By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Sep 5, 2009)
The following is part 8 of a 14-part series to help inspire parish cenacle and study groups who are looking for ways to make a difference in this troubled world. We invite you to view the entire series.
Have you ever known a Catholic who is "ultra-religious": That is, someone who wears almost every kind of religious medal, practices almost all the main devotions of our Catholic tradition (devotion to the Sacred Heart and the First Fridays, devotion to the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the First Saturdays, daily Rosaries, chaplets, Angelus prayers, Divine Office, and special devotions to a score of saints), fills his or her home with religious art, and gets involved in just about every church activity imaginable? Is all of this religious busyness and decoration really what Jesus is asking of His true disciples?
Sadly, the underlying motive for the excessive "religiosity" of some people is not really love for God or for their neighbors, but an attempt to hide from their own besetting sins and avoid their true responsibilities by losing themselves in an elaborate regime of pious activity. Some people seem to think that the more pious they are, the more holy they will become. But Jesus did not seem to think so: "Not every one who says to Me 'Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven" (Mt 7:21).
In a similar way, sincerely religious people who want to "make a difference" in this world can all too easily deceive themselves into thinking that the more busy they are in social work for the poor, or action for justice and peace, the more holy they will become. But Jesus did not seem to think so: "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful" (Lk 10:41-42). That one needful thing is to listen to His voice (as Mary did, see Lk 10:42) and to follow His will, beginning right where you are.
In fact, you can eagerly seek the will of God and listen for the new ways He may be calling you to serve Him as a true disciple of His Son, and yet still you may miss the very thing He needs you to do first, the call He may have given you already that you have been ignoring. In your eagerness to change the world for Christ, you can miss the will of His Heavenly Father, calling you to come to the aid of those who are right on your very doorstep!
All baptized Christians are called by Jesus Christ to a life of holiness, and every year at Easter, Catholics renew their baptismal vows. But how many of us remember that the journey to holiness begins in our own family? Each one of us is someone's son or daughter, and some of those reading this have spouses and children, too. The families from which we come and those in which we live now are not just the "backdrops" of our lives of discipleship: They are the principal settings in which that discipleship takes shape. Before we go off conquering the world for Christ, we need to take a spiritual inventory of our relationships with our own family members.
In its Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (section 11), the Second Vatican Council beautifully summed up for us the mission and purpose of family life:
The family has received from God its mission to be the first and vital cell of society. It will fulfill this mission if it shows itself to be the domestic sanctuary of the Church through the mutual affection of its members and the common prayer they offer to God, if the whole family is caught up in the liturgical worship of the Church, and if it provides active hospitality and promotes justice and other good works for the service of all the brethren in need.
Let's take a moral and spiritual inventory of our family lives and see if we are missing out on what Jesus Christ may be calling us to do in those lives. Not all of the categories that follow will apply to everyone, of course, but at least one will probably apply to you.
North Americans are notorious for neglecting their aging parents. Have you ever wondered why the Lord put into the Ten Commandments the words "Honor your father and mother" but put nothing in the list about loving your children? Perhaps it is because parents have a natural instinct to love and nurture their own children; they hardly need a divine commandment to remind them to do so! However, as children grow up, they have a natural instinct to begin to distance themselves from their parents, to establish their own independence, and finally to "cut the apron strings" altogether. It takes a degree of humility and a bit of effort to acknowledge our moral debt to those who brought us into the world, gave us the gift of life, and nurtured us in our youth (no matter how imperfectly they may have done so at times).
To honor your father and mother means, first of all, to acknowledge all the good things they did for you when you were young and the sacrifices they made on your behalf and, second, to let go of anger and to forgive them for their shortcomings as we bear in mind our own faults and failings. It means making sure that in their advancing age and declining strength, we return the gifts of life and nurturing that they gave to us at the start of our journey by providing care and compassion for them at the end of theirs. No one is required by Jesus Christ to be emotionally "close" to his or her parents or to pretend that they were better at parenting than they actually were. We are never commanded to deny sad truths: only to seek the healing of any sorrows or estrangement — to the extent that we can — with merciful love and forgiveness.
