Reflections on Certain Aspects of Handing on the Faith
in the Domestic Church in the Light of Familiaris Consortio
Alfonso Cardinal Lopez-Trujillo
President, Pontifical Council for the Family
July 18, 1998
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
May I first of all express my gratitude to Jerry and Gwen Coniker for their invitation to address you here today. I thank all those associated with the Apostolate for Family Consecration for what you do to manifest in the world the beauty of family life, and to encourage families to appreciate and carry out their vocation and mission in the Church and in society. Your efforts consist not only in a single program, but in a wide variety of programs aimed at meeting the various needs of the family, with a special accent on the worship of the Eucharist, devotion to the Blessed Virgin, family catechesis, and the urgent need to turn back the scourge, the big tragedy, of abortion.
I will focus my current reflections on the privileged role that the family has in passing on the faith, a role highlighted in the Holy Father’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio, On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World.
What is evangelization? It is the capacity, with the grace of God, to proclaim the Good News, that of the love of God, that of the triumph of Jesus over death. This proclamation, made by all persons, gives a new sense to the life of the world. Evangelization is the communication of love.
The Family: Called to Transmit the Faith
A key truth to begin with as we focus on the mission of handing on the faith is that the Church by her very nature is missionary. Every one of the four Gospels records our Lord bestowing His Great Commission on the Church. Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature…To have the Faith is, at one and the same time, to possess the call to spread the Faith. Every member of the Church has this missionary aspect of his or her vocation. There is no such thing as a passive member of the Body of Christ, even if such a member cannot travel or engage in much physical activity or interaction with others. Sometimes this missionary vocation is fulfilled in the silent witness of patient suffering, with a love and confidence in the Cross of Christ.
All have the call to hand on the Faith, no matter how young or old, no matter how healthy or sick, no matter how educated or uneducated, whether possessing many talents or few. This call, furthermore, is bestowed by the Lord Himself in baptism and Confirmation.
The family, therefore, as the primary cell of society and the Church, is called as a unit and as individual members to hand on the Faith.
The effectiveness with which this will be done depends on many factors, not the least of which is the strength of the unity in faith of the mother and father of the family, just as the strength of their marital love is critical for the unity of the family itself.
The catechesis which occurs within the family takes place in many directions, not simply from parents to children. First of all, the spouses enrich one another’s faith, and this should start from their first days together, and throughout the period of marriage preparation. It is certainly not unusual that the man and woman who decide to deepen their relationship with each other and begin preparing for marriage find themselves at different levels in their participation in the life of the Church. At this crucial phase of their lives, their growing desire to share themselves with each other can become the opportunity for the partner who may be less familiar with the Faith to begin to learn more about it.
The Prayer Life of the Spouses and the Family
Today we find a big problem: the lack of dialogue in the family. But often that comes from the lack of the essential capacity for dialogue with God.
One of the essential aspects of this deepening self-giving of the engaged couple is that they spend time praying together. This carries a number of benefits for them personally and as a couple. Prayer together deepens their self-giving. If, after all, they seek to share their entire lives with each other, that includes sharing their faith and relationship with God. Praying together also strengthens their commitment to prayer itself. It furthermore is a common statement that their love does not close them in on one another, as though they were completely dependent on each other for their happiness. Praying together frees them from the burden of ever being expected to be the "ultimate fulfillment" of the other. Rather, it is a common declaration that they both depend on the Lord, and that it is only in Him that they find their perfect happiness and peace. The dialogue and prayer life can open hearts within the family, fostering habits of tender and mutual understanding.
The Gospel sheds light on this truth in the passage in which our Lord is asked what is the greatest commandment. "You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself"(Mt.22:37-39). In other words, the first obligation of the engaged and married couple is to love God. Only then will their love for each other be on a secure footing. Only then will they both find the strength to love each other with the intensity that marriage demands, while at the same time avoiding the trap of turning each other into idols. One Christian song of devotion from one spouse to another expresses this truth in a succinct way by its title, which is "Love song for Number Two." Only God is Number One. The source of true love is God, Who is likewise the source of all happiness.
The prayer life of the couple will eventually overflow into the prayer life of the family. Family prayer is a key element of family catechesis. In Familiaris Consortio, the Holy Father devotes a significant segment to a reflection on family prayer. He writes, "Family prayer has its own characteristic qualities. It is prayer offered in common, husband and wife together, parents and children together. Communion on prayer is both a consequence of and a requirement for the communion bestowed by the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony. The words with which the Lord Jesus promises his presence can be applied to the members of the Christian family in a special way: ‘Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them’(Mt.18:19-20)"(FC n.59).
Let us take special note of the fact that this passage speaks of "parents and children together." The duty to educate children belongs primarily to the parents, and they cannot entirely entrust that task to others. It is also true that they cannot entirely entrust this task to one or the other parent. In other words, it is their joint duty. What, indeed, is the effect on the children if one parent prays with them but the other, though able to be present, is not? What do the children learn if one parent accompanies them to Church while the other, though able to be present, is not?
