might be called "bio-logue," a living together, a journeying together toward a better future. I assure you of the commitment of the Catholic Church to this ongoing effort, and I assure you that your efforts on behalf of preserving and nurturing the gifts of life and family will bear abundant fruit.

God bless you.