When we were children growing up in Dun Laoghaire, our next door neighbours were an elderly couple by the name of Bennet. He was Bill, but for some reason, she was just Mrs Bennett. My grandmother, who came from Protestant stock herself, would have described the Bennets as “very nice people – Protestants – but very nice people all the same”. The Bennets were among the kindest and best neighbours one could have. They came from Kent in the South of England and had a daughter in the British Army in Cyprus, and that was about as exotic as it got in the 1960’s.
Things have moved on quite a bit since then. Irish society, as we are often reminded, is much more diverse, with individuals and families of many nations, colours and creeds. It is against that background that we are invited today to reflect on the theme of: “Making our families Christian”.
I want to begin by inviting you to reflect on the family which is the focus of our Gospel passage today. The Caananite woman and her daughter are foreigners and outsiders, but their lives are touched by Jesus. In the beginning, we are given the impression that Jesus had no time for the woman, but I think that is just his way of drawing out her faith and letting it be seen by his own disciples.
The themes of “welcome for the stranger” and “good news proclaimed to all the nations” are also found in all of the other readings today. In the first reading, foreigners are “welcome on the Holy Mountain” and, in the second reading, the pagans are given a share in the inheritance which was originally promised to the Jews. The message of Scripture seems to be clear. God doesn’t exclude anybody and if we are Christian, it is not primarily because of something we have done, but because our lives have been touched by Jesus.
Touched by Love
Pope Francis has described the Church as a “family of families” (Amoris Laetitia 87). There are many people who, through Baptism, belong to the family of the Church, but who, for one reason or another, have drifted away. Saint Paul wants them to know that they have not been forgotten. “God never takes back His gifts or revokes His choice”. It is the love of God that makes us Christian in the first place, and it is His faithful love that keeps the door open for us, even when we do not see Christ or Christianity in ourselves.
I wonder if you have ever seen a field full of sunflowers. In the early morning, they are still facing to the West where the sun went down the previous night and the look a little “sad”. But as the sun rises, they turn to the East and lift their heads. As the sun “moves” through the heavens, the sunflowers turn, so that they are always getting the best of the sun-light (“girasole” (Italian); “tournesol” (French). I think “making our families Christian” is like that. First we are touched and awakened by the light of God’s love. Then we respond by following where that love leads us.
That’s how it was with Saint Augustine. He was a very well-educated young man; an expert in philosophy and law, but he was a bit of a playboy in his youth. Although he was a Christian by Baptism, he was well into his adult life before he turned to God. He tells us in his “Confessions” that it happened because God penetrated his darkness. These are his own words:
Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
You might ask, “Why did God touch Augustine?” Obviously we don’t know the mind of God, but it in the tradition of the Church it comes back to the family. Augustine’s mother, Monica, never stopped loving him and never stopped praying for him. I’m sure there are parents and grandparents here today who are troubled because their children no longer go to Mass or seem to have lost their way in life. I think Saint Monica is a good example for us to follow. Never stop loving them; never stop praying for them.
Sharing of Faith in the Family
In the final analysis, it is not Baptism that makes us Christian; it is relationship with Jesus. Bringing our children for Baptism is about sharing with them our own relationship with Jesus. Now that can be challenging because, more than likely, we are still trying to work out where we ourselves are going in that relationship.
There is probably no better way to grow in your own faith than to share it with your children. In that way, you all grow together. If you were to leave it entirely to the school, what message would that be giving them about how important it is to you? Families are all about sharing; sharing food, sharing space, sharing responsibilities, sharing relations and friends. A family becomes Christian through sharing their friendship with Jesus.
They say “faith is caught, not taught”. I think there is a certain truth in that. Pope Francis describes the family as the “first school” where we learn to live a virtuous life. Through their own faithful love, a husband and wife become a visible sign of the love of God and this almost inevitably spills over to touch the lives of their children. Children learn from their parents and from one another how to be faithful, how to forgive, how to share.
