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Family: Become What You Are

On June 29, solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul, Archbishop Samuel Aquila published a pastoral letter titled “Family: Become What You Are.” Excerpts from it are published here. To read the entire letter and find additional resources, visit: www.archden.org.

 Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Pope St. John Paul the Great wrote in 1981: “The future of humanity passes by way of the family. It is therefore indispensable and urgent that every person of good will should endeavor to save and foster the values and requirements of the family.”

The truth and timeliness of this statement is as relevant now as it was more than 30 years ago. In fact, many of the challenges our society is facing today can be tied to the breakdown of the family.

This is because, as St. John Paul explained, the family “is the basic cell of society. It is the cradle of life and love, the place in which the individual ‘is born’ and ‘grows.’”

Our Church will be focusing on the family in a particularly intense way between October 2014 and October 2015. This period will begin with the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome to discuss the challenges to the family in the context of the new evangelization. It will continue with the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia in September 2015, and conclude with the Ordinary Synod of Bishops in October 2015.

Pope Francis has not declared an official “year” dedicated to studying and supporting the family, but I believe that God, in his providence, has given us this period of time to build up family life and redouble our efforts to support “the cradle of life and love.”

Because the family and its future are so vitally important for our society and for the Church, I have decided to write this pastoral letter on the nature and mission of the family to help you “stand firm in your faith, be courageous, (and) be strong.” Family life is a great gift of God. Yet many families today feel weak and demoralized. Family life throughout the world is wounded, broken in many cases, and misunderstood.

My hope is that this letter will provide a solid foundation for the faithful of the Archdiocese of Denver, and all people of good will, to effectively respond to the challenges that families experience today.

The letter is comprised of three sections. The first part is dedicated to explaining how the family’s mission and meaning comes from the Holy Trinity. The second section addresses the numerous challenges that the family and marriage are facing today. In the final section, I offer practical ways that families can live out their mission to be a place of love and life.

 

Part I: The Family’s Meaning and Mission

 The Original Family and the Trinity

The first human family was formed by the union of Adam and Eve. In the story of creation we hear, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply ….’” Then we hear, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife and they become one flesh.” To “be fruitful and multiply” is a blessing bestowed by God on man and woman for the sake of their unity and it was not lost in the fall!

Since God created mankind “male and female, their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man.” But our ability to reflect God’s love was damaged with the fall from grace that our first parents suffered when they chose to doubt God’s goodness and love and disobey his commands.

The truly good news is that with his death and resurrection Jesus Christ restored families’ ability to reflect the union in knowledge and love that is present between the three Persons of the Trinity. With his sacrifice of love, he “opened up vistas closed to human reason, for he implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity.”

Here, we are given a window into the origin of our desire to love and be loved, to know others and to be known. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council explained that the reason man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself”is that he is created in God’s image and likeness. That means we are made for a level of communion that we can only attain through an exchange of love and truth, and we won’t be satisfied with less.

 

The Role of Marriage in the Family

The family is called to greatness! But today there is much confusion about the nature and purpose of marriage, which is the foundation of every family.

Why are people experiencing this confusion? Many intermediate causes can be cited, but the root problem is that married couples and families are not living according to their created purpose and are not embracing the fulfilling but challenging truths revealed to us by Christ through his Church.

When a husband and wife give of themselves and share love and truth with each other, they are able to reflect the image of the Holy Trinity. This sharing in life and love is in turn echoed in the hearts of their children and helps bring the Kingdom of God to earth. God created the world and the human race through the gift of his Word and the breath of the Spirit. In a similar way, men and women are able to participate in creation by bringing children into the world through their mutual consent and one flesh union.

Sadly, our society has lost this understanding of marriage. Instead, the culture has dramatically shifted to promoting the individual and his or her supposed rights, often at the expense of the family. The idea of a “sincere gift of self”—even in the context of marriage—seems irrelevant and a distant reality. In contemporary Western culture, marriage and the family have suffered the consequences of this shift, and no one has been hurt more by it than children, who deserve the committed, selfless love of their mother and father.

