The Church reminds us each May 31 that Mary, upon hearing about a relative's pregnancy, traveled to visit. And Scripture makes a point of how she went to Elizabeth: “with haste” (Luke 1:39).
Our Lady's example of unhesitating, active devotion to extended family is an admirable one. Are we following it? It's a question worth considering this feast of the Visitation.
“Modern society is fractured,” says Father Kevin Barrett, chaplain at Catholic Familyland in Ohio and a frequent public speaker on matters concerning the family. “More than ever, families need the Church. They need support. Parents of young children particularly are in need of support.”
Ideally, he explains, support for young families would come from grandparents and other relatives. Grandparents can enjoy the emotional benefits of frequent contact with loved ones while they give their grandchildren the individualized attention, wisdom and abundant affection they need. Parents also profit from this close relationship as they receive competent help with child care, assistance with daily chores and support in catechizing their children.
Father Barrett highlights the value of the extended family by pointing out that Christ himself placed such great importance upon the family that he spent the first 33 years of his life on earth in relative obscurity, attending to the tasks of daily living within a family. He adds that Christ taught us to call God our father, referred to himself as our brother and, in the moments before his death, gave us the gift of his mother.
“Clearly, family is at the heart of God's plan of redemption,” he says.
Our Lady's example of unhesitating, active devotion to extended family is an admirable one. Are we following it?
The importance of family relationships is a subject close to the heart of Leisa Thigpen, a home-schooling mother of two and co-author with her husband, Paul, of Building Catholic Family Traditions (Our Sunday Visitor, 1999). Three years ago, after years of living away from family, the Thigpens moved from Missouri to Savannah, Ga., in order to care for Paul's ailing mother in their home.
The decision benefited all members of the family. Although she admits that living with and caring for an aging relative was sometimes difficult, Leisa is certain that the experience taught her two children an invaluable lesson.
“By involving them in her day-to-day care, we showed them that we care for people through all stages of life,” she explains. “Our daily lives were an example of Christian charity.”
Additionally, the Thigpens drew support from and grew closer to other relatives during the time Paul's mother lived with them. Working together and making important decisions as a team enabled them to realize how much their presence added to one another's lives.
“It was nice to be able to call on each other in our daily needs,” Leisa recalls.
Although their grandmother now requires care in a nursing home, family members are still able to visit her regularly because they live nearby. Also, the Thigpen children have developed rewarding friendships with their cousins – many of whom they did not know very well before their move. As a result, their daughter has served as a role model and mentor to a younger cousin who is now making plans to join the Church.
During the years they spent physically distant from relatives, the Thigpens made it a priority to keep in touch with relatives and involve them in their daily lives. Thanks to the wonders of e-mail, notes Leisa, they were able to exchange notes and pictures across the miles without racking up long-distance phone bills.
Also during their time away from family, the Thigpens visited relatives regularly and enjoyed many visits in their home. In order to emphasize the significance of these occasions for their children, they established a tradition of creating a “Welcome” banner, which they hung on their house to greet their guests. The children helped to decorate the banner each time it was updated and the project soon became an important part of anticipating visits and welcoming their loved ones.
Having moved all the way from Texas to Alabama in order to be close to extended family for the sake of their children, Register Family Matters columnists Tom and Caroline McDonald are very familiar with the blessing of having loving relatives nearby.
They're particularly attuned to the benefits physical proximity affords when it comes to forming their children in the Catholic faith.
“The faith becomes more real to a child if he sees not only Mom and Dad praying and going to church, but the rest of the family as well,” Tom explains. “Our kids see their aunt and uncle leading music at our parish Mass. They see Grandma singing in the choir and Grandpa lectoring. These regular encounters with every member of the family living out the faith can have a profound impact on our children.”
Living close to grandparents also enables the McDonald children to learn from their mother's relationship with her parents. Because they witness Caroline's respect for her parents, Tom believes that they “learn how to live out the Fourth Commandment by seeing it modeled in front of them on a daily basis.”
Close at Heart
Even among families who live near relatives, some have difficulty finding time to see one another. For those who struggle with busy schedules, the McDonalds suggest scheduling time for regular family get-togethers.
“We shouldn't fall prey to the bad habit of seeing our in-town relatives only on holidays and major events,” says Tom. “We should work at making family a priority.”
Some of the couple's practical suggestions for fostering family closeness include having frequent casual family dinners and helping one another with child care. These activities allow opportunity for family members to interact on a regular basis.
For instance, Caroline and her sister sometimes offer to watch each other's children for a few hours during the day.
“The benefit is twofold,” she says. “One mom gets some time away while the cousins get to spend time together.”
With regard to distant relatives, the McDonalds point out that long-distance visits can create lasting memories for children – and powerfully reinforce the importance of family in young minds. Tom cherishes fond memories of his family's annual summer trips from Nebraska to California where they visited his mother's family. The fact that his father used all of his vacation time to make the trip each year reinforced the value of family relationships.
Together, the McDonalds observe: “Often the reason families move away from one another is due to job opportunity, but perhaps that shouldn't always be our priority. It might be worth seeking out different work in order to remain near family.”
Paul and Leisa Thigpen, however, do not need anyone to tell them that returning to their roots was the right thing to do. A banner greeted them upon their arrival in Savannah three years ago – one made by family members for themthis time.
“It didn't just say Welcome,” Leisa recalls. “It said Welcome Home.”
Danielle Bean writes from Center Harbor, New Hampshire.