You hear it a lot from Catholic families, “You have to do what works for you.” I appreciate the sentiment. People who say it genuinely mean well. They are just trying to acknowledge the real challenges that accompany family life and extend sympathy to those who are struggling. Who could argue with that intention? Certainly not me. Unfortunately, while the intention is good, the delivery leaves a lot to be desired. Catholic families must be comforted, they must be supported, they must be encouraged and they must be helped. But they must never be told that they are free to do whatever works for them. Here’s why.
The family is the crucible of culture. More than any other social structure, it is the family that passes beliefs, values, worldviews and traditions from one generation to the next.
Because of this, the Catholic family is called to be a unique creature; a prophetic witness in the world; a light shining in the darkness. The Catholic family must stand out. It must stand for something different than what our Protestant (may God bless them) and secular neighbors family’s stand for because we are in possession of the fullness of the truth and they are not. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more” (Lk 12:48). Catholic families have been given much by our Savior and His Holy Church, and MUCH is required of us. Our mission is clear.
So what is the mission of the Catholic family? Here is what Evangelium Vitae says,
“By word and example, in the daily round of choices, and through concrete actions and choices, parents lead their children to authentic freedom, actualized in the sincere gift of self, and they cultivate in them a respect for others, a sense of justice, cordial openness, dialogue, generous service, solidarity, and all the values which help people live life as a gift. “In raising children Christian parents must be concerned about their children’s faith and help them to fulfil the vocation God has given them. The parents’ mission as educators also includes teaching and giving their children an example of the true meaning of suffering and death. They will be able to do this if they are sensitive to all kinds of suffering around them and, even more, if they succeed in fostering attitudes of closeness, assistance and sharing towards sick or elderly members of the family. The family celebrates the Gospel of life through daily prayer, both individual prayer and family prayer. The family prays in order to glorify and give thanks to God for the gift of life, and implores his light and strength in order to face times of difficulty and suffering without losing hope. But the celebration which gives meaning to every other form of prayer and worship is found in the family’s actual daily life together, if it is a life of love and self-giving.”
What if these were more than just pretty words? What if these words were the mission statement for my Catholic family?
How well am I living out the example of these virtues in my parenting life?
Am I actively teaching my children to live out these virtues, by example, by fostering their personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and through direct catechesis?
Does my family look different than the non-Catholic families on my block because of our family’s single-minded devotion to living out these virtues?
What can we do improve our prophetic witness as a Catholic family by living out these virtues more fully in our relationships with each other?”
We have a tall order to fill. Of course, we are free to do what we believe helps us fulfill the above mission. But that is not the same thing as saying we are free to do “whatever works for us.” The world needs Catholic families, not families that look like everyone else’s except for the Catholic prayers they say. We must parent intentionally at all times with these virtues burned into our vision. We are NOT free to do “what works for us.” That is the world’s way, not ours. Catholic families are only free to do what we genuinely believe proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ and best exemplifies the virtues listed above that define the witness and mission of the Catholic family. THAT is the meaning of “authentic freedom”–the ability to choose what is best and good and true and beautiful, not the ability to do “what works for us.”
None of this is to make anyone feel guilty or lose heart. We are all on a journey toward this ideal and most of us have not yet arrived. In fact, most of us are very far from it. Thanks to God’s grace, that’s OK. BUT we cannot take our eyes off the map. We can take the time we need to get there. We can rest when we must. We can have bad days where we wish for an easier path. We can have days where we break down and cry a bit from being stretched more than we imagined we ever would. And especially on those days, we must get support from other like-minded families and other like-minded sources of encouragement. But we are not free to choose an easier path. We are NOT free to do, “what works for us.” We are only ever free to do what serves the gospel and builds the Kingdom of God both in and outside our homes. Everything we do as parents, we will be called to reckon for according to the mission outlined above. It’s a serious obligation that we must take seriously.
I applaud your willingness to be that family that bears God’s face and the Catholic vision of love to the world. May God give you his grace for the journey.