Thus, we should ask ourselves the following questions. When was the last time I said "thank you" to my parents for all the good things they did for me? Have I forgiven them for the ways they may have let me down? If they are still alive, do I stay in touch with them? Call them? Visit them when I can? If they have died, do I remember to pray for them at the Holy Eucharist or have a Mass offered for the repose of their souls?
Here is a place where we can begin to make a difference in the world: by letting Christ's healing, merciful love flow into our relationship with our parents.
In the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, Jesus our Savior poured into our hearts all the graces we need to live out what St. Paul called "a great mystery": the love between husband and wife as a reflection of the love of Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom, for His Bride, the Church (see Eph 5:21-33). However, since the 1960s, North America has had the highest divorce rate in the world, and the divorce rate among Catholics is not that much lower than the rate for the population as a whole. Furthermore, even when marriages have not collapsed in divorce, they often suffer from stress and strain.
Even those who have been married for just a few years may have a mental list of things about their spouse that really irk them. The first step toward healing this situation is to realize that you are no "bargain" as a spouse either. After all, marriage is a lifetime union between a man and a woman, each of whom is burdened by that inner corruption called "original sin" in theological terminology. The important thing to remember is that both of you brought your share of original sin into your marital union. We are all sinners not yet fully cured. That is why Jesus taught us:
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, "Let me take the speck out of your eye," when there is a log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye. (Mt 7:3-5)
Letting Christ's merciful love flow into a marriage relationship usually requires at least two things: better communication and mutual respect.
Respect for your spouse should not be based primarily on how physically attractive, financially successful, or even how virtuous your spouse may be, but on the fact that your spouse is someone made in the image of God (Gen 1:27) and someone whom Jesus Christ loved so much that He gave His very life for him or her on the cross (Gal 2:20). How, then, can you not cherish and continually seek the good of someone who is so precious to our Savior as your spouse?
Better communication is founded on a mutual willingness, first of all, to admit one's own failings and to forgive the failings of one's spouse. To initiate the road to better communication, try beginning a conversation with your spouse with a sincere apology for those ways you know you have let him or her down in the past, and see if that does not lead to a degree of reciprocation. More serious barriers to communication often can be overcome with prayer, patience, and the help of Christian marital counseling. But you need to have the courage to try.
Ask yourself these questions: How well am I communicating with my spouse? How sincerely am I trying to understand my spouse's needs and struggles, hopes, and dreams? Am I consistently showing respect for my spouse's God-given human dignity in the way I speak and act toward him or her?
We will say more about what we can do for our children in later parts of this series. Here, suffice it to say that it is above all from the love of their parents that children learn that they are persons of worth and value, that they learn how to love and be loved, and that they learn how to pray and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Pope John Paul II summed it up well in his apostolic exhortation Christifideles Laici ("Christ's Faithful Laity"):
The Christian family as the "domestic church" also makes up a natural and fundamental school for formation in the faith: father and mother receive from the Sacrament of Matrimony the grace and ministry of the Christian education of their children before whom they bear witness and to whom they transmit both human and religious values. While learning their first words, children learn also the praise of God whom they feel is near them as a loving and providential Father; while learning the first acts of love, children also learn to open themselves to others, and through the gift of self receive the sense of living as a human being.
Ask yourself these questions: Am I setting a good example for my children of regular attendance and devout participation at the Holy Eucharist? Do I set a good example for them of patience, loving kindness, and cheerful perseverance in my duties and responsibilities? Do I guide them more with encouragement than with criticism? Do I give them an example of forgiving and asking for forgiveness? Do I provide them with reasonable family rules and fair and consistent discipline? Do I take a real interest in their legitimate interests? And do they get to spend as much time with me as they do with the TV set?
From the lives of the saints, we learn that quite often these holy men and women were given terrific "head starts" in their lives of discipleship by the love they received from their parents. Saint Augustine and St. Therese of Lisieux are two famous examples. The story of Bl. Dina Belanger of Quebec (1897-1929) is not so famous but provides an especially illuminating example because she wrote about her relationship with her parents at length in her autobiography. Blessed Dina gives us a glimpse of what a difference it can make to spend one's childhood surrounded by loving care and sincere piety. If you are a parent, let her story give you a new vision of what kind of home environment you can strive to fashion for the sanctification of your own kids:
Only in heaven shall I fully understand the vigilance, devotedness, and love of my father and mother. It is one of God's greatest blessings to be born and brought up in an atmosphere of peace, union, and charity, edified by the sublime examples of constant conformity to God's good pleasure. ...
