Why a pastoral letter on the family?

You may have never thought about it, but when the Holy Family was forced to flee into Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution, they experienced what it is like to be alone and isolated from everyone they knew. Many people experience that same sense of isolation today because the meaning and purpose of family life is understood by so few people.

On his flight from the Holy Land back to Rome, Pope Francis described the current situation in dramatic terms: “Today, we know, the family is in crisis, it’s a worldwide crisis; the young don’t want to marry or they (decide to) live together. The pastoral problem of the family is very large, very large.”

I couldn’t agree with the Holy Father more. The family plays a critical role in ensuring that society flourishes, because it is the place where people best learn virtue and receive the formation that makes them good citizens and good future parents.

The symptoms of this crisis range from attempts to redefine the meaning and purpose of the family to a huge growth in the number of single-parent homes to grandparents having to raise their grandchildren, even though their parents are alive.

The confusion and damage striking our society is very real. I have decided to respond to this turmoil by writing a pastoral letter on the family to clearly explain God’s plan for the family and to encourage people to experience the happiness that can come from living it.

The letter will be issued in the coming weeks and is titled “Family: Become What You Are.” The title comes from St. John Paul the Great’s apostolic exhortation on the family, “Familiaris Consortio.”
In that beautiful and important document, he states that every family finds within itself “a summons that cannot be ignored” to follow God’s plan for it to be “a community of life and love.” After explaining the mission of the family, St. John Paul issues a challenge: “family, become what you are.”

My letter will go into greater detail, but the call to be a “community of life and love” originates from the fact that we are created in God’s image and likeness. And it is between the three persons of the Holy Trinity that we find the original communion of life and love.

But this is far from the reality that many people experience in families today. The Church must respond to the wounds caused by the breakdown of family life with mercy and truth, after the example of Jesus encountering the Samaritan woman.

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, he first extended mercy by speaking to her and asking for water—something a Jewish man would not normally do. Then he invited her to ask for the “living water” he could give her, which would lead to eternal life. Finally, Jesus addressed the sinful situation she was living in by asking about her husband. She replied, “I have no husband.”

“You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband,” Jesus replied. This presentation of the truth and Jesus’ revelation that he was the Messiah struck a chord in the woman’s heart and she began to testify about him. Because of her encounter with Jesus, she was able to face the truth about the sin in her life that made her unhappy.

The Church must respond to the numerous broken family situations in this same way. It must first be willing to seek out the wounded, then present the possibility of healing, and finally, lead them to the truth and freedom that comes from responding to God’s high calling for the family.

It is very important that Catholics seek to learn about what the Church is saying through sources that understand the teaching of the Church. The mass media often fails to convey the full message of the Church’s beautiful teaching because it skims the surface of what is presented.

I pray that in this coming year my pastoral letter, “Family: Become What You Are,” will help you grow in your understanding and achievement of the high and beautiful calling of the family. By living God’s plan for the family, you will, through his grace become a community of life and love that brings his light to a society in need of it.

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.