Family “Circle” of Tender Love
Recently someone sent me a collection of old prayers known as “Circle prayers”. Apparently they were popular in Celtic countries like Ireland. Circle prayers ask God to surround us with his love and protection – one beautiful prayer goes like this:
Circle me Lord, Keep protection near, And danger afar.
Circle me Lord, Keep light near, And darkness afar.
Circle me Lord, Keep peace within, Keep evil out.
Circle me Lord, Keep hope within, Keep doubt without.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful of these prayers is the one we know as St Patrick’s breastplate –
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ all around me.
When we are in need, or sad, or ill, or lonely, it’s good to know that God surrounds us with love, care and protection.
I’ve always liked the term “family circle”. It captures that sense of unique closeness, and connection, which Family represents. Here at the World Meeting of Families we celebrate the ‘Good News’ of the Family which is ‘Joy for the World’. This afternoon I will explore how the Family circle of love and prayer and trust and care is so important for the Church, for society, and for the whole world. And even though we all know that sometimes relationships in families don’t always work out, we still hold that circle of relationships within the family – between grandparents, parents, children, siblings, grandchildren – as something special and unique.
My dear mother died just five months ago at the age of ninety (God rest her soul). One of the most moving and special moments for me at that time was when we gathered as a family, circling her bedside, and shared her last Eucharist. I touched the sacred host to her lips and placed a tiny drop of the precious blood on her tongue. The Body of Christ. The Blood of Christ. It was a privileged moment of communion, intimacy and tenderness in our family – as if we were returning to my mother some of the love and tenderness she had shared with us, growing up – but above all to be with her in prayer – it was the least we could do for the beautiful, strong woman who had handed on the faith to us and always prayed for us – her 6 sons and 6 daughters. Mama lived the faith by the example of her prayer, her deep friendship with the Lord, her powerful witness in time of trouble and suffering, the way she offered every moment of every day to God.
Among my earliest memories is of my mother lining us up in the kitchen before school to comb our hair – like steps of stairs – one by one as she combed and brushed, she prayed with us a morning offering – O my God I give to you, all I think and say and do. All my work and happy play, I will give to God today.
These days when I think about living and handing on the faith, I think of my mother and father wrapping us around in a circle of faith, love, service, tenderness.
We often describe God’s fatherly love for us; but don’t we sometimes forget that God’s tender loving kindness is also like the love of a mother which is there for us no matter what, despite our mistakes and sinfulness? And together, the tender love of father and mother in the family – circling their children around with warmth, safety, teaching, learning, mercy, forgiveness, freedom, responsibility, charity, generosity – together this generates and nourishes the first and vital cell of Church and society – which is the family.
Pope Francis speaks about the need for a ‘revolution of tenderness’ in today’s world to melt the ‘hardness of heart’ that is so prevalent nowadays. Hardness of heart. We see it in so much violence, aggression, greed, destruction of property, defamation of character, vengeance, hatred. Instead, a ‘revolution of tenderness’, fostered and nourished in the family circle, challenges us to show sensitivity and concern for everyone and everything, and especially to protect the wonder of life in our common home. And since, as Pope Francis puts it: ‘everything is connected’, this includes the way we care for the environment; how we welcome and accept refugees, the elderly, the unborn, the forgotten and the abandoned; how we acknowledge the worth of a poor person, a human embryo, a person with disabilities (see Laudato Si’ 117).
Family – school of humanity and domestic Church
As the ‘school of humanity’ and the ‘domestic Church’, it is in the family that values are transmitted, the wisdom of generations is passed on, the choices between right and wrong are evaluated, connections with the past are made, links with other families are made and upheld. It is in the family that we first are loved and where we first learn how to love. It is in the family that we discover who we are, where we have come from, our inter-generational relationships, our links with a place, with the land and, of course, with a worshiping community.
Family is all about ‘connection’– family connects us to a home, to the people who are our flesh and blood. Family also links us to a community, a parish, a county, a country, to a history and culture, a language and tradition, our past, present and future. For believers, family also connects them to faith and values, to baptism and a worshiping community. And so that first, vital cell that is the immediate family circle multiplies and divides and multiplies again, connecting us a much larger family of families in the Church and in society.
Listen to these beautiful words of Pope St John Paul II where he reflects on the family:
“‘The family is the domestic church’. The meaning of this traditional Christian idea is that the home is the Church in miniature. The Church is the sacrament of God’s love. She is a communion of faith and life. She is a mother and teacher. She is at the service of the whole human family as it goes forward towards its ultimate destiny. In the same way the family is a community of life and love. It educates and leads its members to their full human maturity and it serves the good of all along the road of life the family is the “first and vital cell of society”. In its own way it is a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church. The future of the world and of the Church, therefore, passes through the family (JPII in Perth 1986 November)”.
In the family we also discover how we can connect with society, and how we can bring it personal gifts to serving the Common Good and the well being of all humanity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church sums this up very well:
“The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of love…Family life is an initiation into life in society” (CCC, n. 2207).
