by: Mike Sullivan
Our society seems intent on destroying the family. Marriage is threatened by the plagues of divorce, relativism, and secularization. Same-sex and "de facto" unions have undermined the meaning of marriage, calling into question its very purpose. In fact, divorce is not only common, but it is expected in almost half of today’s marriages. Many children are raised without discipline, and their potential is dashed by abuse or neglect.
But there are examples throughout history of how strong families have formed the true foundation of society. These families have provided correction to society by bringing up new generations of leaders and saints. Think of St. Thomas More, the martyr who lived a life of heroic virtue and who, even after the death of his first wife, taught his children to know and love their faith. Think of the Martins, St. Therese of Lisieux’s family, who also suffered the loss of their mother but went on to lead lives of sanctity.
There are hundreds of other examples. Marriage and family can work. They can provide an opportunity to grow in holiness, strengthen the culture in which we live, overcome the greatest obstacles, and succeed. But the example of the Holy Family best teaches us how to build our own little "Nazareth" and raise saints to serve God and the world.
It is difficult to make a direct comparison between the Holy Family and families today, but reflecting on the roles of Mary as mother, Joseph as father, and Jesus as child gives us a spiritual perspective that can shape our understanding of our own roles in our families.
School of Nazareth
On pilgrimage to Nazareth, Pope Paul VI reflected, "Nazareth is a kind of school. . . . How I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth!" He explained that there are three key lessons to learn from Christ’s childhood:
- It offered silence. "We need this wonderful state of mind," the Pope said, to combat the pressures and noise of the world.
- It was "a community of love and sharing." Nazareth serves as "a model of what the family should be . . . beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings, in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children—and for this there is no substitute."
- It taught discipline. "In Nazareth, the home of a craftsman’s son, we learn about work and the discipline it entails" (Office of Readings, Dec. 26).
As Christian parents, we are called to model our own family life after the Holy Family in Nazareth. By shaping our homes in the example of silence, community love, and discipline, we ensure that we are doing our part in creating a nurturing environment in which saints are made
Pope Paul VI mentions silence first, for it is in silence that we are trained in prayer. A silent interior life is free of struggles and distraction; it is a life of constancy, whereas the noise of the world is disruptive and distracting. It is in interior silence that we contemplate and have communion with God.
We don’t know much from Scripture about Jesus’ life as a child, but we do know that the Holy Family’s home in Nazareth was a sanctuary from the distractions and influence of the world. Christ’s childhood was a hidden time of formation and preparation for his mission. Preparation in the quiet of Nazareth was so important for Jesus that it represents thirty of his thirty-three years on earth.
Our homes should be sanctuaries from the world. The more negative influences we allow into our homes, the less control we have over what forms the characters of our children. A home marked by silence is a home where the priorities are in order and where there is a focus on the spiritual good of the children.
By fostering silence in the home, we teach our children to avoid distraction. They learn to concentrate better and thus are better able to develop their faith. Bl. Teresa of Calcutta explained the way she and her sisters were aware of God’s will for them. She said, "Before you speak, it is necessary for you to listen, for God speaks in the silence of the heart." In silence, our children will learn to pray and develop a loving relationship with God, with each other, and with us. But this ideal is very difficult to realize.
In Luke’s Gospel, we see several instances of Mary’s "pondering heart." She wasn’t sure what to make of the events unfolding in her life, so she trusted in God’s Providence and considered these things in the silence of her heart (Luke 1:28; 2:19, 51). As parents, we don’t understand many things as we strive to raise our children in accord with God’s will. But if we ponder these questions and lift them up to God in prayer, we will soon understand what he is calling us to do.
In my home, there is very little "silence." Imagine seven children under the age of eleven praying, playing, learning, working, and, occasionally, fighting. But my wife and I try our best to limit outside influences. We don’t watch television, but we do occasionally watch wholesome movies. The children are allowed to listen to music only if it is edifying. Playtime with friends is also limited. We do our best to form a family culture that is focused on the character formation and education of our children.
The time we have to build virtue in our children is short. We must make the best of it. They will leave the home and go about the will of the Father, and they need our nurturing and protection to grow into the saints they are called to be.
Build a Community of Love
Pope Paul VI said that building a "community of love and sharing" is crucial to teaching children the virtues. This community is also necessary to form within children the raw material for selfless, loving relationships with God and their future spouses and children.
Building a community of love and sharing begins with each family member’s willingness to offer himself for the sake of another. Parents are called to be the first examples of self-giving. Our lives are to be ordered to the service of others. Mary understood this. Consider how she dropped everything and traveled to visit her relative Elizabeth. Even though she was pregnant herself, Mary willingly went and served the needs of her elder kinswoman (Luke 1:39–56).
Consider also her suffering as her divine Son was tortured and died on the cross. She always knew that she and her Son would have great sufferings to endure, and she humbly and lovingly embraced her call and remained at his side until his death.
St. Joseph, too, offered an example of total self-surrender when he humbly accepted God’s will in leading his family out of danger into Egypt. They fled as refugees, in poverty, but it was what they had to do to protect the divine Child.
As parents, we must be prepared to drop everything and flee to protect our families. This applies not only to bodily protection but, most importantly, to the protection of their souls. When we perceive a threat to the moral life of our family, we must flee from that threat or root it out of our homes. In a community of love and sharing, we first look after those in our charge and provide a protective environment in which they can develop.
