Our present conference is on the Holy Family, model for the modern world.
If there is one phenomenon that characterizes the modern world, especially the modern western world, it is the breakdown of family life. The most rampant divorce rate of human history, which in some cities in the United States has reached a rate approaching a 100%. One large city, unnamed, recently had a divorce rate of 500%, five divorces for one marriage that year. The national American rate is well over 50% and climbing constantly. European social scientists, who see what’s happening, say America on these conditions cannot survive.
The breakdown of community religious life has contributed to the disintegration of hundreds of once flourishing religious institutes in western society. One religious institute of women 20 years ago with a membership of over 5,000 has 200 left.
The breakdown of once cohesive parochial life, where parishes live together and work together as clusters of united families, is in many countries a fond memory and for some people an outdated anachronism. Yet as the present Holy Father is never tired repeating, the preservation, and on such a large scale the restoration of Christian family life, is necessary for the survival of Christian society. Christianity will survive only where the family either survives or is restored. I couldn’t be giving you a more sober conference than the present one.
With this introduction we go back to our subject, the Holy Family, model for the modern world. We begin by looking as the foundation for our further reflections on the qualities of the Holy Family. If we look closely at the Holy Family as described in the New Testament, we find certain unmistakable qualities that all families, natural and supernatural, in today’s divided world desperately need.
Qualities of the Holy Family
First, the members of the Holy Family were brought together by God Himself. It was He who brought Mary and Joseph together in marriage. It was the Holy Spirit who brought the Child Jesus into their company. The Holy Family was created by God.
Second quality: in the Holy Family there was obvious diversity. Jesus, Mary and Joseph were, by all calculation, different persons with different temperaments, different personalities. They were different in the extreme.
Third quality: in spite of their personal diversity, there was family unity. They not only lived together, they prayed together, they worked together and, how important this verb is today, they stayed together as a family.
Fourth quality: their bond of unity was therefore not their equality, because they were not equal. It was charity, genuine charity.
Fifth and last quality: their charity was rooted in their united vision of a common purpose. They had one single goal—to work together as a community for the salvation of the human family.
Applying to Ourselves the Qualities of the Holy Family
Now the lessons for us. We are to go over to each of these five qualities of the Holy Family and apply them to ourselves. Each has much to teach us. That as one modern pope after another has been saying, either we re-discover these family virtues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, or we shall further disintegrate as a Christian society. And a divided Christianity is no match for the enemy, who in case no one has told you, is united. Evil people, enemies of Christ and His Church, are united to the teeth.
First quality of the Holy Family relative to all families: all families are born of God. No Christian group of people come together as a society, whether domestic or religious or parochial or, on a world scale, ecclesiastical, except by a special providence of God.
We can say more. Every family comes into existence in order to be a reflection on earth of the Eternal Family, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which constitutes the Holy Trinity. There was from all eternity a divine Holy Family of the three Persons. Hear it! God as God is not a solitary. God as God is a community.
Families on earth are to be created manifestations of the uncreated Family, which is the triune everlasting God. If there is no such thing as chance with God we may be sure that no earthly family is just a happening. Our father and mother didn’t just happen to meet one another and coincidentally happened to marry and by some quirk of fate happened to have us as offspring. No! Every family, I repeat, domestic, religious, parochial or ecclesiastical is the providential creation of God who is Himself the infinite community of the most blessed Trinity.
Second quality: all members of a family are different. I could almost skip the observations I want to make. But let’s get beneath the difference. This difference is part of God’s all wise plan for His children. He makes us different from the moment He creates a different soul for each one of us. And that, by the way, is an article of faith. What’s an article of faith? That each soul is individually, distinctively, therefore differently and uniquely created by the Almighty God at the moment of our conception in our mother’s womb.
Variety in creation is a glorious reflection of the infinity of the all-perfect God. No one creature, no ten thousand times ten thousand creatures, could adequately manifest the ocean of attributes in the all-perfect God. And to further dramatize it as scientists tell us, did you know not even two snowflakes out of the millions that fall on a winter’s night are the same? Did you know that? God wants us to be different. He made us that way.
Third quality: the different members of a family should be united. No less than the three Persons in God are not the same. Father is not the Son. Father and Son are not the Holy Spirit. Yet all form together the one God. So the members of every family should be united. A family ceases to be a family when each person, who is notoriously and for us painfully embarrassingly, different. A family, I repeat, ceases to be a family when each person so different pursues his own interests without reference to or concern for the other members of the family. A family is a family! It is not a mere group or a cluster or a crowd or a chance gathering of different people.
My subway rides in New York, crowded trains, a perfect symbol of different people who happen to be on the same train. Dead silence, except for the screech of the wheels and the deafening noise of the New York subways.
Fourth quality: love is the bond that unites a family. Only love can unite different, even disparate, people. Only love brings them together, keeps them together and enables them to work together as a family. Where this love is missing or weak, the family as family falls apart. This is the verdict of history.
It is the sad verdict of modern history in so many parts of what we still dare call developed countries in western society. Lord, spare us when we dare call other cultures undeveloped because they don’t have steam heat or microwave ovens.
Some years ago, while teaching Jesuit scholastics in theology, one was finishing his course of studies in America and returning to his native India. I asked him, “Joseph, could you tell me what you found most inspiring and most depressing about your four years in the United States?” No problem answering my question. “The most inspiring thing was your liberty. The most depressing thing was your disunity.” So I asked him, “What do you mean? Are the people in India more united than we are?” “Yes, they are. Take family life,” he said. “There are not just small villages, but good size towns where there is not known a single divorce in the memory of a single inhabitant.” Dear God, help save America, the land of liberty, which is becoming the land of disunity.
We know what this love means in practice. It means selfless love, self-giving love, self-abandoning love and in one word, self-sacrificing love, sacrificing personal likes and dislikes for the sake of the common good of the family.
Fifth quality: the foundation of this common love is a common purpose. If only love can unite different people and enable them to live and work together in peace and harmony, then only the common united vision of those who belong to this family gives them existence as a family and sustains them in family life.
When I see by now and I see so many, I hear and read about others, part of my work for the Congregation of Religious. One empty motherhouse after another! One empty house of formation after another! The buildings are there, but the soul is gone. Where people lose a common vision, they lose their basis for a uniting love.
For us Catholics, this common vision is born of faith, if we believe in one God, one Catholic Church, one vicar of Christ on earth, one destiny for the human race, one means of salvation, but we have to believe! Then and only then shall we be united. There is no substitute for a common vision. Based on a unifying faith which unifies by the strongest bond of unity there is the bond of believing that we have the same goal for existence, the same purpose for existence as a family. What an examination of conscience we all have to make to ask ourselves this embarrassing question, how well am I contributing my part to the family to which under God I belong?
I thought we’d close with the prayer at Mass and in the Divine Office for the feast of the Holy Family. Father, help us to live as the Holy Family, united in respect and love. Bring us to the joy and peace of your eternal home. Amen. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.