This month we celebrate the 10th annual World Meeting of Families. As we reflect on the family as the church in miniature—the domestic church—we might reflect on the words of Pope Francis:
There is no such thing as the perfect family. Only by the daily exercise of forgiveness can a family grow (1 December 2018).
Family life, like the Church, can be very messy. For many people, the concept of the domestic church can seem like a failed philosophy: great in theory, disastrous in practice. But despite the many frustrations and disappointments experienced by spouses and children alike, marriage and family life have an innate beauty that people are naturally drawn to because of the heroic love, sacrifice, virtue and holiness involved. But why does the ideal seem so hard to convert into reality?
The problem does not lie in the domestic church as a concept or idea, but rather in the human heart. Breakdown in marriages and families is not the result of ‘structural’ or ‘institutional’ conditions; it is the result of the human condition. We are fallen beings, and it is okay to acknowledge that. When thinking about the domestic church, we need to see the whole reality, recognising that the domestic church doesn’t exist purely as an idea but is lived out by imperfect, fallible human beings. The splendor and grace of marriage are in a constant tussle with our fallen nature.
All sacraments are healing and strengthening encounters with the living God. They are where we experience the new life offered to us by Jesus. Pope Francis puts it this way: ‘Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you’ (Evangelii Gaudium, §164). This is what prayer and sacraments offer us: renewed life in Christ.
This is the good news of the domestic church: it is founded on the sacrament of marriage and therefore is permeated with the grace of Christ, who is devoted to redeeming the love of the spouses, healing their wounds and coming to their aid when they are in danger of falling. Jesus does not leave us orphans, but is irrevocably invested in aiding our marriages and families.
The other reality that we must honestly address is that we are fallen. Sin is real, and it affects us. Because of sin, the heart has become a battlefield between genuine love and illicit desire. Every person who looks honestly within him or herself knows this. There is a fundamental disharmony: we do not do what we want, but rather we do the things we hate, as St Paul famously observed (see Romans 7:15–20). We are the ones who cause tension and frustration in our marriage and families. It is not ‘marriage’ or the concept of ‘family’ that afflicts us; it is the people in those marriages and in our families who hurt us. Marriage is very good, as is family. The construct of marriage is not what’s destructive, but rather the reality of sin. As Christ warns us, it is not what comes from the outside that defiles us, but rather what proceeds from our hearts (Matthew 15:10–20).
As Pope Francis said, ‘Only by the daily exercise of forgiveness can a family grow.’ A mentality of growth is crucial; the family home isn’t meant to ‘house’ perfect people; it’s meant to be a place where imperfect people find love, communion, encouragement and forgiveness.
In By Love Refined: Letters to a Young Bride, Alice von Hildebrand observes that the success of any relationship—marriage or otherwise—won’t depend on exterior circumstances but on our own inner attitudes. The freedom to love requires freedom from our interior constraints: pride, selfishness, laziness, lust, addiction, apathy. These are the vices that undo marriages and families.
A lot of young people have witnessed the losing battles of marriage and family life, but they need to be formed with the winning attitudes and dispositions that foster loving, joyful and holy marriages: prayer, self-mastery, discipline, forgiveness and mercy.
In all our relationships, Pope Francis advises us to ‘be generous with these words: please, thank you and I’m sorry.’ Simple advice, but these words help to build a culture of family life as a place for growth and healing, not a place where everyone ‘has it all together.’
We don’t like talking about sin, but it is a reality that gives the salvation and new life won by Christ its gravitas. Christ has saved us from something dire, and that’s why it’s good news. Christ promises us full life. We need to proclaim just how real life with Christ actually is. We are fallen, yes, but also redeemed, and we can now live in light of the redemption.
Ultimately, we need to emphasise the goodness and transforming power of God’s love. We are all called to love and to sanctification. The domestic church and the relationships contained within it are our stepping stones to holiness and the greatest blessing to society. It is a path with many thorns but also with many graces. The process of truly examining our hearts and inviting Christ to strengthen and free us will lead us towards a heroic fulfillment of marriage and family life, and away from breakdown and heartache.
We need to look into our hearts and be honest about what’s there, recognising that there is a sinner and saint in us at every moment. But if we remain in the truth of Christ, life in our domestic church is designed to form us into the latter.
Let us pray that our families and households, our ‘domestic churches’, are open to the transforming love of God, and that they can be a witness of God’s mercy to each other and the world.
This year marks 175 years since the erection of the Diocese of Melbourne! Come and celebrate at a special Diocesan Mass on Sunday 26 June.
That weekend also marks the conclusion of the 10th World Meeting of Families, so following the Mass, make sure to stick around for lots of food, fun and festivities around the Cathedral grounds!
Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC)16 August 2022
Christian Bergmann12 August 2022