The Mission of Families in Reconciling “The Family”

Is it possible, or even desirable, to shelter our children while also acting as witnesses to a wounded culture?


I want to live in a world in which adults consider children and their innocence first, and strive to make their passage into adulthood as gentle as possible. In such a world, worship spaces, public places and popular culture would be, if not tailored to our nations youngest citizens, then at least mindful of their presence, respecting the role of parents to introduce mature topics at a reasonable time.

For the most part, however, my kids have navigated a world that is largely shaped by the self-interested decisions of grown-ups. They’ve encountered violence and sex symbols of every kind on the highways and aisles of life–language and signs that always threaten to initiate them into a world they’re not quite ready to meet.

I’ve had several conversations with friends lately about whether or not some children are made for the cloister, like Saint Therese, to go straight from the home at a young age into religious life or the priesthood. While I believe it is God’s will to preserve some souls in order to pray with detachment for a fallen world that he or she has never fully encountered, I can’t really fathom how in this world such a transition would be possible.

I’ve felt the urge to shelter my kids as much as anyone, but I know my own family is not called to the cloister, mainly because God has not allowed it. Where some of my friends still refer to divorce as “The Big D” when their children are present, my kids learned early on that some marriages don’t last when there was a divorce in my immediate family. Since then, my children have encountered unmarried people living together, friends their own age with same sex parents, and friends who “have no idea” who their fathers are.

Each of these encounters has required an explanation tailored to their age level for why some family units deviate from the one-mommy+one-daddy-who-live-together-forever model of family life. I provide the necessary caveats that we choose to live differently because we believe it pleases Jesus to do so, but it also pleases Jesus to love all people, so we’re not going to shut people out of our lives who don’t understand or practice our faith.

As the Church prepares to meet for the Extraordinary Synod on Marriage and Family Life, I’m recalling some of Pope Francis’s earliest remarks in his interview with America Magazine, and pondering the mission of intact families in reconciling broken families, irregular, and wounded families to the life of the Church:

“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity…

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”

It would seem that if the church must be a field hospital for the wounded, it cannot also function as a shelter for the privileged. And by the privileged, I don’t mean sinless. I mean we who have received the gift of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, who meet him in the sacraments of the Church, who have been taught the entirety of Catholic teaching, and who delight in living the fullness of the Truth.

We are indeed the privileged, and as apostles of Christ, we are called to be workers in the field hospital, which would put us, and possibly our children, in contact with some potentially unsavory wounds.

The Church offers an invitation to everybody, not just to people harboring only the most hidden and unthreatening sins. We all decide which sins and forms of weakness are most palatable to us. There are certain sins we tolerate in our homes, and other sins we do not, even when they share the same place on evil’s hierarchy.

Some of these new wounds we encounter will be less tasteful to us than others; they will be messy, and highly visible. They might weep all over the furniture and kitchen table, but they are the wounds of Christ, and so they are sacred.

Saint Catherine of Siena says, “charity is never scandalized, is never confounded.” If the Church really strives to be a field hospital for a wounded culture, we will have to get comfortable with encountering new neighbors at church, new neighbors whose lives and public lifestyles will provide lessons to our children that we might not be ready for them to learn.

To me, this is the greatest challenge, that the call of the faithful to meet the world as it is, to usher in a new era of evangelization and apostleship, to help heal the concept of family as a cultural ideal, means that my family will have to open up its boundaries–not just to provide a “model,” but to be instruments of love and welcome.

We can’t view the church as a private entity with impenetrable boundaries meant to protect our safety and complacency, when its founding mission in the world was exactly the opposite of that.

I don’t expect my kids to be little evangelists, because they’re not. They’re barely Catholic, really. But I do want them to look back someday when they’re measuring the authenticity of their parents’ faith and see that we tried to love everyone, regardless of their family circumstances. We can be a welcoming place for anyone who wants to join us. Our joining with others will be on a case by case basis, and I’ve noticed that in the case of irregular family structures, I tend to err on the side of the children being blameless for their parents’ mistakes.

I don’t think my kids will be hurt by that. Even if we do have to work through some confusion.

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