The Three ‘P’s of Family Life

Every family needs a generous portion of patience, perseverance and Penance.

“Nuptial Mass”
“Nuptial Mass” (photo: Shutterstock)

I have taken lots of time lately to reflect on family life and my role as a father. As I have pondered, prayed and journeyed through these six weeks, I have come to a deeper understanding of three realities that are essential for my vocation as husband and father, as well as for my wife and children. In order for our family life to be more wholesome, peaceful and joyful, we need patience, perseverance and Penance (the sacrament, specifically).

Patience is a foundational virtue for anyone who desires to grow in holiness, and especially for families. Patience is the great antidote to the sorrows that enter our lives. Daily life reminds us that we do not always live up to expectations — whether our own, or those of others. St. Gregory the Great teaches us that “patience is the root and safeguard of all the virtues.” Patience allows us to remember and appreciate that the highest goods we seek take time and involve great trials.

In family life, all of us experience sorrows. Spouses speak and yell hurtful words. Children ignore and deliberately disobey instructions. Parents scold too harshly and punish in ways that bruise children’s spirits. When a family member hurts us, it is only patience that assists us in looking beyond the pain and sorrow, and to focus upward and move forward toward the goal of family virtue and wholeness. In patience, we recognize that spouses, children and parents are not yet who God intends us to be, but that he can get them to that destiny.

When we recognize that we’ve fallen short of our potential, two reactions are common. On one hand, we give up in frustration and sorrow. On the other hand, we overexert ourselves to create our own perfection. Neither of these leads us to the fulfillment we seek. Instead, we need to know what to do with the sorrows that encroach on our bodies, minds and spirits. Patience is the virtue that gives us the strength to do that. In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas writes that “patience safeguards the mind from being overcome by sorrow,” and that patience allows man “not to be inordinately saddened” by trials and sufferings “which hurt him here and now” (ST II-II, Q. 136).

Still, we know that there will be hurts and frustrations for more than just for one day. So, patience must extend into the future. Perseverance enables a person to “persist long in something good until it is accomplished,” writes Aquinas. This virtue is unique in that it “consists in enduring delays” in the pursuit of other virtues (ST II-II, Q. 137). Without perseverance, patience fails to look forward. On the other hand, perseverance without patience might cause a person to devolve into a cold and calculating pragmatism that is not virtuous at all. Patience reminds us now of the need to look beyond sorrows, and perseverance assists us in continuing to look beyond sorrows for long periods of time. It seems that these will always grow together. Family members must always call to mind that becoming a holy and healthy family is a process that takes a long time. That’s why marriage is “until death us do part,” and that is why the family is the building block of society.

The last “P word” may be the most difficult of all, although it certainly is the most effective. It is the most effective because it is a sacrament, which provides grace to fuel our pursuit of the highest good we seek. Penance is the sacrament, instituted by Jesus and administered by the Church, by which a person can convert and be brought back into right relationship with God (CCC 1446). The most powerful effects of Penance are restoration to friendship with God, “followed by peace and serenity of conscience with strong spiritual consolation.” By the graces of this sacrament, “the sinner is made stronger,” which will provide for both patience and perseverance in those challenging family situations (CCC 1468-1469).

Those of us who are trying to cultivate Christian families certainly want each member converted to Jesus and brought into right relationship with the Father. We seek restoration of friendship, peace and spiritual consolation. Each family would be well-served if all members were stronger for the journey of life toward eternity. For this very reason, parents must allow their children to see them going to Confession frequently, and parents ought to take their children to Reconciliation regularly (not “when they fell like it” or “when they’re ready”). Children should also eagerly ask their parents to partake of the sacrament alongside them. By this wonderful sacrament, families will be healed and strengthened for their mission in the world, which is to provide a witness to the power of grace and charity in the Christian life.