The feast of the Holy Family — celebrated this year on Dec. 30 — reminds us “to contemplate the Holy Family of Nazareth, a wonderful model of human and supernatural virtues for all Christian families,” as St. John Paul II said, referring to the liturgy during an Angelus address in December 2002. “We can find in it values and teachings which today are more indispensable than ever to give human society sound and stable foundations.”
Around the country, several Catholic families spoke to the Register about ways they’ve been living out their call to holiness within family life by following the model of the Holy Family in their daily lives. Indeed, in imitating the virtues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, holy families are created.
With six children ranging in age from six months to 9 years old, David and Katie Norton of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, “have many opportunities to practice these virtues on a daily basis,” according to David. “In some ways, we have no choice — somebody has to feed the kids, take out the trash, do the dishes, etc. But we always have the option of doing it begrudgingly or joyfully.”
“The best list of virtues that were lived by the Holy Family are the ones provided in the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary,” observed Father Jeff Kirby, a moral theologian, author and pastor of Our Lady of Grace Church in Indian Land, South Carolina, referencing humility, love of neighbor, poverty of spirit/obedience and piety. “Each of these virtues are hailed in the Rosary precisely because they are preeminently modeled by Jesus, Mary and Joseph, not simply as individuals, but exactly as a family,” he said.
First is humility. “The greatest reflection of humility of Jesus, Mary and Joseph is that each did everything that God asked of them,” Father Kirby said, emphasizing that “humility is finding our place, given by God or other people, and doing it well. The greatest humility is when we do what God asks of us in his kingdom.” One way today’s families can live humility is “by nurturing an environment of compassion and mercy,” he said. For instance, “Family members can readily admit faults and give forgiveness.”
Humility is a major virtue for Andrew and Sarah Swafford, who are raising three sons and one daughter, ages 2-11, in Atchison, Kansas. Andrew told the Register he has always been intrigued by C.S. Lewis’ account of “humility as not necessarily thinking less of yourself, but thinking less about yourself.”
“In the same line of thought, we have tried to inculcate in our kids a sense for the source of their true identity and worth — namely, as a child of God,” explained Andrew, a theology professor at Benedictine College. He added, “Lewis’ account of humility … takes the attention off ourselves and turns us outward in love of God and neighbor. Humility, in this sense, also helps each of us to be more emotionally available to those around us — precisely because we are striving to be outward-oriented, focusing on the ‘other’ instead of ourselves.”
Father Kirby next accentuated love of neighbor. The one virtue “particularly tender in my heart is the great love of neighbor that Joseph showed toward Our Lady. He loved and cared for her. It was a love called to a high level of purification. What a man!”
Father Kirby recommends this virtue “can be shown by having meals as a family, spending evenings together and asking about each other’s day.”
Then comes poverty of spirit, which includes obedience. Father Kirby points out that Our Lady showed that poverty of spirit when she said, “‘Be it done unto me according to your word.’ And there are no recorded words of Joseph. Words weren’t needed. He just did what was asked, showing a real ‘emptiness.’ Poverty of spirit is allowing ourselves to be emptied before God.”
Of course, he added, Joseph was alert to the angel’s instructions. “When the angel told him God’s will, he did it. It shows how close he was to God.” Obedience is “a virtue that is under attack,” Father Kirby added, recommending that families can grow in this virtue by “showing proper deference and respect to each other and fulfilling the duties of each one’s state in life.”
Piety also shines throughout the Holy Family’s life. Giving the example of the flight to Egypt, Father Kirby explained that poverty, obedience and piety all work together.
“Piety — which is honoring God’s will — was shown by the Holy Family when they packed up and went to a land they didn’t know and had no support, no security, no employment. This is an example of piety, which is a reverent trust in God’s will.”
One way families can live piety in daily life is “in the esteem and honor that is shown to parents and to those in authority who are outside of the family, such as civil and religious leaders.”
If these virtues are lived well, the Christian family “manifests the kingdom of God. This is a kingdom of truth, light, peace, grace and reconciliation. It is a kingdom that turns the world on its head and shows it the more excellent way of love.”
The Swaffords, according to dad Andrew, teach their children that “little examples matter a great deal, whether it’s our commitment to pray, our commitment not to use the Lord’s name in vain, or our courage to politely stand up for our faith in small ways when it’s challenged or spoken of pejoratively in the presence of strangers, friends, or family.”
Father Joseph Johnson, pastor of Holy Family Catholic Church in St. Louis Park, likes to highlight another three virtues: promptness or alacrity, which is defined as promptness with “cheerful readiness,” generosity, and fortitude.
“When God’s inspirations come, the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph answer with promptness or alacrity,” he said. “Sometimes, you or I are tempted to ask God, ‘Are you sure you want to do it that way?’ I have another proposal.”
Next is generosity. “There is nothing begrudging in the obedience of faith in Joseph and Mary,” Father Johnson said.
“The No. 1 way of building and showing generosity is prayer,” accentuated Father Johnson. “Are you generous with God with your time? Are you able to commit to daily prayer time with God — not just a quick prayer on the fly? Can you be generous once a week and make a Holy Hour? Or go to daily Mass? Make that sacrifice.”
For this virtue, the Nortons specifically teach their children to give as a family. “We let our children put some change in the second collection and encourage them to set aside some of their own money for the collection,” explained dad David. “They also see Mom or Dad put the envelope in the basket, and that helps to teach that we are all called to give generously. We also try to give of our time and talent as we are able to, by being involved in ministries at church and volunteering for other organizations as well.”
Fortitude, one of the four cardinal virtues, is important, too. “They needed to persevere,” Father Johnson explained of the Holy Family’s efforts to do God’s will. “That required the virtue of fortitude to shoulder the burdens that came and to stay faithful. Fortitude says, ‘I’m going to shoulder the burden and remain faithful and stick to it and persevere.’”
The Nortons had to practice and build on several of these virtues in the process of adopting their two middle sons, Bo and Sebbie, from Ethiopia last year. David described what took place: “It took four and a half years, with several starts and stops in between, but the conversation about adopting had started years prior to that. When we heard a more urgent call to adopt, we were able to quickly say ‘Yes’ and get started. At points, it would have been so much easier to walk away, but we were certain of God’s will, and we were able to persevere.”
Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.