One of the best ways to share faith in the family is to pray together. I’m not necessarily talking about long prayers. Pope Francis talks about finding a few minutes each day “to come together before the living God, to tell him our worries, to ask for the needs of our family, to pray for someone experiencing difficulty, to ask for help in showing love, to give thanks for life and for its blessings, and to ask Our Lady to protect us beneath her maternal mantle. (Amoris Laetitia, 317)
In his letter on the environment, he encourages us to return to what he describes as “the beautiful and meaningful custom” of “giving thanks to God before and after meals”. “That moment of blessing” he says, “reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labours provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need”. (Laudato Si, 227)
The practice of saying a few simple night prayers with the children before they go to sleep is one way of establishing that pattern. You can make up your own, but you don’t have to. Most young children of primary school age will already be familiar with at least one night prayer:
God, our Father, I come to say
Thank you for your love today.
Thank you for my family,
And all the friends you give to me.
Guard me through the dark of night,
And in the morning, send you light. Amen
The Sunday Eucharist is, of course, the central prayer of the Church. It is through the Eucharist that we are drawn into communion with Christ and with one another (Lumen Gentium 7). The family of God is strengthened and, “though we are many, we become one body in Christ” (1 Cor. 10). When the children are young, of course, it is difficult to get them all organised and out to Mass on Sunday, but that doesn’t stop us going other places. People sometimes feel that, if they have children, they have to stay down the back, in case they disturb people. I say bring them up to the front. Let them see what is going on. Children have a sense of mystery that many of us adults have lost.
Witness and Mission:
In his earthly life, Jesus gathered people around him and formed them as disciples. Then he sent them out on mission. All who are Baptised are entrusted with a mission and this is symbolised by the anointing with Chrism. It seems to me that, if the family is the environment is which we grow together in faith, it is also the environment in which we are formed for mission. Every family, by being good neighbours, by exercising hospitality, by their outreach to the poor and the neglected and by their sharing in the life of their local community, brings out to others the love of Christ, not in words but in action. In that way “every family, despite its weaknesses, can become a light in the darkness of the world”. (Amoris Laetitia, 67)
Scripture teaches us that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26). In a Christian family, we learn to recognise the image of God in every person. This can sometimes be difficult, especially when family members are troublesome or unhelpful. But when it begins in the family it spreads out to transform the world. In a world where people are willing to walk over the dead bodies of others to get what they want, the witness of love that is found in a Christian family reminds us that there is another, far better way to live. This is especially true when it comes to respect for life itself. Pope Francis describes the family as “the sanctuary of life, the place where life is conceived and cared for” (Amoris Laetitia, 83). I believe that the Christian family has a particular mission at this time in our history to bear witness to the fact that there is no such thing as a human life without value. This will be reflected in our loving acceptance and protection of the unborn child, of those with various disabilities and of the elderly, especially those who are frail and in the last stages of life. In this way, in particular, the witness of Christian families can transform our culture.
The family is a school of Christian solidarity, where children learn from the example of their parents what Jesus meant when he said: “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me”. (Mt 25)
Obviously there are times in the life-cycle of every family, when the parents have to devote their energies primarily to providing for the needs of their own children, or family members who are sick. But the attitude of a Christian family will always be fundamentally one of solidarity with and care for those who in society or in the wider world are unable to care for themselves. I am delighted to see that the response to the recent special collection for East Africa has been so generous. It is a gift from families to families. In a world which is resource rich and time poor, however, the family also has the mission of forming young people to place their time and their talents at the service of others.
Finally, I think it is worth reminding you that it is in the Christian family that vocations to the priesthood and religious life have always been nourished and supported. In the past, there was a priest or a nun in almost every Catholic family. I’m not suggesting that that should be the case in the future. It is not the vocation of the majority. Our children ultimately have to make their own decisions in freedom, but vocation to the priesthood or the religious life should always be on the menu among the possibilities that are talked about and supported in a Catholic family. We can’t expect other families to make that gift, unless we are prepared – at least in principle – to make it ourselves.
In preparation for The World Meeting of Families, which will be celebrated in Ireland this time next year, a special programme of catechesis will be launched tomorrow. This is designed to help Christian families to live and to share their faith joyfully. I encourage you to check it out online. In the meantime, as Pope Francis says: May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate
the splendour of true love;
to you we turn with trust.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic churches.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again experience
violence, rejection and division;
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
Graciously hear our prayer. (Amoris Laetitia 325)
- Bishop Kevin Doran is Bishop of Elphin. This homily was delivered in Knock on 20 August 2017.
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