 

Part II: Challenges to the Family

The Goods of Marriage and Modern Attacks

Because marriage is the cornerstone upon which a family is built, it is necessary to spend some time examining what marriage is and the various attacks or distortions present in our society.

St. Augustine taught that there are three goods which define marriage. They are: the good of children, the gift of fidelity between the spouses, and the good of the unbreakable bond. This final good can be understood as the witness given by the permanent bond of marriage, which points toward the heavenly marriage of Christ and his bride, the Church. I encourage you to commit these goods to memory, since they can help you discern what is a marriage from what is not.

[S]ame-sex unions are not marriages because a true conjugal union cannot take place between people of the same sex. They cannot realize the three goods of marriage and thus cannot realize between themselves a genuine one-flesh communion of body and soul. They can form a union of hearts and minds, as in any friendship, but marriage is more than this.

Marriage involves not only a spiritual and emotional union but also a bodily union. This union is founded on the complementarity of male and female, which the book of Genesis teaches is a type of human differentiation willed by God for the benefit and fulfillment of human beings. This complementarity is the foundation of a wholly unique kind of “human partnership” (societas)that has as its goal the formation and perfection of a husband and wife’s interior life, so that together they might increasingly grow in virtue and in true love of God and their neighbor.

A central point, perhaps the central point of the Christian teaching, without which we can neither understand the nature of man and woman, nor the God-given institution of marriage, is that this partnership and the love that binds it together are “ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown.” This is the embodiment of St. Augustine’s first good of marriage. Even if for reasons beyond their control, a couple cannot conceive, they still share and can realize this uniquely comprehensive type of human communion, founded upon human bodily complementarity and the commitment to permanency of the spouses.

There is nothing wrong with friendship and love between two people of the same sex. It can even be a great gift. Disorder enters in when same-sex friendships become sexualized. But since marriage is defined by its full bodily and spiritual self-giving—by its “one-flesh” nature—sexual activity is reserved to those who are married. This Christian teaching is unchanging and unchangeable.

Another difficult area today for Catholics is what Vatican II refers to as “the responsible transmission of life.” Many today are fearful of child-raising. They fear the expense and the commitment. They fear bringing children into a world of sin, selfishness and suffering. And they fear losing their freedom. This tempts them to use methods of avoiding pregnancy that inflict spiritual damage and harm their marriage. Rather than seeing contraception for what it is, namely, a barrier to married love and an enticement to selfishness, as well as something that can have serious health consequences for women, they see it as a solution to a problem.

When couples intentionally render their sexual union sterile through contraception, they rewrite God’s plan for sexual intimacy and make it no longer unitive and procreative. Sadly, whether the couple realizes it or not, they are degrading themselves and their sexuality by making their union one that is less than a “total” self-gift.

Their bodies’ language of mutual, total self-giving is overlaid, through contraception, with the inherently contradictory language of withholding their fertility. This leads not only to a refusal to be open to life but also to a falsification of the nature of married love, which is meant to be a personal and total exchange of the gift of self.

The Church teaches parents to be responsible and generous with the gift of their fertility. That is why it advocates the use of natural family planning, which utilizes an awareness of a woman’s fertility cycle to allow a couple to prayerfully decide whether God is calling them to potentially bring forth life or to refrain from intimacy. A couple must have serious reasons to postpone having a child, and they must always be open to the gift of life if they unexpectedly conceive a baby.

One final good that has come under attack is the permanent bond of marriage. Since 1960, the divorce rate in the United States has nearly doubled, rising to around 50 percent. This has led to countless broken families, with both spouses and children suffering the fallout that accompanies divorce.

The permanent character of marriage can be traced to the beginning of creation, as Jesus explains when the Pharisees question him about Moses allowing divorce. Christ responds, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female … ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one?’ So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Furthermore, in the same passage of the Gospel when the Pharisees noted to Jesus that Moses permitted divorce, he replied to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” These words are important for us today as the hearts of many are more formed by the society and culture in which we live than by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hearts have become hardened to the permanent, lifelong commitment of marriage and divorce has become much easier for couples today. Couples who truly reverence Christ and put him first in their marriage, loving one another as Christ loves, will remain faithful to each other even in difficult times in their marriage.