All my life I had before my eyes the example of parents who generously relieved the poor, giving alms on every side, and bestowing comfort wherever they passed. ... How often have I heard them say, "Do not put down my name," or "This is for you, but do not say anything about it." How many anonymous gifts they made. ... Nursing the sick was a real mission for my mother, a task which my father shared by approving and assisting her kindly ministrations. This conduct on his part often entailed heroic sacrifice. How many outings forfeited? How many plans sacrificed to relieve some needy family, either among our relatives, or total strangers, by day or night, close at hand or far away, whether the need was certain, or only probable? ...
How happy I was when my father entered the house in the evening! He seldom could come home at noon. He would take me in his arms, kiss me, and [play with] me before supper, although he then must have been quite worn out with his day's toil. I was his idol. He would spend hours playing with me, and answering my endless questions. His greatest joy was to procure pleasant surprises: a walk, or a trip, some little present, a rosary, a statue, some toy or piece of jewelry. Speaking of the latter, the first I remember were a tiny golden heart, and a little cross. A heart, symbol of the gift of my own to Jesus, and of my love for Him, and a cross: emblem of Jesus' love for me. ...
How I thank my good parents for having loved me in the true sense of the word, for real love supposes correction of faults. What should I have become, left to my pride, my stubbornness, my whims and fancies, my mischievous tricks? No doubt I should have developed into a sulky, unbearable child, all the more so as I was brought up without the salutary contact of other children. Later on, I should have been unable to agree with anybody, or get on without making those around me suffer. My God, I thank Thee for having given me parents who taught me to obey. ...
To prove my gratitude, I am duty bound to become a saint. ... Only thus can I make a fit return for their past and present solicitude. Yes, I will become a saint. I will become holy in the degree that God has marked out for me. Thus may I repay [my parents] for the pains they have taken for my education, and console them in their grief over our separation. (Autobiography of Dina Belanger: Religious of Jesus and Mary)
1. If God is really calling you to a life of simple holiness, how will you respond right where you are, in your own family life?
2. How can you challenge yourself to show God's love to difficult family members?
3. If your children were sending you home with a report card, what grades would you receive in the following categories? (1) Spends quality time with us (2) Exhibits fairness and consistency of discipline (3) Sets a good example of prayer and Eucharistic devotion (4) Sets a good example of patience (5) Sets a good example of understanding and loving kindness (6) Sets a good example of perseverance and responsibility.
A Traditional Prayer for the Family
Merciful Savior, who didst love Martha, Mary, and Lazarus of Bethany, hallowing their home with Thy sacred presence: bless, we beseech Thee, our home, that Thy love may rest upon us and that Thy presence may be with us. May we all grow in grace and in the knowledge of Thee, our Lord and Savior. Teach us all to love one another as Thou hast given us commandment. Help us to bear one another's burdens and so fulfill Thy law, O blessed Jesus, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit livest and reignest, one God, for evermore. Amen.
A Hymn (Roland Palmer, SSJE, b. 1891)
Sing of Mary, pure and lowly, Virgin Mother undefiled,
Sing of God's own Son most holy, who became her little child.
Fairest child of fairest mother, God the Lord who came to earth,
Word made flesh, our very brother, takes our nature by His birth.
Sing of Jesus, son of Mary, in the home at Nazareth,
Toil and labour cannot weary love enduring unto death.
Constant was the love He gave her, though He wet forth from her side,
Forth to preach, and heal, and suffer, till on Calvary He died.
Glory be to God the Father; Glory be to God the Son;
Glory be to God the Spirit; Glory to the Three in One.
From the heart of blessed Mary, from all saints the song ascends,
And the Church the strain re-echoes unto earth's remotest ends.
Read Part 9: The Merciful Heart of Jesus.
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. He wishes to extend special thanks to Kathleen Ervin and the Divine Mercy Eucharistic Society of Oakland, Calif., for help in producing this series. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).