In April, Caroline Dollard, from the National Marriage and Family Life Project, gave the keynote talk at the first event at Ecclesfield School, Sheffield.
Caroline referred to Pope Francis’ commitment to the family shown by his establishing of the present Synod in Rome. She said that there is a chasm between the Church’s perception of family and the everyday reality. It can sometimes seem that the Church sees a family ideal which is unachievable and this can be discouraging for lay people. We need to recognise that family life is usually far from ideal but that, regardless of this, the work of the Lord Jesus is going on within the family; in fact Jesus and the family cannot be separated. We should not be afraid of a less than perfect reality within our families but should look to find God in our everyday lives because there is no doubt that God is there and that what we may see as messy and far from ideal is, in fact, us playing our part in God’s plan. Parents are, after all, the first and best teachers of faith in God.
Within families we should strive to speak the Christian language of love for each other and love for scripture and liturgy. This is done more by example than by any type of formal teaching. ‘Peace be with you’ is learned more by a kiss or embrace than by hearing the words. Children often do not need words to grasp religious ideas or big questions.
Scripture is the Word of God and is the source of life and spirituality for the family which should be ‘church’ at home. Church is not just a building but a group of people who gather together in the presence of the Lord Jesus. There can be no better example of this meaning of Church than the family where acts of selfless love regularly occur but in an unselfconscious way. God told Moses to remove his shoes because he was standing on holy ground. Often when we enter a home we take our shoes off. We may do this to protect carpets but it should also mark our recognition that a home is holy ground just as much as the ground Moses stood on.
Problems will arise within families and make us feel that God is a long way from us or absent altogether. God, however, has promised to be present in all situations including unsafe and uncaring ones.
The Bishop’s Conference of England and Wales is working to explore and bridge the gap between the Church’s representation of the ideal family and the reality. It has listened to the views of families across the UK and has developed a framework based on this listening. This framework is centred on Christ and the Gospel and seeks to identify needs and opportunities at every stage of life within the family from tiny child to grand parent. The fundamental view underpinning this framework is that the family, whether nuclear or extended, is the place when the human person is nurtured to full maturity. The framework does not see perfection but instead sees God’s grace at work in families in a steady and reassuring way.
On 9 May Jilian Wilce from Plymouth Diocese was the speaker at the second event at McCauley School in Doncaster. She continued to develop the theme of holiness in everyday family life.
We imagine that somewhere is the perfect family who always get it right and who are truly holy. They all love each other perfectly, pray together every day and never have a cross word. We, however, may feel that our family life falls short of this ideal and is inadequate in terms of holiness. We try hard and feel that one day we might achieve true holiness but not for some time yet. We should not feel like this – our homes are holy now, not at some time in the future. Holiness is not about saying prayers and going to Church, it exists in the untidiness of everyday family life. We are being holy when we clean the loo, look after a relative, get up night after night to comfort an upset child, deal with yet another load of washing, mend a dripping tap, stand watching children’s sport or give help when we could do with some help ourselves. Holiness exists in these daily family tasks because they reflect love and God is present in our love. God does not just come to us in the smooth quiet things but in the rough and smelly things as well.
Being holy is recognising that God is with us every moment of our existence especially in the messiness and conflicts of our family life. If we cannot see holiness in this it is because of a limited understanding of what holiness means. God is present in all creation and God comes to us in every part of our real lives and not just when we are praying or in church. All the things we do are the pieces of mosaic that make up the floor of the Kingdom of God.
Relationships within the family reflect God’s relationship with us. God is the potter and we are the clay. We may feel that we are unlikely clay because our home life can seem rough, colourless and jagged round the edges but it actually contains something of tremendous value. We need to recognise and affirm that our homes are the domestic church of Jesus Christ.
A major concern to many Catholic parents is that their children have left the Church and their grand children are never going to experience Jesus. These parents feel they have failed to pass the faith on to the next generation; but what is faith? Jesus saw it as trust in him and love of him and of neighbour. He invited his disciples to follow him and be like him. Grown up children may not go to church but their parents have still passed on the faith in that their children are good, charitable and loving people even though they do not practice formal religion.
Faith grows when it is lived as an experience of love. The essence of family life must be communication and joy. In this context joy is not all about having a laugh but about the contentment that comes from normal, messy family life.
At both events, those who attended discussed in small groups how the values of Gospel are expressed in everyday family life. These discussions emphasised the importance of demonstrating Christian values of love for God and neighbour within families so that children see these values as part of life. The display of Christian symbols, such as crucifixes, was seen as important. Parents need to make time to be with children. The pressures on young people to reject religion are very real and hard to deal with. Older family members should respond by being steadfast in their own faith whilst doing what they can to help young people cope with these challenges. They should also respond by prayer and by maintaining relationships with family members who have ceased to practice the faith. After a time away it can be difficult to return to Church and families must make clear that they are supportive and the door is always open. We are the children of a loving and merciful God and it is never too late.
The second event concluded with a short liturgy in which each person blessed the person next to them by making the sign of the cross of each of their hands with holy water whilst saying; “May God bless the work of your hands, the love of your heart, your hope and your faith. Amen.”
Find further information and materials regarding Faith in the Family at www.catholicfamily.org.uk.