By Susan Gately - 19 March, 2016
The Church must move away from a perspective that sees the family simply on the “receiving end of the Church’s ministry” to seeing it as an “active agent of the Church’s mission”, says Bishop Brendan Leahy.
Speaking at a recent day-long meeting for clergy entitled Dreaming Big – the rediscovery of the Family Today, Bishop Leahy said the Church needed to review how it viewed family life and ministry in a way that acknowledged and promoted the mission of each family.
“I heard recently of a woman who said to a priest, ‘now that I have raised my family, I would like to devote time to helping the Church.’ Her years of raising the family somehow hadn’t registered as Church mission!”
Today, St Joseph’s day, is widely rumoured to be the day when Pope Francis will publish or sign his Apostolic Exhortation on the family.
Bishop Leahy said the Church needed to “dream big” again about the family. We can so easily get caught up in issues, problems and challenges that we forget we need to keep alive the vision of just what a great gift family life is.
Everyone belongs to a family – fathers, mothers, daughters and sons, aunts and uncles, cousins and in-laws… Families come in all shapes and sizes.
Not all perfect. Some very limited. And yet, family is the major impact on our lives. It gives identity, he said.
The nostalgia for family life was written into “our spiritual DNA because first and foremost it is the dream God has written into creation and history. The family is God’s big dream!” said the bishop of Limerick.
When God wanted to communicate himself fully to us, he did so by becoming a member of a family – the family of Nazareth: Mary, Joseph and Jesus among them.
When he [Jesus] is present in the relationships of love between people, then the true sense of family comes alive, he said.
“This is also the meaning of the sacrament of marriage. It brings the real, even if invisible, presence of Jesus into the relationships of the family in a new way.”
He continued: “I would like to suggest that we need to rediscover the family as an icon of the Trinity if we want to rediscover the mission of the family today.”
“The risk of developing ‘me, myself and I’ personalities is always real. The icon of the Trinity reminds us of our ‘You-me-Us’ personalities. Family life is meant to help us not to be self-centered and to be open to solidarity, fraternity and cooperation.”
With the rise of notions of equality and freedom, tolerance and mutual respect, the Holy Spirit perhaps wanted people to “re-imagine the dynamics of family life in new ways that are more relational, reflecting a more ‘Trinitarian’ rather than ‘pyramidal’ mindset.”
Illustrating this new style of family life was as story told him by a father. He and his wife had made a mistake in arrangements for their son to go to a second level school.
“Sitting down together as a family, the parents apologised and the whole family discussed together how to proceed. I’m not sure such a scene would have been easily found 40 years ago.”
With the huge transformations and challenges in today’s culture, many different types of family situations arise.
“It might seem the Christian vision of the family is doomed to failure,” Bishop Leahy told the priests gathered at the Focolare Centre in Kildare.
He reminded them that Jesus pronounced his family dream for humanity “may they all be one” at the moment of the greatest breakdown in history, the Good Friday of Calvary. Jesus crucified is the key “both to the identity and mission of the family and to the pastoral ministry of all involved in family ministry”.
It’s a question of recognising him and responding to him, day by day, in all the ways he can be found in the challenges and bewilderment we can be faced with, he said.
But the bishop warned against delegating the “art of accompaniment” to just a few specialist agencies.
“While the Catholic marriage agency, Accord, does wonderful work, we need to be careful that we don’t simply ‘outsource’ the diocesan or parish pastoral accompaniment of families to a few volunteers in a Marriage agency.”
Every diocese, parish, community and minister is called to “accompany” families as families.
Everywhere there are seeds of the Trinitarian life sown by the Spirit in the hearts and relationships of people, he said.
“We need to encourage them, help them grow and develop. The Spirit does the leading. We are but instruments along the way to facilitate the full flourishing of those around us.”
But discernment too was needed to know how to promote family life.
“Not everything proposed today about family life is tuned into God’s plan. We need to be informed about what the Gospel tells us about family life and what the Church teaches us about the significance of family life in society.”