The extraordinary Synod of Bishops convening this October will be discussing the family. The 2013 survey of Catholics revealed that people are confused about what the Church teaches about families and that the function and purpose of family life is not clearly understood, more so when parents are not the same faiths.
When I was seven I’d become aware that in my family my mother’s side was Catholic, my father was not and there was a deep brokenness hidden within our walls.
I remember riding the bus home from St. Mary Magdalene School. It was a crisp early-autumn day of bright blue skies and pillowed clouds; I saw a cloud in the shape of an angel with arms outstretched. I felt loved—God had sent a special gift.
It was almost a perfect day.
Once I’d left the bus and secured the red plaid schoolbag across my shoulder, I smoothed my green and blue tartan jumper and walked the half city block home. At the end of the driveway I pulled the latest test from the bag. I had not earned an A on my second grade spelling quiz but was very proud with the B- Sister had given me, having received the second highest grade in class. I was eager to show my mother how well I had done.
When I walked in the back door, mother stood at the kitchen sink, her face red and puffy. I froze when I saw my father sitting at the table lighting a Pall Mall—nothing good ever came of him being home from work early. My anxiety rose and swirled like the smoke from his cigarette.
He snatched the notebook paper from my hand as I tried to make eye contact with mother. Calling me stupid, he demanded an answer why I had missed the three words. Fear choked my throat.
Enraged by my more than just my silence, father broke the plastic shoulder strap off my book bag and whipped the back of my bare thighs and arms, and back. He thundered obscenities as I wailed. When he had spent his anger he tossed me aside. I scrambled, sobbing, to my bedroom and the back corner of the closet.
I would always remember how loud violence could be.
The childlike joy that was God’s broke that day. The radiance of my mother’s happy-Catholic smile didn’t seem right against my father’s atheistic rage. It was an enigma that was never resolved when I was young.
The violence of dysfunctional families is experienced in as many ways as there are children caught in its grips. How does faith survive through such childhoods as these? What was broken in my father? How had he come to hate a God that I knew as love? And what of my mother’s acts of omission? She was brought up by Sisters, loved beyond measure, and, enticed by a man in his twenties, married at 17. Had she misunderstood Catholicism and believed she couldn’t divorce a brutal man? Was she shamed into silence because her marriage wasn’t what she was taught it should be according to the Catechism?
In light of the coming synod I was asked how we shore-up faith in an age of broken families. I needed guidance from a friend and psychotherapist David Krajewski to answer the question and to learn what a healthy family is…or should be.
The fullness of truth is accessible to the family in that it is a microcosm of the Trinity. The evidence of this is that the better parents commit to loving each other and the better the two of them love their children, the more they are able to claim and tolerate God’s divine love. The relationship that is specific to marriage and families grows in time and an understanding of sacrifice, selflessness, forgiveness, mercy, and unconditional love emerges. As families grow in virtues they each as individuals draw closer to God in cooperation with Genuine Love.
This cooperation benefits all aspects of our lives including our relationship with God. The family is a training ground through its giving and receiving for Divine Love. Something in the order of “because my spouse has forgiven me in the past, God’s mercy is less of a mystery to me.” This is the fullness of love, not just the appearance of it.
Functional families also have a knack for the exchange of their faith, spirituality, and the relevance of God in the daily. This grounding is affirmed in truthful acts such as family dinner, chores, prayer, recreation, and socializing with other truth-based families. In all this there is a sense of accountability for the soul of a family member.
We have been entrusted with our families by God and the greatest way to honor this is to value that which we have been given: my children, my spouse are not my own, they belong to God first and he has shared them with me.
The truth is that abuse, in whatever it’s insidious or overt form is ugly and damaging. Genuine nuclear love does not mean living with abuse. And a Catholic family grounded in truth is committed to love, not the tolerance of violence or the appearance of such.
The best earthly gift to children is a secure marriage—one that is open and doesn’t hide the challenges of doing what is good and right when the body and heart are wearied.
Through the grace of God I found the beauty of Catholicism beyond the abuse and violence. At some point Jesus healed the wounds to my soul so that He could teach me to love beyond traumas. Parents are never perfect, and to be able to sit before God and recognize this, to ask Our Lord to heal their deficiencies and my own, to reject the fear-based life that engenders dysfunction, I am able to honor the sacrifice of love.
We shore up faith in an age of broken families by acknowledging an opportunity to love in the moment, no matter what the fear is. We remain grounded in the truth of love richly defined by our Church by saying “let us pray” for a different way, for another tiny piece of wisdom.