“I prefer a family with tired faces from generous giving, to a family with faces full of makeup that know nothing of tenderness and compassion. I prefer a man and a woman, don Aniceto and his wife, with faces that are wrinkled due to the daily struggles over the fifty years of strong married love; and here we have them, and their son has learned the lesson from them and is now twenty-five years married. These are families.”
—Pope Francis’s message to families in Mexico
While the whole world is fascinated by the statements Pope Francis made on the plane ride back from Mexico, it is this quote, directed to the family, that struck me. I am expecting my fifth son in a few weeks/days, to go with four boys (5, 4, 3, and 19 months). Quotes like these, which affirm the joy of family, appeal to a young father like me who still struggles to see the joy in every minute of every day. Yet there is something more to this quote than just my experience or comprehension of it. In this I see the small daily conversion to Christ’s teachings that takes place when someone encounters a holy person (or even someone who strives for holiness). Rather than being repelled by the physical appearances of this elderly couple, Francis is renewed in his mission to speak for the beauty of the family. Where society sees suffering, sacrifice, pain, and waste, Francis sees joy, beauty, goodness, and truth.
Family life is filled with great experiences of games, joy, and laughter. Along with them, there is exhaustion, strain, and exerted patience. The “sacrifice” of the family, however, is not arbitrary or fruitless. The sacrifice is the constant kenosis—the emptying of the self—that imitates Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. What Francis is calling for in his homily is, in many ways, a societal return to true heroism and true selflessness, which is manifested in and through the family. He calls for a society built on selflessness, heroism, and virtue—in other words, a society centered on love. Francis’s description of the ideal family reveals his belief that a virtuous society will arise only from the family.
The Selfless Family
Family is the first and vital cell of society (Apostolicam Actuositatem 11), society’s root (Gaudium et Spes 52). A healthy society, therefore, comes about when families form and create persons who are for others. The family begins from the free and open self-gift between a man and a woman (AA 11). This self-gift naturally leads to the fostering of offspring that will further the future of society. Rather than being prepackaged robots, children come with their own originality and personalities. They need to learn how to eat, sleep, behave, and do many things their parents have taken for granted. With these experiences come joy and accomplishment. They also bring anxiety, sleep deprivation, and frustration. Frankly, they bring out the best and the worst. I can speak of this from experience. With each child, my ability to love has expanded to reach horizons I never thought possible. Yet this expansion has revealed levels of sin I thought were long gone or never knew I had. For example, I am more patient than I have ever been, only because I have seen how impatient I was before. In calling me out of my own sinfulness and my own way of thinking, my children challenge me to become the man God desires. While the wrinkles are forming (as Francis stated), these wrinkles are only part of the kenosis I must undertake to imitate Christ in all things, including suffering. In this selfless giving of life, the parents become examples for the future generation to imitate, showing that life is only truly lived in service to others.
The Heroic Family
“The way to rest is through toil, the way to life is through death” (Pope St. Leo the Great). This simple and yet direct statement from Francis’s predecessor proclaims the mission and focus of discipleship in the family. As seen above, the expansion of the parents’ love for their children brings with it much work, responsibility, and sacrifice. These experiences are God’s way of calling us to closer communion with Him in our imitation of His Son. Christ’s suffering on the Cross for the sake of others is the greatest example of heroism for all humanity to imitate. The sacrifice of one’s life, the giving up of the will for that of the Father, is the call to all Catholics: ordained, religious, or lay. For the layperson, vocation is lived through the family. The family becomes the sacrament of the Church for the world and is the apostolate for the laity. The ideal of heroism shines through the Church, and not simply through the examples of men and women who died, were persecuted, or gave up everything for the faith. The Church shines with equal brilliance through the simple daily living of the “quiet” saints. These holy men and women may not have done deeds to be told from generations to generations, but they do the small things that light a fire that will not be quenched. Helping neighbors move or clean house, shoveling the snow for the elderly, giving up time to assist in a church function like a fish fry, or simply stopping to assist someone in need on the road or sidewalk: these simple, quiet acts produce saints. These hidden saints support the more-known heroes, instilling virtues within them. St. Augustine had his mother Monica to give witness to patience and humility; St. Therese of Lisieux’s parents bore patiently her difficult temperament in childhood and are now canonized saints. Behind the portrait of each saint is someone, be it a parent, family member, or family friend, who inspired and instilled the courage to take on the great task of sainthood. For every great missionary, there is someone in the background who gives the saint inspiration to continue forward regardless of the cost. The family is the environment upon which true heroism is created. The family is the environment to which we need to return.
The Virtuous Society
The heroic family brings about a truly virtuous society. As Gaudium et Spes explicitly states, a just society has the human person as “the principle, the subject and the end of all social institutions” (25). A society naturally does this because it is composed of persons who came from a family that constantly focused on the building-up of persons into other well-centered humans. This family comes with wrinkles; it comes with suffering and with sacrifice. Yet, formed in love, these wrinkles become a wealth of knowledge, not scars of exhaustion. Done in love, suffering becomes redemptive, a victorious sign of our ability to overcome our own selfishness to build something greater. Done in love, our sacrifices allow us to become what we truly desire; they become the source of our freedom and life. The wrinkles, sufferings, and sacrifices show that the person we were before these events carried a yoke that was heavy and a burden that was not light. I’d like to conclude with an example of virtue that was exhibited to me not too long ago. Our son was sent to the hospital, and due to the nature of the visit, we were held up all weekend. We could not bring all four kids with us and needed to give attention to our hospitalized son. Our family came to our aid and took the three other kids over the weekend (with no forewarning). Friends who heard of our situation came to our aid, cleaned our house (which was a mess at the time), and chipped in with some appliances and furniture that needed to be replaced (without us even asking or making any indication that it was needed). They came in during their weekend, missed events they were scheduled to attend (with good speakers, I might add), and donated their financial resources to help us out in a time of need. In these saintly acts I am sure some wrinkles were added, but in doing so new stories of heroism and courage can be told. This was a case of a virtuous community that was formed not out of self-love, but of the selfless assistance to those in need. When I see these families, I see the description of what Francis has been calling for. No, he is not naïve; he sees the real challenges and burdens we face from society and mostly from our own sinfulness. But among these ashes comes the greater joy, the joy of being loved—first by God, then by family, and finally by friends. Always rooted within the family, we are shown God’s love and mercy and come to express this through our love of others. The family is the place where this takes place. It is God’s designated vehicle to make His Son known.