Parents, the Primary Educators of their Children
Normally, the fundamentals of the Faith are a gift from the parents. From our parents, we learn to call God our Father, Abba, Pater. Let us reflect more intently on the truth that the parents are the primary educators of their children. Where does this truth, this privilege, come from? Education is not only a communication of information. It is the formation of the heart and conscience with the moral values and the values of the Faith.
Education is, in a certain sense, a deeper penetration of life itself, a deeper understanding of and ability to interact with creation. Parents have the primary duty to lead their children deeper into life precisely because they are the ones who gave them life. Familiaris Consortio expresses it this way: "The task of giving education is rooted in the primary vocation of married couples to participate in God’s creative activity: by begetting in love and for love a new person who has within himself or herself the vocation to growth and development, parents by that very fact take on the task of helping that person effectively to live a full human life" (n.36). This fundamental role of the parents is further described in the document by the words "essential," "original and primary," and "irreplaceable and inalienable." This duty cannot be entirely delegated to others or usurped by others.
One of the foundations for this truth is the uniqueness of the loving relationship between the parents and their own children. Parental education is rooted in parental love, and in the knowledge that a parent has of his or her children’s unique needs, characteristics, and patterns of learning. This is something that cannot be replaced by even the very best educator. Only the family can give true education! That is a fundamental mission.
This means there is a serious duty on the part of educators to acknowledge the parents’ rights. Familiaris Consortio goes on to say, "…Those in society who are in charge of schools must never forget that the parents have been appointed by God himself as the first and principal educators of their children and that their right is completely inalienable"(n.40).
In the same passage, however, parents are reminded that they "have a serious duty to commit themselves totally to a cordial and active relationship with the teachers and the school authorities"(n.40). The family, in other words, in carrying out its inalienable rights, is not meant to become a self-sufficient island. "It should not be forgotten that the service rendered by Christian spouses and parents to the Gospel is essentially an ecclesial service. It has its place within the context of the whole Church as an evangelized and evangelizing community." Therefore, the family’s mission "must remain in intimate communion and collaborate responsibly with all the other evangelizing and catechetical activities present and at work in the ecclesial community at the diocesan and parochial levels"(n.53).
Catechesis and Prayer Fostering Virtue
Our reflections on family catechesis and prayer cannot fail to stress another fundamental point: catechesis is not simply conceptual. It involves a deepening of one’s lived response to the God who reveals Himself. Prayer is not simply an admiring dialogue with the Lord or the Virgin Mary or the saints. Prayer, rather, impels us to live as they lived. It inserts us into a dynamic that is bigger than we are, and that transforms us. The greatest honor we give to the Blessed Virgin and the saints is to imitate their virtues.
Familiaris Consortio points out the implications of this for the family: "Far from being a form of escapism from everyday commitments, prayer constitutes the strongest incentive for the Christian family to assume and comply fully with all its responsibilities as the primary and fundamental cell of human society. Thus the Christian family’s actual participation in the Church's life and mission is in direct proportion to the fidelity and intensity of the prayer with which it is united with the fruitful vine that is Christ the Lord"(n.62).
What Makes the Family Grow
How, finally, does one summarize what happens when a family deepens its knowledge and practice of the faith? What is the dynamic at work among the members which expresses what is taking place? "As a community of love, it finds in self-giving the law that guides it and makes it grow" (n.37). The family is the community of life and love, of all life! Its basis is a total, mutual self-donation.
The family is, above all, a community of persons. They grow in communion by self-giving. The family is based, after all, on the marriage vow of self-giving "in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, all the days of our life." This is a daily plan of action, then, not only for husband and wife, but for the whole family. Love is one of the most misused words in our vocabulary. St. John tells us that the true meaning of love is revealed in the fact that God "sent His Son as an expiation for our sins" (1Jn.4:10). Here, then, is true love: I sacrifice myself for the good of the other person. Spouses sacrifice themselves for one another. Parents sacrifice themselves for their children. Every member of the family is called to sacrifice himself or herself for every other member. This is the path of happiness, growth, and fulfillment.
Those evils which destroy the family, such as divorce, abuse, or the closing in upon oneself that a culture of materialism promotes, are based on the opposite of self-giving. They do not sacrifice oneself for the good of the other, but end up sacrificing the other for the good of oneself, a dynamic which climaxes in the evil of abortion.
But the law of daily self-giving guides the family and makes it grow. This is the law that all catechesis and prayer are meant to help us follow. This is the law of the New Covenant, established when the Lord shed His Blood as He carried out the very same law, sacrificing Himself for the good of the other. In His Passion, we find the way for families to flourish. In His Passion, we find the hope for overcoming divisions within and among spouses, children, and communities. In His Passion, we find the meaning of love. Let us be united in prayer today that no family will be without this gift, and that those families who struggle to rediscover it, or those individuals who are without a family, will be strengthened by the Passion of our Lord and by the active assistance of the People of God.
Evangelization is the very breathing of the Church. If the family is not able to carry out this mission, it is as though the world loses its respiration and does not have enough oxygen. The world has a great need of "spiritual oxygen," and you, dear families, have this great task and great honor: to proclaim and communicate the love of God.
God bless you.
Printed with permission from Priests for Life.