In today’s Gospel story, Jesus does something that is vital in all human life: he speaks with those around him, and he listens to them. Jesus meets his disciples. Five years ago, here in Dublin we had an important meeting: a meeting of people of faith from across the world. Pope Francis visited Ireland for the World Meeting of Families. In this church, our Pro-Cathedral, there was a particular meeting, when the Holy Father met three couples in this very place. Using a dialogical format, three couples, from various points in the journey of marriage and family posed particular questions to him.
The first couple, Vincent and Teresa, were 50 years married. In thanking God for their fidelity to their marriage vows, Pope Francis turned towards the words: “for better or worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, all the days of our lives.” Sometimes the challenge of loving another person forever turns out to be more difficult than those who made them ever imagined they would be. Consequently, for many couples actually keeping their promises requires great commitment and generosity.
Pope Francis is very realistic about the difficulties that arise in family life. Every marriage partner is a human being, and to be human means that sometimes we make mistakes. We say and do things we shouldn’t say, or do and leave undone things we should say or do. The inevitable hurts and misunderstandings often arise from human frailty and thoughtlessness, as well as the scars left by life’s losses and regrets. In our families, we forgive others and hope they will forgive us.
There are triumphs in marriage and there are tragedies. Our pastoral approach to the lives of ordinary people who suffer can be inspired and guided by the words of Pope Francis who calls us to “hear the invitation of Jesus; repentance comes later, [he says,] closeness to Jesus comes later. Constantly he implores those of us in ministry “not to turn the Church into a “customs house” where the righteous, people whose lives are in order, those properly married, can enter, while everyone else remains outside.” “No” he says, “That is not the Church!” (Pope Francis, Address at Vespers with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians and pastoral workers in Lisbon, 2nd August 2023; see also Amoris Laetitia, 66).
Another couple, Denis and Sinead, had asked the Holy Father about the vocation of marriage. His explored marriage as a sacrament, in other words, how marriage is an image of Christ’s love for the Church. For couples who remain open to it, their love for each other constantly gives expression to, and is strengthened by, God’s life in the sacrament. Once again it is a question of seeking to be faithful to their vows of “for better for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, all the days of their lives.” One can say that couples who decide to exchange their marriage promises in a church and have their marriage blessed by a priest are explicitly inviting God’s transforming presence into their relationship. The gifts of God—knowledge, wisdom, and love itself—are given, not to be clutched, but to be shared generously. Does giving not bring love to life? The love a couple have for each other will reach new heights every time they see that love carrying others, especially in days of sadness and failure.
The third couple to whom Pope Francis responded were newly-weds, Stephen and Jordan. They asked about handing on the faith to any children they might have. For all their necessity and merit of school-based programmes, Pope Francis stressed the unique and irreplaceable role of parents and the home in the shaping of values and in handing on the faith. The bedrock of all is the relationship between the parents themselves, their tenderness, affection, and generosity. He recalled the generosity of neighbours of his during his youth, who shared food with a poor man that came to their house during mealtime: they gave not from their fridge, but from their table; they shared their own meal, not what they had left over. Everywhere actions speak louder, and no more so than in a family.
Families are good news because they are the place where God begins to reveal to us who we are, how we are, and what we are: that we are someone who is precious to others, that we need each other—not just to survive, but—to live, and that our lives together are filled with paradox and mystery—that love and loss are deeply entwined, as are failure, forgiveness and mercy. Families are “a chance to take part in God’s dream…of building a world in which no will feel alone” (Amoris Laetitia, 319–21). Family is the place where we may be ourselves. Indeed, family is the place where we are known, and have no other option but to be ourselves. In today’s Gospel (Matt 16:13-20), Jesus goes from asking the disciples, “who do people say that I am?” to asking them, “who do you—you as a group—say that I am?” The healthy family is the safe place where we begin to hear who we truly are. Where that discovery happens, God is profoundly at work. Like the Church, instead of remaining closed within themselves, families become more themselves by “going forth”, “caring for others”, and “transforming the world” (Amoris Laetitia 324).
Finally, in the light of today’s Sunday Gospel, there is one important dimension of life that families can bring, both to the Church and to society: the family is a place of dialogue. Families witnesses to the Church and to the world the power and necessity of dialogue. In real families, dialogue is not just a word, but a way of life. Dialogue is not an idea. It is lived by people, and it permits people to live. Dialogue is not always easy. Every one of us knows this from our own families! Dialogue needs time: listening takes time, hearing takes time too. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is in dialogue with his disciples. He asks, they respond, he listens, he asks again, they respond again. This takes time, and openness. But that dialogue shapes them. Healthy dialogue is a mark of a healthy family, and healthy dialogue is a mark of a strong, confident community and healthy dialogue is a mark of a living Church.
Every loving couple knows how they must journey with each other, and every parent knows how they must journey with their children. In its decisive moments, that road can be very difficult, crucifying even. Letting go, letting others be, letting those we love become who they are, can cost a great deal. But love is patient (see 1 Cor 13:4, Luke 15:20), love does not control, and the family is the school of true love. St Matthew begins today’s account with the words, “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he put this question to his disciples…” (Matt 16:13) When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi … way up in the north of the Holy Land. When he had been journeying with them and they with him. The mystery of the Church and the mystery of the family go hand in hand. May we all learn better to journey with each other, to trust each other more, so that together, God can make us more truly the Body of Christ, more truly the family of God.
My sisters and brothers, let us give thanks for our families and those in them who journey with us, their acceptance, their love, their hope, this extraordinary mystery, this extraordinary gift. With St Paul let us pray: “How rich are the depths of God—how deep God’s wisdom and knowledge—and how impossible to penetrate his motives or understand his ways… To God be glory for ever! Amen (Rom 11:33, 36)
Archbishop of Dublin
- This homily was preached in Saint Mary’s Pro-Cathedral today, Sunday 27 August 2023 at 11.00 am.