Feast of the Holy Family
They settled in a town called Nazareth (Mt 2:23)
Necessity of the Human Family
In the whole of the animal kingdom, human being is the most vulnerable animal at the point of birth. A calf of a cow can stand on its feet merely 30 minutes after its birth. The next day, it could be jumping and running around all over the place. A duckling begins to swim on the same day it is hatched. Even though basic survival instincts are sufficiently developed in a human infant, the emotional and rational dimensions far from being fully developed. Why is the human baby so fragile and vulnerable? Humans possess the most complex of brains on planet earth. It is only about 25% developed by the time of birth. If it were to be developed up to 75% as a calf’s brain is, then the gestation period has to be tripled. And the baby will never come out of the birth canal. As is, at the time of birth the human head is too large not proportionate to the rest of the body, hence the difficulty in delivering the human baby.
What do all these details mean for us humans? Very simple: We need the family. The human baby needs a group of humans who will ‘naturally’ and ‘instinctively’ take care of it. The care is not merely physical. But development of the limbic system (responsible for bonding and emotional processing) and the cerebral cortex, especially the prefrontal context (just behind the forehead, responsible for rational choice) needs the right ambient to fully realise their potentially.
For me, this is part of the plan of God for humanity. Humans need the family.
What type of family?
The readings of today enumerate the different values that are pertinent to the human family: support, respect, sympathy, kindness, love, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness, wisdom, obedience. Some of the details could be only culturally relevant, however, all these virtues are universal to humans, and they are acquired in the context of the family. Therefore, these values form the building blocks of the human family.
The gospel text of today, from Matthew, focuses on the protective role of Joseph, as the father of the family. But Luke (Lk 2:22-52) would highlight the role of Mary. In any case, the family of Nazareth is a complete family, a family where Jesus grew in all the four dimensions of his person: intellectual, physical, spiritual, and socio-emotional. “And Jesus increased in wisdom, in stature, and in favour with God and men” (Lk 2:52).
Temptations in the Modern Family
On this feast of the family, I would like to point out three temptations that I witness in the families of today. Sometimes as priests when we talk about families, people tend to shirk off the words of the priest because they think since the catholic priests are not married we understand nothing about the family. It is important to recognise that we were all born and brought up in families. We priests see and hear things in the families of our own siblings. We see and hear of situations in hundreds or thousands of families that we are privileged to have access to as pastors, which an ordinary person will not have. My following remarks are drawn from this background.
Temptation to mix up equality and sameness:
Any day I would die for the equality of women, but equality is not sameness. A woman is equal to a man. Yes, but she does not have to do the same things that a man does, or vice versa. I am a teacher, so let me offer an analogy. In the context of the classroom, is a student equal to the teacher? Yes, they are all equal. Are they doing the same things? Surely, not! They have equal rights. But their rights are not the same. It is the case in a family. We are all equal. But our needs are different, our contributions are different. The baby needs more sleep, the elderly person might need more time to sit quietly, the young man needs more space to move around, and young woman may need more time to groom! A constant reflection on the fact of equality that integrates difference will save our families.
Temptation to pamper children rather than love
Globally families are becoming smaller. Number of children in families is becoming fewer. It is important to recognise that the official Catholic Church talks about responsible parenthood, and does not naively encourage large families. In Asia, and in some contexts in Africa, we can see even four generations living under the same roof. Generally, in Western families you don’t see more than two generations living under the same roof. Consumerist economy might be encouraging smaller families – and even splitting up the nuclear family, so as to create more households, and thus encouraging consumption of household goods.
In any case, one of the implications of smaller families is that children get a lot of attention. Fair enough! But the danger is that they could be really pampered. They could be just allowed to do as they please. We who work in educational institutions with larger number of young people in the classroom bear the brunt of this. Everyone in the classroom of say, 30 children is desperately seeking the teacher’s attention – often being restless and naughty. The right proportion of freedom and responsibility; the right sense of being the focus of attention and being alone; and giving access to all that a child needs and restraining from all that the child wants, is a challenge today. It calls for a wise decision to create a balanced ambient in our families.
Temptation to exaggerate one human dimension over others
The third temptation is to exaggerate one of the four dimensions of the family over the others: physical, intellectual, socio-emotional, and spiritual. In some families parents focus too much on the financial dimension over the need to spend time together. Both the parents are working hard, but have no time for the children. In other families, children spend too much time with their machines than other human beings. It is embarrassing when we as priests visit some families, the children are apparently busy with their play-stations in their rooms and lack the social etiquette to come down to greet a guest. At meals, each one is busy with their own mobile phones! And matters of the spiritual could be pushed to the private sphere of the members of the family. Pope Paul VI encouraged the Rosary as the prayer of the family (in Marialis Cultus). Today, some families that pray together use the Scriptures. Surely, the faith dimension in the family helps us to go beyond mere instincts to live together to an appreciation of the plan of God for the family.
The years 2014 and 2015 are going to be very special for the family in the Catholic Church. We are going to have two synods on the family. From 5 to 19 October 2014, an extraordinary synod will be held in Rome on “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” Then the ordinary synod of 2015 will seek to arrive at some “pastoral guidelines on the care of the person and the family.”
In the context of these concerns, today on the Feast of the Holy Family, we pray for our own families. And we feel challenged to reflect on the perennial values of human family.
Fr Franco Pereira S.D.B.