Homily of Bishop Christopher Jones at Elphin Diocesan Pilgrimage to Knock
Faith & Family – A Heritage to be Proud of
- “I believe that with the loss of Faith and the breakdown in Family Life, many people and especially young people are experiencing a great sense of loneliness and of not belonging. They are finding it difficult to find meaning or purpose in life.”
Today I have been asked to share a few thoughts with you on the theme Faith & Family – a Heritage to be Proud of.
How appropriate this theme is to Knock – where in the apparition of 1879, the witnesses encountered the Holy Family itself – Mary, Joseph and Jesus and Saint John – that great evangelist of Faith.
The themes of Faith and Family stand at the heart of the message of this great shrine. Reflecting on them brings me all the way back to my childhood and youth growing up in Roscommon in the 1940s and ‘50s.
The more I think about it, the more I thank God that I grew up in those years where I experienced stability and security because of the strong faith and solid family life of that time.
In those days, the economy was based mainly on agriculture. There was great unemployment and emigration. Those of us who remained at home had to work hard – from the hay-field to the bog in the summer and from picking potatoes to giving out fodder in the winter. Bills were paid when cattle were sold on the fair day. After that there was little loose change for anything else.
However, despite the difficulties of those often harsh times, my memories still remain very happy. I do believe that it is so, because no matter how hard things were, the faith, love and stability that we experienced back then in our families stood us in good stead.
Faith nourished by prayer at centre of hearts and homes
Faith in God was at the very centre of our hearts and our homes. This faith was nourished every day with morning and evening prayer, the Angelus at noon and six in the evening, Grace before and after meals and the Rosary every night. As children we found the Rosary very long, especially with the trimmings. We would often distract each other but we were conscious that God and Mary were present in a special way during these sacred moments of family prayer.
Sunday morning – community celebration
On Sunday morning all the neighbouring families came together in Church to worship God as a community. We prepared for Sunday very often with Confession on Saturday, the polishing of shoes, a bath that night and fasting from midnight for communion in the morning. Sunday morning was a great community celebration. The men were on one side of the Church and the women on the other. I can remember clearly the great sense of belonging and being wanted as you knelt, surrounded by the big strong farmers of the community.
The Mass, back then was celebrated in Latin. This surrounded the ceremony with a great sense of mystery. The priest faced the altar. You felt you were all facing the Lord with him. At the Consecration when the Sacred Host was raised the whole congregation proclaimed in unison “My Lord and My God”. The same words were repeated when, in turn, the chalice was raised.
Chat outside Church and family breakfast
After Mass of course the congregation gathered in groups outside for a chat and maybe a smoke. Then we all went home for the family breakfast and the only “fry” of the week.
I share all of this because I believe Sunday and attendance as a family at Sunday Mass was the day which each week strengthened our sense of belonging to God, to our family and to each other. That sense of belonging and of being wanted was so important especially for young people.
“Sunday morning coming down”
Today when I listen to Kris Kristofferson sing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” I know how he feels. He is back in his own town and the smell of Sunday morning breakfast brings him back to something that he has lost somehow, someway, somewhere along the way. He is talking about losing the Faith. Therefore he no longer belongs to the Faith community and finds himself on the outside looking in – alone and lonely. And then we hear those sad and shattering words: “And there’s nothin’ short of dyin’, Half as lonesome as the sound, On the sleepin’ city sidewalks:
Sunday mornin’ comin’ down.”
I believe that with the loss of Faith and the breakdown in Family Life, many people and especially young people are experiencing a great sense of loneliness and of not belonging. They are finding it difficult to find meaning or purpose in life.
It really saddens me that so many of our young people will never have the rich experiences of faith, family and community on Sunday mornings that I had in my early years
Family – A “Domestic Church”
The family in our day was in a very real sense what Blessed John Paul called in Familiaris Consortio – “A Domestic Church”. It was in the home that the Faith was passed on from one generation to the next. It was in the home that children learned about God and of His love for them. It was in the home that they learned how to bless themselves and say their first prayers. It was there they learnt right from wrong. In the home, both parents and children participated every day in daily prayer as a family together which was such a great preparation for the family going together to Mass on Sunday. Faith and Family were constantly strengthening each other. Couples were able to give themselves to each other for life and take care of their families because of their faith and trust in God.
Challenge of the 1960s
Since the arrival of the 1960s Faith and Family Life have experienced rapid social change and huge challenges. We have seen the industrialisation and urbanisation of Irish society and the evolution of the nuclear family from the extended family as it followed jobs into the industrial estates of towns and cities. We have seen the powerful influence of the media and especially T.V. with its great power of advertising consumer goods. We have seen how the pursuit of wealth and property can generate such greed and possess the minds and hearts of people. For so many people God and faith in God were pushed from the centre of hearts and homes to the side-lines. And once people give up on personal and family prayer and on the Sunday Mass their faith becomes weakened and even dies.