During this World Meeting of the Families we will reflect, communicate and distil for our times this beautiful and prophetic vision of God’s plan for marriage and the family which was celebrated at the Synods and which is enunciated so positively in Amoris Laetitia. Of course this Good news, this ‘Gospel of the Family’ has its origins in ‘the creation of humanity in the image of God who is love and who calls man and woman to love according to his own likeness’ (Relatio Synodi 2015, 35).
Amoris Laetitia traces the Gospel of the Family from Sacred Scripture to Church tradition and the teachings of the magisterium. I particularly like the way Pope Francis reminds us how God chose to save us by sending his Son into the world in a human family which was open to receive him in love.
Facing Cultural Challenges in Communicating the Family
We believe that the Church’s proclamation of the family – founded on a circle of faithful loving between a man and a woman which is open to the gift of children who are the fruit of that love – is Good News for society and the world. There is no getting away, however, from the fact that communicating the family in this way can appear increasingly counter-cultural in many parts of the world, including Ireland. This has been accelerated to a large extent by the departure in public discourse from the philosophical and anthropological underpinning of marriage and the family in natural law, and by the erosion of social supports for traditional marriage in the form of constitutional guarantee and positive legislation. In presenting God’s plan for marriage and the family which includes God’s plan for the transmission of life itself, the Church sometimes be accused of being exclusive or lacking in compassion.
How difficult it must be for young people to make sense of all the contradictory messages presented to them by the secular world. They are easily drawn towards an overly emotional and romantic concept of love and marriage which, Pope Francis has observed, ‘can be constructed and modified at will’ (Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel, 66). They face considerable pressure to resist becoming ‘tied down’ by commitments, relationships or attachments – to delay or avoid lifelong commitments, including marriage and having children for as long as possible. Employers will often expect them to be flexible, movable, able to travel and work long, unsocial hours. With regard to the transmission of life, they are surrounded by a contraceptive, anti-birth mentality with its increasing indifference to abortion; then, when later they earnestly desire to have children, they struggle with a technocratic, commodification of child-bearing which, if necessary, can be accessed independently of any sexual relationship.
Into this complicated ‘topsy turvy’ world we have the joy and challenge of communicating a clear and positive vision of family and marriage: the Good News that human life is sacred, that each human being comes from God, who created us, male and female; that we are willed by God who loves each and every one of us; that self-giving love and commitment in the marriage of a man and a woman open to life is not only possible, but is a beautiful and fulfilling gift with the power of God’s grace; that chastity is achievable, healthy and good for our young people; that the giving of oneself to another in marriage for life is special, rewarding and a wonderful symbol of Christ’s forgiving, faithful love for his Church.
We proclaim the Gospel of the Family because we believe in it, and we also believe and firmly hope that, with the help of God, it is attainable.
Of course, it is one thing to have a joyful message to proclaim and propose – it is quite another to find effective ways of communicating this message. If no one is listening, it is difficult to communicate! The task of proclaiming the Gospel of the Family in the Church therefore belongs to all of us because it is communicated most effectively from cell to cell, from family to family, witnessing intentionally and courageously, and by lived example, to the Church’s vision.
Together we proclaim the Gospel of the Family because we are convinced that the welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world! Or, as Pope St John Paul II loved to put it: “As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live”.
Pastoral Challenges in Communicating the Family
Three years ago I had the privilege of attending the Synod on the Family in Rome, 2015. It was very moving for me to hear the bishops as shepherds of the Church describing the hopes and anxieties that face their flocks – the families of the world. We heard passionate, first-hand accounts of forced migration, persecution and war; we were shocked by the extent of human trafficking and the exploitation and commodification of women and children. We heard about ‘wombs for hire’, child soldiers, forced prostitution and the exploitation of street children in large cities. We shuddered at the prevalence of abuse and domestic violence. We considered the challenges presented in some cultures by polygamy, arranged marriages, mixed and inter-faith marriages. We spoke about the pressures on family life from individualism and isolation and the spread of abortion, euthanasia and gender ideology. We faced the reality that in many countries the majority of marriages take place without any reference to faith or to God. At the same time, however, we shared our tremendous admiration and gratitude for the many families who do their best in complex situations to persevere, to grow in love and to generously witness to commitment, forgiveness, and lifelong faithfulness.
The overwhelming sense among the bishops at the Synods was a desire to be with all families, and especially with those whose homes are visited by tragedy or violence and those who, for whatever reason, have experienced breakdown in their relationships and those who may feel excluded from the Church for this reason or other reasons. The Synods and Amoris Laetitiawere clear that we need to be mindful of those who have begun new relationships and unions, and find sincere and truthful ways of welcoming and including them in the life and worshiping community of the Church.
This World Meeting of Families provides us with another opportunity to propose ways of accompanying families in these, and other difficult situations, including developing a ministry of care for those whose marriage relationships have broken down, conscious that the Christian message of truth and mercy converges in Christ.
