The Sunday Propers: The Holy Family

In the buildup to the October Synod on the Family, Mother Church wants us to focus on the importance of this institution.  Her leading thinkers and theologians are trying to figure out how the Church should interact with all the problems that face the family today, and that debate is a very polarized one.  Interesting as it is, I think our energies over the next year should be focused instead on another question:  why does the family matter?    If we focus on that question, I think it would help put the Church’s pastoral mission to families in its proper context, and avoid a lot of the confusion that has surfaced recently.

For us traditionalists, this Sunday’s liturgy for the Feast of the Holy Family provides a great foundation for the Church’s teaching on the family.  We notice it first in the placement of the feast of the Holy Family.  While it might appear so to the untrained eye, our liturgical calendar is not a random assortment of feasts.  The Church has arranged her feasts so that every year the faithful may see salvation history unfold before their eyes.

In the case of the Holy Family, this feast happens on the first Sunday after Epiphany, which as we know concludes the Christmas season with Christ’s revelation to the entire world, represented through the Magi.  This sequence of events helps drive home a point which should be of supreme importance:  before we had any vocation, our vocation was as members of a family.  Though Christ was called to be a priest forever from before the creation of the world, his first calling on Earth is to be a son of Joseph and Mary.

Christ did this to teach the entire world that before we were theologians and priests, apologists and catechists, religious or lay, we belong to a family.  We learn our vocation through the family.  The collect of today’s liturgy speaks of the “ineffable virtues” that come from family life, and these virtues are open to all. Few institutions can boast of their virtues being available to all.  Different gifts require different graces, and some institutions will boast of differing benefits from each other.  The job of the family is to provide the graces and foster the virtues that will be required for these later endeavors.

This familiar relationship describes not just our relationship to our blood family, but our relationship to our spiritual family, the Church.  The Catholic Church can best be described as a family in the parish sense, and in the universal sense.  Just as our fellow parishioners are our brothers and sisters in Christ, the 23 Catholic Churches in communion with the Bishop of Rome look at each other primarily as a family.  How do we treat other Christians like a family?  The Epistle gives us a lengthy list, informing us that our actions should be guided by “mercy, benignity, humility, modesty, patience: bearing with one another and forgiving one another.”  If this relationship describes anything, it is that of a family.  Courts operate under an uncompromising law which requires obedience, whereas the family operates under the law of love.  While there may be times where punishment must be uncompromising, this is seldom the case, and you would respond with greater mercy towards your own child than to a stranger.  The Epistle tells us to take that disposition and apply it to all Christians.

When we have this understanding, we can also begin to understand some of the harder sayings of Christianity on the family.  If there is one doctrine that makes the Catholic Church different from the world, it is the doctrine of the family.  In many cases the Catholic Church is the only voice in society which still attempts to uphold the centrality of the family by stating the only acceptable definition of marriage is that of one man and one woman.  If the Church were to compromise her understanding of the family, then she would compromise the ability to form disciples in virtue and vocation.  Nothing else on this earth can form such vocations like the family can, that’s why Christ submitted to His family.  The family is a safeguard against not just a corrupt government, but a weak church as well.  A tight-knit family has less need of government support, and a tight-knit family is one of the primary tools the Holy Spirit uses to preserve tradition throughout the ages.  While a corrupt church and corrupt state have come and gone throughout history, the family survived them, and thrived because it was a family.  Even if there was a theoretical way to preserve doctrinal integrity, a Church which changed its understanding of the family would collapse because she would have a different understanding of her nature and of society’s nature.

This same understanding applies to the Church’s prohibition of divorce.  If the family is the central unit through which disciples are formed, then the willful dissolving of that unit is a willful dissolving of the foundation of society.  To say that the units formed in its place are of equal dignity in the eyes of the Church’s sacramental law is to say that Christ placing the beginnings of his ministry within the context of the family isn’t important.  If we say that the teachings on the churches prohibition of divorce (which include the prohibition from communion for those who divorcees who have contracted a civil marriage) are no longer realistic, then we say the primacy of the family is no longer realistic.

When we look at the decline of the Church, we can see the decline of the family, and the decline of the Church acting like a family.  If we truly wish this synod to be a success, and for future generations to have a church which thrives, we need to recover this understanding of the family, and today’s liturgy is as good of a place as any to start.

image: meunierd /

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Kevin Tierney is the Associate Editor of the Learn and Live the Faith Section at Catholic Lane. He and his family live in Brighton, MI. Connect with him via FB  or on twitter @CatholicSmark.

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