Dare to Discipline
Mary and Joseph educated Jesus, and Joseph taught him to work as a carpenter. We live in a very different time, one in which it is rare for both parents to teach their children by working with them throughout each day. But lessons about hard work and discipline can be learned when parents make the effort to allow their children to help them in their daily tasks at home. By helping their parents, children learn the virtues of diligence, self-discipline, and responsibility, as well as the value of work.
Children will also learn obedience to their parents’ will, a training exercise in obedience to the will of the Father. As St. Luke tells us, even Jesus "was obedient to them," and "increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man" (Luke 2:51–52). Obedience fosters the virtue of humility, which is the foundation of all virtues and, with love, forms the core of holiness. We know that our children are not perfect. Their souls, like our own, have been stained by original sin. This is why discipline is critical in fostering holiness in the family.
The word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means "instruction or knowledge," from discipulus or "disciple." God gave parents the duty to discipline their children, and parents are accountable to God for the souls and the formation of their children. Children cannot learn virtue without the guidance and example of self-giving parents. At times, it is good to offer children choices so that they can learn not only how to think for themselves but about personal accountability. But children should never be permitted to choose something that will put their souls in peril.
Commit to Prayer
Prayer brings together silence, the family as a community of love and sharing, and discipline—the distinctive features of the Holy Family. It is rooted in interior silence, it is the core of a community of love and sharing, and it gives rise to discipline. If we have a relationship with God, we pray. It’s that simple. In modeling our families after the Holy Family, prayer must be the center of our lives and our greatest priority. If we wish to be holy families, we must pray. A holy family is our greatest weapon against the influences of the world and our most effective way of influencing the world. The Second Vatican Council called the family "the first and vital cell of society" (Apostolicam Actuositatem 11).
Many popes, bishops, and vocations directors have said that a prayerful family is the fertile soil in which vocations to the priesthood and religious life are nurtured. We participate in the building up of the Church in raising holy men and women to go out and labor in the world, bringing Christ’s light to all they touch, and in encouraging our children to explore and be open to a possible religious vocation.
The Holy Family’s life was steeped in Scripture. Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55), for instance, shows a thorough knowledge of Scripture. It draws from many books of the Bible and was spontaneously strung together in such a beautiful way that it is clear that Mary had a profound knowledge of the meaning of the words she spoke. Christ, too, quoted Scripture constantly throughout the New Testament.
Daily readings of Scripture and participation in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours should have a place in Catholic homes. In fact, the Holy See has taught that praying the Liturgy of the Hours helps families to live the life of the Church fully:
It is fitting . . . that the family, as a domestic sanctuary of the Church, should not only offer prayers to God in common but also, according to circumstances, should recite parts of the Liturgy of the Hours in order to be more intimately linked with the Church. (Institutio Generalis de Liturgia Horarum 118)
Embrace the Challenge
In our family, Scripture grounds our children in the faith. The stories from Scripture are imbedded deeply in their minds. As we live through the liturgical year, we make major feast days and holy days special. We try to embrace St. Paul’s words to the Colossians:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. (Col. 3:16)
With so many small children, we find it a challenge to retain their attention when reading Scripture, but we do our best to make up for this by singing songs and praying the rosary. We’ve found that prayerfully reflecting on the mysteries of the rosary teaches our kids to pray and opens their minds to the stories in Scripture.
According to Pope Paul VI, "there is no doubt that . . . the rosary should be considered as one of the best and most efficacious prayers in common that the Christian family is invited to recite" (Marialis Cultus 54). It can’t be overestimated as a tool for catechesis.
We often invite door-to-door missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses to come into our home for discussion. Once we had a couple of young Mormon missionaries to dinner. We prayed together and talked, and after our meal, they sat with the children and talked about Jesus. One of the missionaries asked our four-year-old daughter, Molly, if she loved Jesus. "Oh, yes," she replied, and went on to talk about the life of Jesus. She told how "Jesus’ mommy talked to an angel" and then became "the Mommy of God." She excitedly told how Mary visited Elizabeth, "because she had a baby in her tummy, too, and Mary helped her. Her baby was John the Baptist." Molly went on to tell how Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, how Simeon told Mary she was going to be sad about Jesus’ death and that "her heart would be pierced by a sword," and how Mary and Joseph found Jesus in the temple "teaching the teachers."
The Mormon missionaries were amazed. We were amazed. Our four-year-old had just explained the major points of Jesus’ early life with profound clarity and understanding! We realized that the rosary is much more than a prayer: It is a way to drink in the beauty of Scripture that even a four-year-old can understand.
Children learn best from stories and personal experiences. If parents expose their children to stories about the lives of the saints and give them opportunities to experience the beauty of their faith, these formational moments will be deeply etched on their memories. From the stories of the Child Jesus they will learn how to act and how to obey, how to love and how to pray. By creating your own little Nazareth, your family can imbibe the lessons of the Holy Family and become solidly rooted in the virtues that build up both the family and the world.
It is difficult to stay the course in living the Christian life in a world that is so divorced from the simplicity of the Holy Family, but it is not impossible. We are called to be in the world, not of the world. If we hold up the Holy Family as the example for our families, not only will we learn how to live holy lives, but we will begin to change the culture in which we live. Our little Nazareth can be the refreshing and silent sanctuary we seek to enter each day as we work toward our common goal.