A the Synod on the Family 2015 Synod, I really sensed that desire among the bishops to help all God’s people find God’s plan for them, knowing that no one is excluded from the circle of God’s love and that all are included in the Church’s pastoral activity (e.g. see Relatio Synodi, 34).
In bringing our message about marriage and the family into the world, we are challenged to find and learn new ways of communicating our sincerely held perspectives about family and other matters. We realise that we must do so now alongside those of other faiths and none, and thereby continue to encourage conversations at a national and international level on the importance of the family. We must also be aware that in the aftermath of child abuse scandals and other shameful episodes of the past, there are those who feel they can no longer trust our message, perhaps because they have been directly hurt and betrayed in their families by their experience of Church, or because the revelations of such heinous crimes have shocked them to the core. In his 2010 Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI alerted us to the fact that the sins and crimes of sexual abuse in the Church have not only had tragic consequences in the lives of victims and their families, but they have also ‘. obscured the light of the gospel’. For me, that is particularly true about the Gospel of the Family.
State support for family
But still, if we truly believe the Good News that the welfare of the family is decisive to the future of the world, then how can we keep from singing and proclaiming this vital truth? We must work together with all people of goodwill to encourage the State to support the family, and especially the uniqueness of the faithful and exclusive union between a married man and a woman as a cherished space for the bearing and upbringing of children. In doing this, the State is not only caring for its citizens, but it is also strengthening and nurturing the foundations of society itself. As Pope Francis has said: ‘The family deserves special attention by those responsible for the common good, because it is the basic unit of society, which brings strong links of union that underpin human coexistence and, with the generation and education of children, ensure the renewal and the future of society.’
Taking inspiration from the powerful 1983 ‘Charter of the Rights of the Family’, we might discuss with public representatives in our various countries: to what extent does public policy support Family and Life, freedom of education and conscience, a proper work-life balance, which respects the role of mothers and fathers? What do our economic and social policies say to poorer families, particularly those policies which impact directly on family: the needs of children and the elderly; tackling the proliferation of drugs, alcohol, gambling and other addictive behaviours which can destroy home and family life? How do welfare policies and benefit programmes support families who are most in need and who are so easily targeted and exploited by loan sharks and other criminal elements? How can we better assist young people who wish to establish a family, mortgage a home, take out insurance, but who may sometimes be convinced by economic policy to remain single?
In asking these questions of public policy makers we are not suggesting that we want the State to overly intrude into, or replace, the important autonomy of the family. On the contrary. We do so because we believe that if the institution of the family is harmed, then all of society suffers. As the vital circle and community of love and support in society, the family is much more than an economic or social unit. It is a privileged space for care, education, health promotion, mediation, security, community cohesion and safety. When the family is neglected by society, social problems multiply and become increasingly more complex. It would be a mistake to neglect the importance of the family in favour of some kind of ‘society of ones’, founded upon the undisputed supremacy of the ‘pure individual’ – to replace “we” entirely with “me”. Again, on the contrary, individuals thrive best with the nourishment, primary support and ‘wrap-around’ care of the family. All those simple, everyday gestures of love, trust, gratitude, concern, forgiveness, healing and challenge that are part and parcel of family life, help to create stability, solidarity on which society depends.
In entering this kind of dialogue, we in the Church are of course very conscious from our pastoral experience that family relationships do not always work out, and can even require direct intervention for the safety and well-being of families members. We must also be cautious about thinking that people who disagree with us on the issue of the Family are necessarily hostile. The engagement of people of faith together with all people of good will in conversations about family, marriage and other critical life matters is to be encouraged and welcomed. Drawing upon its rich tradition of social teaching, the Catholic Church will sometimes bring uncomfortable questions into such a dialogue. However, in an atmosphere of respectful encounter, it is possible for two-way, critical interaction and conversations to take place between religious traditions and the broader culture, including constructive critiques of social, political, legal, and economic practices as they affect the family.
Friends, this World Meeting of the Families gives us a privileged opportunity to communicate the Gospel of the Family ‘ad intra’, and ‘ad extra’, as good for society and good for the Church; in short, a message of Joy for the world! The family is a gift for the Church and a gift for society!
To conclude I offer some words from the Second Vatican Council, where Gaudium et Spes (47-48) speaks about “fostering the nobility of marriage and the family”.
“The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family”…
“For, God Himself is the author of marriage , endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes.(1) All of these have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole”.
So finally, my friends, conscious that Pope Francis offers us the Holy Trinity as an icon of Love for our reflection during this World Meeting, I pray with you as I began, an ancient Celtic circle prayer, this time a prayer of blessing for your family and for the family of families that is the Church:
The compassing of God the Father be on you,
The circling of the God of life.
The compassing of Christ be on you ,
The circling of the Christ of love.
The compassing of the Spirit be on you ,
The circling of the Spirit of Grace.
May the compassing of the Three shield you this day, this night and always. Amen.