“The family, the first and principal transmitter of faith” is the theme of the Fifth World Meeting of Families which takes place this week in Valencia, Spain. Pope Benedict XVI, following the initiative of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, will attend and celebrate the concluding Mass on July 9th.
The institution of the family is, of course, the basic unit of society: children are hard-wired to be best raised by a mother and a father who are married to each other. The family should then provide the stable and protective environment for children to grow in productive and responsible adulthood. Healthy, in the sense of wholesome, families make for healthy, wholesome societies. And when families break down – whether because of economic or ideological pressures – the results can be catastrophic. Just as cigarette packages contain a warning: Smoking is hazardous to health; perhaps, a similar warning is needed today: Divorce, cohabitation, out of wed-lock pregnancies, and so called “same sex unions” are hazardous to society’s health. Our police forces, our social services agencies, our schools, our courtrooms deal with the consequences of the break-down of the family every day
The family is also the basic unit of the Church. The Christian family –through the Sacrament of Marriage and the Baptism of the parents and children – is a “domestic church”. In the same way the healthy families strengthen the society in which they live, so too faith-filled (and holy) families strengthen the Church. History shows that the great saints were born in deeply Christian families and in those countries in which the Church was persecuted and forced underground, it was in the family that the faith was preserved and transmitted through the ministry of the parents. History also shows that where the family forgets its role of being the protagonist, the main actor, in handing on the faith there is a corresponding decline in faith and religious practice.
While parishes offer a valuable and indispensable service to families by providing formal catechesis, it is the family that is the first and principle institution entrusted with transmitting the saving Mystery of God in which God’s plan is revealed to us: that is, we all share—as children—in the communion of love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Christian family itself, through the mutual self-giving, unity and love of its members, is a reflection of that mystery of Trinitarian communion.
Reading the Word of God in the family, sharing as a family in the Sunday Eucharist, prayer in common in the home and works of charity that take place in and from the home should be part of every family’s “in home” catechesis – and such a family based catechesis will ensure the proper integration by the child of the lessons provided by more formal “parish based” catechesis. To assure that the faith will be transmitted to future generations we must address not only the inadequacies and lacunae that might exist in our parishes’ catechesis but also those that exist within that of our families. The recovery of an Evangelizing Church passes through the restoration of the family as the basic institution for the transmission of the faith.