 

Part III: How to Live the Family’s Mission

Heralds of the Gospel of Marriage

In December 2011, Pope Benedict XVI gathered members of the Pontifical Council for the Family at the Vatican and spoke to them about how the evangelization of society is tied to the family. He observed, “In our time, as in times past, the eclipse of God, the spread of ideologies contrary to the family and the degradation of sexual ethics are connected. And just as the eclipse of God and the crisis of the family are linked, so the new evangelization is inseparable from the Christian family.”

By announcing the special Synod on the Family for October 2014 in conjunction with the Ordinary Synod of 2015, Pope Francis also recognizes this connection and is asking the Church to focus her energies on renewing the family.

Three important concerns that the synod must address include: raising children in broken homes where only one parent is present, providing effective pastoral care for couples who are divorced and “remarried” and improving marriage preparation so that it both spiritually awakens and educates couples in the truth, goodness and beauty of marital love rooted in the theology of the body. We have to help couples live the fullness of the Gospel in a broken, skeptical and hostile culture. Above all, the Church must shine a light on the joy of living a faithful Christian family life.

To help you live out the call to make Jesus Christ and the Church the foundation of your family, I want to provide you with a few practical ways to assist with forming your family so that it has Jesus Christ and the Church as its foundation.

The first essential way is the personal encounter with Jesus Christ, who leads us to encounter the Father and the Holy Spirit. Opening our hearts to a personal encounter with each person of the Trinity, and freely entering into the communion of love with the Trinity will ground us in Christ and the Church. This is done through personal prayer and most especially the prayerful reading of the four Gospels. Following the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola and many other saints, place yourself in the Gospel story, listen with your heart to what Jesus is saying, and encounter his healing compassion, mercy and love. Through this experience, you will be brought into a heart-to-heart relationship with him.

This leads to the second way, which is to live the sacramental life of the Church, most especially in the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation. We keep holy the Sabbath by attending Mass each weekend and we go to confession regularly, at least monthly, to experience the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus and grow in the virtues. These sacraments strengthen our relationship with the Trinity, strengthen the love of husband and wife for one another and for their children, and build up family life by keeping Christ at the center.

A third step is to pray together as a family. There is the adage, “Families that pray together, stay together.” This begins first with husbands and wives praying with one another, and then praying with their children. Praying at meal times, before making major decisions, or at bedtime with your children and then later with one another are all possibilities for going before God to lift up your hearts to him. Furthermore, having sacred images in your homes and crucifixes in every bedroom is a constant reminder that God comes first in our lives and we worship him alone.

A fourth practical way is to learn more about your faith. We are blessed in the Archdiocese of Denver with many parish and diocesan programs such as Marriage Encounter, That Man is You, Endow, the Catholic Biblical School, the Catechetical School, Families of Character, and the Augustine Institute, just to name a few. All of these programs can help you encounter Christ and help families grow.

Finally, it is important to give witness to the good news of family life in the public square. Too many Christian hearts and minds have been formed by the culture in which we live, and too many have left their faith at the doors of the church, rather than working for the transformation of culture and society as the Second Vatican Council teaches. Too many hearts have become hardened to the Gospel, turned to false gods and empty idols, and have become “blind guides.” In the debates of today, it is vital that Catholics give witness to the truth of marriage, the family and the dignity of human life from the moment of conception to natural death.

There are many challenges and threats to the family today, so I realize that it is not possible for every difficult family situation to be neatly resolved. But I do know that with the grace of God, every person and situation can more closely resemble the intimate exchange of love we were made to experience. I know in faith and from personal experience that hearts can be transformed and healed through an encounter with Jesus Christ. He alone can bestow peace and joy in the family that no one can take away. Because of his grace and mercy, every family can respond to the challenge presented by Pope St. John Paul the Great, “family, become what you are … a community of life and love” that will find its ultimate fulfillment in heaven.

May God bless each and every one of you, and may he bless all families with a special outpouring of grace in this time of renewal of the family!

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila, S.T.L.

Archbishop of Denver

June 29, 2014

Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul

 

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Roxanne King
Roxanne King is the former editor of the Denver Catholic Register and a freelance writer in the Denver area.
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