Advent, and its ensuing Christmas season, is a time for families, an opportunity to share in the celebration of deeply abiding mysteries, along with fun and lots and lots of food. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World), and we’re thus reminded of the great call to the family to “be what you are.”
Though 30 years old Nov. 22, this document offers an abundance of wisdom, and no wonder, as the “bright spots and shadows for the family” are virtually the same today as they were then. The bright spots include the growing “awareness of personal freedom,” the quality of relationships between Christian couples, the dignity of women, “responsible procreation” and the education of children.
The “shadows,” however, are twisted versions of these lights. Personal freedom has become “spousal independence” and total autonomy. Thus, modern society fosters a belief that children impede our wants and desires. Thus, “the scourge of abortion; the ever more frequent recourse to sterilization; the appearance of a truly contraceptive mentality.” The high incidence of family breakups arises, in part, from unrealistic expectations for marital relationships. Divorce then undermines the “authority between parents and children” and the “transmission of values.”
At the root of all of these problems, says the Holy Father, is a “struggle between freedoms,” or as St. Augustine put it, “a conflict between two loves: the love of God to the point of disregarding self and the love of self to the point of disregarding God.” Therefore, the answer must be “a continuous, permanent conversion” towards “love rooted in faith.” Since God, who is Love, made us in his own image and likeness, love is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.”
The family, then, is the great school of love. Its entire mission is to “guard, reveal and communicate love” and, in the process, become a living image of God’s love for humanity and also Christ’s love for the Church. The family does this through four tasks: “forming a community of persons,” “serving life,” “participating in the development of society” and “sharing in the life and mission of the Church.”
Forming a community of persons seems almost obvious. A couple promises to share their lives together in hope of welcoming children. Thus, God’s love for us and Christ’s love for the Church, which the family is to image, is best represented with an indissoluble union. Furthermore, we are told that the Christian family, as a community of believers, “perfects natural and human communion” and becomes a “supernatural communion that gathers believers and links them with Christ and with each other in the unity of the Church of God.” For this reason, the Christian family “can and should be called ‘the domestic Church.’”
Something similar occurs through the Christian family’s fulfillment of its second task: serving life. Quoting Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, Familiaris reminds us that, with the natural end of sexuality to form a union with another, the procreation of life is a fulfillment of our own “supernatural and eternal vocation.” Just as marriage must be indissoluble in order to maintain the natural and supernatural dimensions of communion, so too the marital act must be open to life in order to maintain the natural and supernatural dimensions of serving life.
Parents fulfill their mission to serve life by educating their children in “the essential values of human life.” What might those be? The Pope says that “children must grow up with a correct attitude of freedom with regard to material goods, by adopting a simple and austere lifestyle and being fully convinced that ‘man is more precious for what he is than for what he has.’” The most basic value in education, understood broadly, is not academics, but, rather, detachment from material goods.
This insight provides a framework for fulfilling the family’s third task: participation in the development of society. The family accomplishes this mission by imaging the sacrificial love of Christ in the world “[T]he family is by nature and vocation open to other families and to society.” Families are to “devote themselves to manifold social-service activities, especially in favor of the poor,” who often have no family of their own to which they can turn. They must be the first to defend the rights of parents from state usurpation. Indeed, the Holy Father challenges us to adopt a “‘family politics’ and assume responsibility for transforming society.” To this end, he continues, the principle of subsidiarity is the “grave obligation” of the state’s “relation with the family.”
Still, politics and this world are not the end for Christian life. The final task of the family is sharing in the mission of the Church to build up the Kingdom of God. In fact, the Pope wrote 30 years ago that “the future evangelization depends in great part on the Church of the home.” This requires that the family root itself in prayer, worship and catechesis. Thus, “the Eucharist is the very source” of the natural compassion for the poor, but more so the supernatural love of Christ, who liberates us from the shadows of sin. The Holy Father asks parents to pray with their children. Through common prayer, parents can bring peace to their homes and, through each home, the world.
There is much more in Familiaris Consortio to consider for meditation and study. What is clear throughout is that the Christian family has a supernatural vocation. The hope of Blessed John Paul II is that “each Christian family really become a ‘little Church’” and entrust itself to the example and intercession of the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph and the Christ Child — the Holy Family. Let us all remember this as we celebrate during this season of family and faith.