Basilica of Our Lady of Knock, Archdiocese of Tuam
This time last week I baptised baby Katherine Maria up in County Donegal. On Monday, her mother sent me a beautiful photograph of the moment when I touched the little girl’s ears and mouth, saying: ‘May the Lord touch your ears to receive his word, and your mouth to proclaim his truth’. The photograph is the very picture of tenderness – mother gently holds her little daughter and father looks down lovingly – in fact when I received it I was reminded of those tender Christmas scenes of the Holy Family: Mary and Joseph gazing with wonder at the child Jesus lying in the manger at Bethlehem.
It’s at moments like those, last week in Donegal, that I realise why we in the Catholic Church describe the life-giving union of a woman and man in marriage, open to the gift of children from God as ‘Good News’ for the world today. And we are convinced that this ‘Gospel of the Family’ is something that the world needs to hear us proclaim ‘untiringly and with profound conviction (Relatio Synodi 2014)’. The unique tender love that unites husband, wife and their child is a reflection of the tenderness of God! The communion of love between woman, man and their child mirrors the communion of love that is within the Holy Family of Nazareth, but in an even deeper way, it draws us into the Trinity of love that is God himself – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In the last paragraph of his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium, the Holy Father Pope Francis said that love and tenderness can be ‘revolutionary’ in today’s world. During his visit to Cuba earlier this week he again called for a ‘revolution of tenderness in the world’. He does not see tenderness as a virtue for the weak but instead as a demonstration of strength which invites us to get out and encounter others, sharing their joys, hopes and frustrations. This revolution of tenderness calls us to be compassionate with the suffering, to visit the sick and prisoners, to comfort those who mourn and to be members of a Church which serves, builds bridges, breaks down walls and sows seeds of reconciliation.
The working document (Instrumentum Laboris) for the Synod on marriage and the family next month in Rome contains a beautiful paragraph about tenderness (70).
“Tenderness means to give joyfully and, in turn, to stir in another person the joy of feeling loved. Tenderness is expressed in a particular way in looking at another’s limitations in a loving way, especially when they clearly stand out… Tenderness in family relationships is the virtue which helps people overcome the everyday conflicts within a person and in relations with others”.
The intimacy of that moment when mother and father can first cuddle their little child must surely leave an indelible mark which never really goes away no matter what happens as the years go on and the child grows older and the family goes through challenges and sufferings of every kind. When I contemplate the pieta scene of Mary holding the lifeless body of her son Jesus taken down from the wood of the cross, I wonder if she was remembering the days thirty three years earlier when she had lifted the infant Jesus up from the wood of the manger and, with Joseph, cuddled him in her arms.
It must be difficult nowadays to sustain the virtue of tenderness in family life. A culture of machismo, superficial ideas of love, unreal and illusory notions of romance – all of these can undermine tenderness in relationships today. But where it is allowed to grow and shine forth it can transform family life because it brings to family life an aspect of the identity of God.
Be revolutionaries of tenderness! Tenderness goes hand in hand with gentleness, which is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. To be gentle it is necessary to be strong and courageous for it calls us to tenderness and compassion in the face of others’ weaknesses and limitations. Gentleness speaks and lives the truth but never in a rough, hurtful or vindictive way.
I have not had the joy of being a father, but I often wonder what it must be like for a parent to hold their little boy or girl in their arms for the first time. Surely the memory of that moment makes a connection deep within a mother and father which nourishes and shapes the relationship they have with their child for the rest of their lives. My mother (who had twelve of us!) tells me unless you experience it you cannot explain it. It leaves you speechless. But what happens when disappointments come – when a son or daughter does things or lives their lives in ways which their parents completely disapprove of? No matter what their children do, because of that deep down connection of tenderness, a mother or father will always find it difficult, impossible even, to completely disown their child.
I spoke recently with a mother and father whose son, at the age of thirty has let them down hugely, turned to criminal behaviour, shouted and insulted them in anger, told them that they never cared for him. Where did we go wrong?, they asked me, with tears in their eyes. But by the way they held his photograph that they had taken down from the mantelpiece to show me, I could see that they still loved him, perhaps more than ever before, even though he hurt them so much.
Pope St John Paul II once said that one of the definitive icons of God’s love is the image of the Father running out to embrace the Prodigal Son, because that embrace sums up all the best characteristics of fatherhood and motherhood. It is also a picture of the revolutionary tenderness of God, whose loving kindness and mercy knows no bounds.
In his homily at Midnight Mass last Christmas, Pope Francis said: “How much the world needs tenderness today! The patience of God, the closeness of God, the tenderness of God”. Many people nowadays experience the world as a heartless and unfeeling place, judging them, condemning them even. Sadly, there are people who feel the Church is like this.
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast the prophet Isaiah wrote, ‘and have no compassion on the child she has borne? But even though she may forget, I will not forget you’, says the Lord.
In preparation for the Synod next month, I’ve heard from many people, some suggesting the Church must be more merciful and prepared to develop some of its teachings on marriage and the family, taking account of the complicated and pastorally challenging situations that are so common nowadays. Others have told me that the best way for the Church to be loving and merciful today is for it not to flinch or compromise with the relativistic culture of today. Instead, they say, the Church ought to hold on to, and proclaim, the truth of its message about marriage and family as a beacon to lead people out of the messiness of their lives towards conversion and true eternal happiness.
Perhaps the tender loving kindness of the heart of God, which we glimpse in the intimacy of husband wife and child, can provide a lens through which to consider this dilemma, always being prepared to love, to forgive, to accompany and invite, while never condoning what is wrong, nor forsaking the truth. Amen`.
Notes for Editors
· Archbishop Eamon Martin is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.
· The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference is hosting the National Eucharistic Congress which takes place today and tomorrow at the National Marian Shrine in Knock, Co Mayo. The Congress comprises: prayer; daily celebration of the Eucharist at 3.00pm (Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, will be the chief celebrant today, and Archbishop Michael Neary, Archbishop of Tuam, will be the chief celebrant tomorrow and His Excellency Archbishop Charles Brown, Apostolic Nuncio to Ireland, will preach the homily) in the recently refurbished and beautiful Basilica of Our Lady of Knock; the opportunity to receive the sacraments; a youth and children’s programme; and, interesting and topical workshops and talks delivered by experts in their field. Please see the full programme: http://nec2015.ie/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/NEC2015-programme-flier-Sept-04-Update.pdf
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