Call it the familial-holiness disconnect. Catholic parents know they ought to imitate Mary and Joseph, guiding their children toward sanctity and salvation as they work out their own with fear and trembling.
But we don’t live in first-century Palestine. There are planes to catch and bills to pay and schedules to coordinate — enough, it sometimes seems, to warrant the hiring of a booking agent.
The good news is that, despite the distractions, there is a way. And the Holy Family did indeed model it for us.
“During the greater part of his life Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings: a daily life spent without evident greatness, a life of manual labor,” the Catechism points out in No. 531. “His religious life was that of a Jew obedient to the law of God, a life in the community.”
“The hidden life at Nazareth allows everyone to enter into fellowship with Jesus,” adds No. 533, “by the most ordinary events of daily life.”
Here are some simple suggestions for turning the ordinary events of family life into saint-making opportunities for parents and children alike — no matter how hectic 21st-century life may get.
• Prominently display an image of the Holy Family in your home.
Author and EWTN host Mike Aquilina, whose latest book is Love in the Little Things: Tales of Family Life (Servant 2007), points out that this advice goes back to Pope Leo XIII.
Our pictures, especially of our family events, are reminders of who we are, where we’ve come from and the standard we want to live up to.
“We should feel the same about the Holy Family on the wall” as we do about the pictures of our own family, he says. “This is the family we were born into at baptism. Their home is our home. They have certain expectations of us.”
• Make your home a place of prayer.
We should all have some regular, routine family disciplines of prayer, just as the Holy Family did. “They prayed and studied the Scriptures, but still managed to get their work done,” notes Aquilina. “So can we.”
Seek out ways that work best for your family. Offer grace at every meal. Pray the Rosary together. Start a weekly family Bible study. Go to daily Mass together.
Pray with intentions, adds Catherine Fournier. She and husband Peter, founders of the family apostolate Domestic-Church.com, gave each of their six children a turn to voice intentions.
“The youngest might start by praying for the dog,” she says with a hint of humor, “but as children grow older, their intentions become more other-directed.”
“The leadership of the father is really critical. Studies have shown that the faith practice of the father is overwhelmingly dominant in the faith practice of the children,” adds Peter, citing a Swiss study that showed an overwhelming correlation between fathers practicing their faith and the children’s attendance in church later in life. He stresses that, even if the father says just one Our Father each day with his family, the “returns” can be dramatic.
• Cultivate silence.
“This is the quality of the Holy Family that Paul VI found so inspiring” and spoke about on his visit to the Holy Land, says Aquilina. The Holy Family lived a hidden, quiet life with lots of time for thinking. It’s a challenge with our radios, iPods, computers and TVs in multiple rooms.
“Prayer becomes unbearable to us because silence is unbearable to us,” he says before expounding on the benefits of turning off the TV. “You’ll be surprised at what it’ll do to your stress levels — and to your life of prayer.”
• Eat together as a family at least once a day.
It is with some irony that the Fourniers call this a “radical suggestion” — a daily family meal ought to be a given, no? — but the benefits are no laughing matter. Study after study has documented the good things that come to kids who sit at table with their families. It’s even worth it if ballet and baseball practice have to go.
“Holiness is supported by community, and the family is the fundamental unity of community,” Peter Fournier points out.
Adds Father Kris Stubna, secretary for education in the Diocese of Pittsburgh: “Growing in holiness means we talk to one another, share important values and how God is working in our lives.” There’s no time like mealtime, he says, to feed hearts and souls along with bodies, “talking to one another about our faith and how God is at work in our lives.”
• Make your home a haven of charity.
Paraphrasing the Catechism, Father Stubna points out that the home is the best school in existence — the place all the Christian virtues, including forgiveness and kindness, are first experienced and assimilated by children. So families should ask, “Is visiting grandma in the nursing home a duty or act of charity, a corporal work of mercy?”
“Parents can help kids see these things are part of the corporal works of mercy and acts of virtue,” he explains. “It’s important to teach children that it is a way to grow in holiness and faith, and an opportunity in grace. A family needs to find opportunities to do that in everyday life.” That doesn’t mean just trips to a soup kitchen but especially extending Christian service in the neighborhood, like helping an elderly neighbor shovel snow or weed a garden.
• Keep the Lord in the Lord’s Day.
“The sacredness of Sunday is a key to holiness in family life,” says Father Stubna. That begins with Mass and the Eucharist. Then “spend time talking about the readings or reflecting on the homily. Make sure there is some religious focus.”
The family might even spend some afternoon time reading, and paraphrasing, Pope John Paul II’s 1998 Apostolic Letter Dies Domini (On Keeping the Lord’s Day Holy).
By building a holy family in the most ordinary events of daily life, concludes Aquilina, we can help redeem the world — starting with our children and ourselves.
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.