Holy families

It is always so much fun to see the many families on display during the Christmas Masses. If you have been around a long time you see the return of grown-up children and their little offspring. We all come together to pray and sing those familiar carols of the season, and on the surface all seems merry and bright.

But families are never perfect, for beneath the surface of the well-turned-out display at church there is the real-life stuff that makes families such a bundle of imperfect joy. That’s what makes the feast of the Holy Family the perfect Liturgical celebration to close out the Christmas season. 

The Gospel story features an impudent exchange between child and parents as Mary and Joseph search frantically for their lost Son and find Him among the Temple scholars. It’s great to see that the Holy Family was not immune to moments of stress and annoyance just like every other family.

Families have been incubators of the faith since the dawn of time, but in recent decades there has been a noticeable erosion of this fertile soil. The latest avant-garde approach to Faith Formation includes families in the process with the hope that the Church can effectively evangelize and catechize them while they are still hovering around their children. This is asking too much and too little of parish Faith Formation. It is too much to expect that a few series of Faith Formation sessions will move these adults to conversion. It is asking too little because conversion is a matter of the heart, not the head. The only way for parents to have a meaningful conversion is if we truly embrace our role as missionaries of the Good News, but many are timid about taking on this daunting responsibility. We can’t evangelize by telling people the reasons why they must have faith, nor can we move them to embrace Christ by giving them answers to questions they aren’t asking.

A few years ago when the Church was preparing for the Synod on the Family we asked parish leadership to tell us what they thought families needed. The responses revealed that many families are experiencing stress from a variety of causes: financial worries; job insecurity; addiction; caring for elderly parents or grandchildren; single-parent households; divorce and custody issues. While families are in the midst of these life crises they are not necessarily pondering the existence of God; they’re wondering how they are going to get through their day. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church” teaches that “the proofs of God’s existence can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.” This is the cornerstone of apologetics, which is a strategy for persuading others of the reasonableness of one’s faith. But when life hands you unreasonable situations it’s hard to formulate the questions for which apologetics have the pre-formulated answers. God arrives in the messiness of life, not in the sterility of the philosopher’s ivory tower. 

It has been more than five years since Pope Francis’ seminal document on evangelization: Evangelii Gaudium. Pope Francis reminded all of us that it is our primary responsibility to proclaim the kerygma, or more simply, that “Jesus Christ loves you; He gave His life to save you’; and now He is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” It sounds so simple, yet we continue to flood the parents with apologetics, giving them information about God or the Church without sharing the deeply personal reason why we ourselves are believers. 

In her book, “Developing Disciples of Christ,” Julianne Stanz explains the importance of personalizing that all-important teaching that we are saved by Christ’s life, death and Resurrection. We have been taught that God created the world, but when we place ourselves into the Creation story it has a more profound impact. A loving God created me so that God can be in relationship with me. We have learned about the consequences of Original Sin, but it is so much more authentic when we admit that my sinful actions have caused a break in my relationship with God. When we accept Jesus into our lives, it is so much easier to share that Jesus restored my relationship with God through His life, death and Resurrection. Jesus invites me to trust Him, turn away from sin (conversion) and follow Him. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit into me to bring me new life in His Church and to send me on mission to bring others to this new life.

We all have families within reach that are desperate to be free from the stress that drains the hope from their lives. How willing are we to share our reason for hope, to tell a struggling parent that my life may not be perfect, but I have Jesus by my side as I stumble through life?

Anchor columnist Claire McManus is the director of the Diocesan Office of Faith Formation. 

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