Homes without faith
Today teachers tell us that Catholic children are coming to school who have never heard of God or of His love for them. They have learned no prayers in the home and cannot even make the sign of the Cross. They have never seen the inside of a Church. We are also seeing children coming from homes where relationships have broken down and where sadness rather than happiness is commonplace. Homes where the complexity of relationships and the demands of our day will mean that children will never experience the love and security I found day in day out during my childhood at home.
Weakening of marriage & families
In his Book Catholic Christianity Fr J. Kreeft speaks of the importance of Marriage and the family and the consequences of the breakdown of marriage and family life. He says and I quote:
The importance of Marriage and the Family that results from it is the single most indispensable foundation for happiness in all societies and in most individual lives. It is the fundamental building block for all other human relationships. If there is a single cause for most of today’s malaise both religious and secular it is the weakening of marriages and families.
Marriage a unique union
Our Catholic tradition offers us wisdom and guidance here. Marriage is a unique union different from all others. In it a woman and man promise fidelity to each other for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health as long as they both shall live. This committed married love provides a uniquely stable and nurturing environment for children. It is here that children receive the most important and lasting education of all. It is in the family that our basic attitudes to love, caring, forgiveness, sexuality and community living are acquired. It is here that we learn how to be responsible, ethically conscious, members of society.
Marriage is not a private institution
Marriage is not a private institution. When marriage and families break down the whole of society suffers.
I would like to quote for you from a speech made by Ian Duncan Smith a Conservative M.P. at the beginning of Marriage Week 2011 in the U.K. This is what he had to say and I quote:
I believe the tide is now beginning to turn and the role of marriage and family life has become an important topic because any Government must understand the effect family breakdown can have on the wellbeing of both adults and children. The financial costs of family breakdown are incredibly high with estimates ranging from twenty billion pounds to forty billion pounds each year. But what is most painful to see is the human cost. For example the Centre for Social Justice has found that those not growing up in two parent families are 75% more likely to fail at school, 70% more likely to become addicted to drugs and 50% more likely to have an alcohol problem.
He goes on to say:
Of course, I recognise that relationships can breakdown for unavoidable reasons and there are lone parents all over the country doing this difficult job of bringing up children and often succeeding against the odds. But we do a disservice to society if we ignore evidence that shows that stable families tend to be associated with better outcomes for children.
Research has shown that marriage and family rooted in marriage is the best environment for children, their parents and for future citizens of our society.
Marriage and family are about relationships
In the end, marriage and family are always about relationships – the couple’s relationship with God in prayer, with themselves and with their children.
The happiness of marriage and family life is rooted not in things but in relationships. So many young people today invest all their energy in their job, their house, their garden and invest very little time in their relationship with God through prayer or in their love for each other and their children every day. Yet our greatest joy in life will come from our relationship and our greatest pain and suffering will come from broken and betrayed relationships – this is true perhaps most of all when it comes to family.
As Church, and by Church I mean all of us, we must never cease to encourage and support faith and family life in our community. We must support and encourage families to:
(1) Give more time to personal prayer. It is prayer that nourishes our personal faith – relationship with God and with each other. In particular I appeal to parents and children to pray together in their homes. We must encourage married couples to give more time to prayer each morning and evening which brings them to the school of love that is Christ. Praying together as a family can not only enrich their relationship with God but can renew and immeasurably enhance their family life together.
(2) I would call on all, in particular our families, to rediscover Sunday and Sunday Mass as the weekly highpoint of their relationship with God and with the wider Christian community. Make Sunday special as a family and make the family attendance at Sunday Mass the highlight of the day. Let Sunday Mass be a celebration of who we are as a people who belong to God and to each other and let us bring that sense of belonging in our hearts to our homes for the rest of the week.
(3) May our schools continue to promote faith and family by fostering prayer and love for God in the hearts of our children. May every school provide a programme on human relationships rooted in the values of the Gospel.
(4) May our ACCORD centres throughout the country continue to provide pre-marriage courses for couples and professional counselling for marriages in difficulty. A single Friday night and Saturday seems very little preparation for a life time of relationships. In other countries preparation lasts for one night each week for up to six months. Marriage preparation provides such a God given opportunity for couples to re-engage with the richness of their faith.
(5) Finally, our people through the Constitution have entrusted to the state a great responsibility when it comes to marriage and family. I appeal to our public representatives to protect marriage and family rooted in marriage between a man and a woman as the best possible environment for the children of this small, but great country of ours. In this way may our children grow as responsible citizens building a future on that Irish heritage of faith and family of which we can be so proud.
Here in this holy place – let us return again to the apparition gable and before the Holy Family – Mary, Joseph and Jesus – and John, the great evangelist of faith. Let us pray, here, for the Lord’s guidance, protection and enrichment of our own families and all families.
Notes to Editors
- Bishop Christopher Jones is Bishop of Elphin.
- This homily was delivered on Sunday 18 August 2013
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