The Holy Family and Families

The word “family” is the vibrant and unique touchstone for identifying much that is truly human. So it is worthwhile preserving the correct anthropological meaning of the word.

In the teachings of Vatican II we find three main families. The first is “the whole human family.” Then within this human family, itself the work of God, there is the further work of God “who has fatherly concern for everyone, [and] has willed that all men should constitute one family and treat one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” This is the family of the Church, the House of God reaching out to all. However, these families only have some kind of a concrete meaning when referred to the most basic family consisting of the male husband and the female wife and their children. Each is building relationships that are loving and permanent.

The family involves the richest treasure that we have as persons, namely our intimate affiliation with others. We only become who we are in others who give us the spiritual “space” of their interest, attention, and time. That is love. The spiritual “space” is only effective if everyone knows that it is permanent, that there is no backdoor, no escape hatch, nothing withheld. Family is the permanent space where the process of giving and receiving in love, of learning how to do this and schooling others to do the same, takes place.

Most importantly, these inter-relationships rest on the notion of love as working for the good of the other person. Each individual knows something about what is good for the other persons in the family. The adults usually know more than the kids. The Church is there to explain the good for those who do not know. The family promotes the goodness of each member.

As Pope Francis explained at the Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman:

When we speak of complementarity between man and woman in this context, let us not confuse that term with the simplistic idea that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Complementarity will take many forms as each man and woman brings his or her distinctive contributions to their marriage and to the formation of their children — his or her personal richness, personal charisma. Complementarity becomes a great wealth. It is not just a good thing but it is also beautiful.

The Holy Family (Poland, early 19th century, artist unknown)

The Holy Family (Poland, early 19th century, artist unknown)

There is more, however, to this complementarity. At the simplest level, the other is other and yet is allowed into my spiritual and material space for life. So complementarity also encompasses the deepest levels of spiritual union. When reaching into the depths of one’s spirit, at no point does one arrive at some kind of neutral spirit that is neither masculine nor feminine. The masculine person and the feminine person are going to give and receive in each relationship in ways that are proper to being masculine and feminine. These ways show a complementarity that is configured partly ontologically and partly culturally. The cultural component can only be evaluated in the light of Revelation where one finds a great deal of information about being a man and being a woman.

Returning to Francis: “To reflect upon ‘complementarity’ is nothing less than to ponder the dynamic harmonies at the heart of all Creation.” Here the Catholic family dynamic extends outwards to the family of the Church and the family of humanity. So, in a sense, the complementarities are “nested” starting with the noble skein of relationships in the Catholic family – the irreplaceable model for so much – which grounds the other two proper applications of the word, to the Church and to mankind.

Here, the analogy is a strong one. By experiencing true family, one is prepared to make the same thing happen in the Church. By experiencing true family, one can make the efforts needed for the same thing happen in society. In Pope Francis’ words: “Christian families are missionary families.”

The analogy is much much weaker, for example, when Facebook refers to its “family” of members, or a power company refers to its “family” of customers!

Francis reminds us of a wholly different dimension: “the family which experiences the joy of faith communicates it naturally.” Hence, the Holy Family, far from being a pious construct, epitomizes the lived-out relations between husband, wife and child in faith. This family is family in faith. Remember Paul VI’s phrase, the family is “the domestic Church.”

Moreover, because the Holy Family knows the traditions of its faith, it knows that events in the family are part of the great history of salvation. In fact, they made that history. The love of Joseph and Mary brings up a child who will be the savior of the world. Now that is family! Our families live out salvation day by day, the source of peace on earth and goodwill to all!

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About Bevil Bramwell, OMI

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI, PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; and, most recently, Catholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini.

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