Family and New Evangelisation

Recent popes have set the bar high for what the family is, could be and should be under grace. The Church actually expects heroism in families and it does so because it has known more families from the inside out than any government or other institution, has served more families, has a Gospel for the family in which Christ promises divine grace for the missionary family, and has even canonised them. In a cynical world that thinks sin is inevitable, that the young are doomed to promiscuity, that marriages and families are mostly going to fail, that lay people are only interested in getting ahead, making a profit or an income and then spending it, the Church constantly preaches the possibility of deep and abiding faith, hope and love. In his famous encyclical on evangelisation, Evangelii Nuntiandi, Paul VI took forward Vatican II’s thought that the laity should evangelise politics, society, economics and culture. But prior to that, he said, is the world of “human love, the family, the education of children and adolescents, professional work, and suffering”.

The idea that the family ought to be a place where the Gospel is lived and transmitted and from which it radiates out to the world was followed up by our [Saint] Pope John Paul II in his great document, Familiaris Consortio. He taught that the mission of the family is:
• to form a community of persons and live that communion with fidelity
• to reflect God’s love for humanity and Christ’s love for His bride the Church
• to serve life by procreation (‘transmitting the divine image from person to person’) and caring for ‘the little ones’
• to share goods, lives, joys and sorrows
• to educate each other, understand, forbear, pardon, reconcile
• to practice hospitality, especially to the needy
• to be dedicated to the good of society and a sign of unity and peace to our world
• to share in the life and mission of the Church, witness to the truth and evangelise the world.

John Paul clearly didn’t think small for the family! The last few popes have all reflected upon that process in every family where each of the members teaches the others, where even the babies, children and adolescents teach the parents truths of the Gospel, much as the parents do the bulk of the educating in faith. But the family must also have a broader vision, not only looking inward upon itself. It has an ecclesial task, building up the Kingdom of God by participating in the life and mission of the Church.  It is a “Church in miniature”, an ecclesia domestica, a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church universal, ‘a symbol, witness and participant in the Church’s motherhood’. This rich theology of the laity and of the family explains why the recent popes have had such confidence in the power of the family as an agent of the New Evangelisation.

How is the family to be and do these things? For one thing it is clear that it can only happen by God’s grace. The ‘domestic church’ is only an ecclesia because it is grafted into the mystery of the bigger Ecclesia and so a saved and saving community. It enacts its saving grace in its umpteen daily tasks, in the witness of spouses’ love, in their generous fruitfulness, in their dialogue with God in prayer and with humanity in service.

In his recent Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis recognises that many people today, including many Christians, “are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life”.[10] He acknowledges that powerful forces in economy and society and powerful ideologies such as secularism, relativism, materialism and individualism have contributed to the breakdown of such vital cells as family, parish and local community or to a decline in their influence. He says that the “family is experiencing a profound cultural crisis”. This weakening of the family is especially problematic because it is in the family that where faith and morals are most often transmitted from one generation to the next and where human beings learn to live virtuously in community. The Holy Father critiques the view that marriage is merely an emotional union, a view which has plagued us since the contraceptive revolution, and has contributed to childless marriages, break ups when couples find their relationship difficult, talk of ‘gay marriages’ and the like. But marriage, Pope Francis insists, is a “total communion of life”, founded on “the depth of obligation” that the spouses assume when they marry each other. In other words, marriage and family is not a community founded on emotion – important as emotions are in drawing and holding us together and inclining our personalities and actions in particular directions. Marriage is not so much about feelings as about gift: it is the place where self-donation is lived and learned. A Gospel of Life and Love whereby Catholic families are faithful to the Church’s moral teachings and in which such self-sacrifice is part of everyday life, can be therapy for the problems confronting us in culture and society.

We must pass on this Gospel through a New Evangelisation driven by a sense of mission, since “missionary activity still represents the greatest challenge for the Church”. “I dream,” says the Pope, “of a missionary option, that is, a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures, can be suitably channelled for the evangelisation of today’s world rather than her self-preservation ...I prefer a Church that is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

In other words, we’re called to be what the Holy Father dubs “missionary disciples” within our families and with them to the world beyond. Fully consistent with the Second Vatican Council’s reminder to us of our priestly, royal and prophetic dignity as baptised Christians, the Pope argues that it is our baptismal right and obligation to follow the path of missionary discipleship: in the New Evangelisation “every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelisation”. If we commit ourselves to the New Evangelisation – if we commit to pronouncing the Way, Truth and Life who is Jesus Christ by deed and word in our families – then we can hope that there will be a renaissance of faith and morality, leading people to genuine happiness.

What are some practical implications of the idea of the missionary family? If the family is to be an evangelising community, welcoming and announcing the word of God:

  • it must be founded on marriage well prepared-for remotely and proximately, well celebrated sacramentally, well supported by other families, parishes, movements and Church agencies
  • the members of the family must always search out and seek to live well God’s plan for them
  • they must be regularly re-evangelised through continuing faith education, church practice, and supportive groups such as Couples for Christ
  • they must be ready to give and receive catechesis within the home, aware that they are educating their children for a human life and a divine vocation
  • they must persevere in face of adolescent and cultural resistance through living witness and encouraging words
  •  they must collaborate with other evangelising and catechetical activities of the local Church and
  •  they must be a luminous sign to others of the presence of Christ, radiating the joy of the Gospel (Evangelii gaudium) and the confidence of saving hope (Spe salvi).

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