My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
The Synod on the Family that has begun in Rome gives me an opportunity to write to you regarding the long tradition of the Church for upholding the family as the basic unit of society and also as the domestic Church. Most importantly, the Church sees the family as the foundation for a civilization of love. These are the words used by Pope Paul VI, soon to be beatified at the end of the Synod on the Family.
St. John Paul II, in his encyclical “Familiaris Consortio” (Tasks of the Family), described the family as a community of persons similar to the Trinity itself. These persons serve each other and support one another and participate in the development of society and the mission of the Church. Families are important in themselves. However, families are most important to society and to the Church.
There is no better example than the Holy Family of Nazareth as a model for Christian families. This has always been the message of the Church regarding family life; look to Nazareth and to the family that nurtured the Son of God, and we will know how to live in our own families.
The Family of Nazareth was not a family without problems. In the very beginning of the life of Jesus, Joseph had to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt to save the life of Jesus from King Herod, who was seeking someone whom he thought would ultimately unseat him as king. Today, this exiled family is an example for so many Christian and non-Christian families who must flee in the Middle East.
Nor was this family without internal problems, as witnessed by the loss of Jesus in the Temple when Mary and Joseph made their Passover visit. I always pray in the Mystery of the Rosary regarding the finding of Jesus in the Temple for families who have lost their children, either from death or to unknown disappearances, hoping to ease the pain and anguish that they feel from such a loss.
The internal relationship between a husband and wife certainly is the most important relationship that most people have in this life. Marriage is based on friendship, and the best friend that a husband and a wife can have is each other. Many times in the Pre Cana classes I oversaw, I asked couples, “Who is your best friend?” Instinctively, most times they would name other friends rather than their future spouse. Marriage, which is exclusive, is the highest form of friendship. It is not that there cannot be other friends. But marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman that expresses the highest level of human friendship raised to the level of a sacrament by the Lord Jesus, Himself.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, recently gave witness to his love for families by presiding at the wedding of 20 couples at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. These couples hardly came from perfect families. Some of them were cohabitating, and some already had children. The Holy Father gave witness to the necessity of the sacramental bond between man and woman for which there is no substitute. Human relationships and human friendships come to a higher level in marriage.
On this occasion, Pope Francis said, “This is what marriage is all about… Man and woman walking together. Wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man.”
Yes, marriage is a mutual relationship, but it is also a mutual improvement. I once heard it said that the groom thinks that his wife will never change and the bride thinks that she will change her husband. This is not the way, unfortunately, that things happen. We all must change, but it is not always easy to change.
In his address to the couples, Pope Francis admitted, “The challenges of married life can be burdensome, and, often, even nauseating. But assured that Christ’s redemptive sacrifice would enable them to resist the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness and abandonment.”
Unfortunately, in our world today fidelity is not easy to maintain. The temptations of the modern world seem to mitigate against the exclusive love for one man to one woman. The divine plan has ordained this, and the sacrament of marriage makes this possible. The internal difficulties of family life are within every family. The two most important elements of a family are love and forgiveness. Without the second, the first cannot flourish.
Pope Francis advised, “Never let the day end without having first made peace. Never. A small gesture is sufficient. Thus the journey may continue.”
How important it is that love contain forgiveness. I often quote the historic book and movie, “Love Story,” and its famous line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” There were never more false words ever spoken. It is exactly the opposite. The more that we love, the more we must forgive. Strengthening relationships in marriage goes beyond forgiveness. It entails sharing happiness, joined intimacy and the joys of human life.
Communication is essential to love and a good marriage. I have great respect for the Marriage Encounter movement where simple skills of communication are taught by experience on a weekend. The famous “ten/ten.” Ten minutes when the spouses must talk about their mutual feelings. It never is easy to be honest with one another. Without honest self-expression, it is impossible to sustain a happy marriage.
Prayer in the family is truly a binding force. The old adage coined by the Servant of God Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., “The family that prays together, stays together,” is ever more true today.
I remember an old Italian gentleman coming to me after he had lost his wife. In a simple sentence, he explained to me his loss when he said, “My companion in life is gone.” The companionship he described was their mutual love for God and for each other. They were always at Mass together, and he confided in me that they prayed the Rosary together. That is true companionship and true love.
As we join in prayer for the Synod on the Family and as we prepare for the World Meeting of Families to be held in the U.S. in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia next year, we put out into the deep recesses of family life. If families would pray together, I am sure that we could change the world in many ways. Family prayer in the Eucharist and in the home have an incalculable value. If we give more attention to this aspect of family life, I am sure that all can find greater happiness.