How community worship can play a vital role in strengthening family life
Being with our loved ones is a treasured part of Christmas for many of us, but, writes Fr Timothy Bartlett, the church is also important
The number of ads on television and social media over recent weeks evoking emotional scenes of a Christmas homecoming suggests that, here in Ireland, we continue to place a very high value on the family.
As a priest, I have often noticed how the strength and support of a family has made all the difference to how someone coped, recovered or survived through some of the most challenging and tragic crises of their life. Whether it was coping with shattered dreams, disappointed love, financial set-backs, addiction, ill-health, grief or the trauma of losing a home, I have noticed that someone who is part of a close, loving family, strong in its commitment to one another, has an invaluable resource when it comes to coping with life and all its problems.
What has surprised me, however, is that many of these families do not see the connection between their often heroically selfless love of family, and a Catholic faith they are adamant they believe in but rarely participate in as part of a celebrating, sacramental community.
Like most other priests, I dearly wish I could convince such families that they would benefit in so many ways from being part of a regularly worshipping community. What I have come to realise, however, is that the same scriptural tradition of St John which proclaims that the "Word was made flesh, and dwelt amongst us" (Jn. 1:14), also reminds us that "all love comes from God" (1 Jn. 4:7). A more urgent and fundamental challenge, therefore, may be to help those families who know the saving love of God through the selfless, forgiving love they experience in their daily commitment to family life, to appreciate that what they already do so well, as family, is itself sacred and a place of genuine encounter with God.
The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said something similar when he addressed those gathered for the launch, in Ireland, of the preparations for the World Meeting of Families, to be held in Dublin from August 22-26, 2018. Speaking of the importance of beginning by listening to the reality of families today, he expressed his conviction that, "We should not be rushing in telling people what to do, without first of all recognising what is great and beautiful and courageous in so many Irish families". "Family is about love," he went on to say, "no matter how imperfect and failing: it is about a love which enriches lives. I am thinking about the love of spouses, the love of parents for children. We have great families who would never think of themselves as great: they simply do their best. Where would any of us be without the love and generosity we received from our parents? That is not something old-fashioned: it is something more necessary than ever."
In this, Archbishop Martin was echoing the realism of Pope Francis, in his approach to marriage and family life in the world today. "In families, sometimes we quarrel," Pope Francis will often say. "Sometimes, plates can fly. Children can bring headaches and - don't let me talk about mother-in-laws!." A realistic and understandable way of presenting the beauty and truth of family life, amidst its practical realities. Yet, Pope Francis concludes, "in the family there is always light - always!" It is reasonable to expect that this practical approach of a loving, sensitive pastor, accompanying people in their sincere efforts to do what is right by their families, will also be the approach of the World Meeting of Families 2018, under the guidance of Archbishop Martin.
Across the country, on Christmas morning, many teenagers and parents will be glued to their new mobile phones, tablets or laptops, each doing their own thing. A modern phenomenon, yet in Ireland we are host to the European headquarters of many of the major tech and gaming companies of the world. Is the World Meeting of Families 2018 an opportunity to invite these companies to engage in a conversation on how to make new technology more family-friendly? We are also a green country. Pope Francis has made care for our common home, the earth, a priority. Is the World Meeting of Families 2018 an opportunity to look at how the family can become a critical micro-climate in building a healthier, more sustainable world?
What about the threats, as well as the opportunities for family and the well-being of young people presented by the internet? How can we help young couples in their first years of marriage or in their first experience of parenting? How can we affirm and enhance the role of grandparents in passing on the wisdom of generations of faith in our lives?
All of these issues and more are likely themes in an engaging, wide-ranging programme of talks, workshops and events that will form part of the World Meeting of Families 2018. It will be an opportunity to move beyond the tired, ideological debates about family and marriage of the past to a new, common search for the beauty, truth and value of marriage and the family for the future of the world.
Fr Timothy Bartlett is Secretary General of the World Meeting of Families 2018