The Future Needs the Family

The Future Needs the Family

Remarks by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila

NACFLM National Conference

Crowne Plaza Hotel, Denver, Colorado

July 28, 2019

Some of you may have heard of the Benedictine monks of Norcia, the small Italian mountain town where St. Benedict was born. A few years ago, in 2016, their monastery and the basilica of St. Benedict was completely destroyed by the strongest earthquake that Italy has experienced in 30 years.

As the aftershocks followed the initial quake, the monks moved their community to a property outside the town’s walls and took shelter in canvas tents. While the monks’ monastery was demolished, their faith remained intact. They continued to celebrate Mass and pray the Liturgy of the Hours in their new improvised community.

Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, visited the monks to celebrate Mass and bless their “tent monastery,” which he said reminded him of “Bethlehem, where it all began.”

Then he made an observation that goes to the heart of what this conference is about – the future and the family. “I am certain,” he said, “that the future of the Church is in the monasteries, because where prayer is, there is the future.”[1]

Cardinal Sarah was talking about the monastic community, but he could have just as easily been talking about the family, since it is the family that serves as the incubator for the values and virtues of the next generation. In the family we recognize that we are dependent upon others and that we are not sufficient on our own. In the family, we experience the love of our parents, siblings and grandparents. In the family, we learn how to live as men and women for others and for God. And this is only possible when prayer stands at the heart of a family.

Indeed, family life properly lived is a monastery of sorts, or, as the Church has long said, the family is a “domestic church.”[2] It is the place where the hearts, minds and bodies of children – the next generation – are formed to know, love and serve God and others.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Families, “The family is indeed more than any other social reality, the place where an individual can exist ‘for himself’ through the sincere gift of self. This is why it remains a social institution that neither can nor should be replaced: it is the ‘sanctuary of life.’”[3]

What is the Family meant to be?

Thus far I have referred to the family as the “domestic church” and the “sanctuary of life” – quoting Vatican II and St. John Paul II. But to speak to the title of my talk – The Future Needs the Family – I would like to more precisely define what the family is and should be.

We know from Genesis that God created us male and female and that he made us to be united to each other so that we become “one flesh.”[4] Most importantly, we learn from the Scriptures that we are made in God’s image and likeness.[5] Pope Francis underscores the profound impact of this in Amoris Laetitia when he says that our ability to bring forth new life “becomes an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself, for in the Christian vision of the Trinity, God is contemplated as Father, Son and Spirit of love.”[6]

“The triune God,” he says, “is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection.”

That is worth repeating. “The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection.” This is one of the easiest to grasp definitions of the family that I have seen.

Modern State of the Family

With that lofty but with God’s grace attainable vision of family life in mind, we must honest about the current state of the family. It’s important not to have the false perception that the family was at some point in history almost a mirror reflection of God’s love. There have always been flaws, failings and sins that have marred the image of God in the family, beginning with Adam and Eve’s fall from grace.

But in recent years the distortions and fracturing of family life seem to have grown exponentially. To help you in your ministry to families I am going to offer a sketch of the main challenges we face so that we have a sense of the missionary landscape.

The first and biggest challenge to forming strong families today is the prevalence of a self-centered worldview that sees everything as revolving around one’s own desires and goals. This approach to life is further amplified by a false, secular understanding of freedom that holds up the ability to choose anything as the highest good, rather than the Catholic understanding of freedom as the ability to choose the good.[7]

The impact of this outlook is the development of what Pope Francis calls “an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds and ends up considering each member of the family as an isolated unit, leading in some cases to the idea that one’s personality is shaped by his or her desires, which are considered absolute.”

The Pope adds that not only does an “overly individualistic culture, caught up with possessions and pleasures,” weaken family cohesiveness, it also “leads to intolerance and hostility in families.”[8]

Layered over this are some of the other challenges we face, such as the pressures of “today’s fast pace of life, stress and the organization of society and labor,” which make it difficult for young people to commit to permanent decisions.[9]

I’m sure all of you have also experienced the issues raised by the constant presence of online and social media. While there are many good uses for these technologies, they also can lead to isolation of people, anonymous bullying and the development of a narcissistic worldview.

Another challenge is that by and large, although the Church has made gains in some areas, the quality of catechesis today is lagging in most dioceses. Combined with the fracturing of family life, the result is that many people think they know and have lived the Catholic faith, but they have only experienced a watered-down version.

To quote the soon-to-be Blessed Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions, however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church … .”[10]

These numerous challenges that I’ve listed are by no means all the issues that the family is facing. But I have touched on what is the biggest problem, as Pope Francis calls it, the “throwaway culture” that comes from a worldview of extreme individualism which prioritizes one’s own desires above everything else.  This impacts friendships, the ability of men and women to form health romantic relationships, and how people value the gift of children.

The exaltation of the individual is a type of idolatry that we must combat if we are to protect the family as a “sanctuary of life,” a place that reflects God and bears fruit.

Negative Demographic Trends

One way to see this impact is to look at the statistical trends in family life by examining the birth rate and the marriage rate. Ideas have consequences and the impact of this worldview is being borne out in ranks of the younger generations.

A 2018 survey of almost 2,000 women between ages 20 and 45 found that 58 percent said they didn’t want children or weren’t sure they did. The reasons they gave were telling. Thirty-six percent of them gave “wanting more leisure time” as a reason they were delaying or not having children. Thirty percent said that they had no desire for children. Other reasons listed frequently were economic concerns and not finding a partner.[11]

The numbers for the overall U.S. birthrate show the effect of this “me-first” lifestyle as well. The most recent demographic numbers show that the birthrate has continued the decline that began with the 2008 recession.

In its provisional report for 2018, the Center for Disease Control found that the number of births reached a 32-year low of 1.72 children per woman of childbearing age. Since the replacement rate for a population is 2.1 children per woman, this is not a promising sign. What we are seeing is that the United States is trending in the same direction as Europe and parts of Asia. Our population is simultaneously living longer and welcoming fewer children to its ranks.

On the marriage front, we are witnessing a movement among new generations toward marrying later in life or not getting married at all. A recent study by the Pew Research Forum found that:

On the whole, Millennials are starting families later than their counterparts in prior generations. Just under half (46%) of Millennials ages 25 to 37 are married, a steep drop from the 83% of [the] Silent [Generation] who were married in 1968.

The share of 25- to 37-year-olds who were married steadily dropped for each succeeding generation, from 67% of early Boomers to 57% of Gen Xers. This in part reflects broader societal shifts toward marrying later in life.

In 1968, the typical American woman first married at age 21 and the typical American man first wed at 23. Today, those figures have climbed to 28 for women and 30 for men.[12]

What’s even more astonishing is that if the current patterns continue, “an estimated one-in-four of today’s young adults will have never married by the time they reach their mid-40s to early 50s – a record high share.”[13]

These are certainly concerning numbers, since the fewer people entering into marriage we have, the more the Church will shrink. But we should be much more concerned about the fact that this means there will be fewer people serving as “living reflections” of God in the world. God’s grace can bring people to conversion in any circumstance, but the family is the normal place where vocations are sown, nurtured and grown.

The future needs the family.

What Needs to be Resisted, Recovered?

The need for the presence of robust family life is clear from both a faith perspective and even a statistics standpoint. But that doesn’t answer the question, ‘What does the modern family need in its culture to flourish and help lead to a new Springtime of faith?’

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council saw even in 1965 that advances in technology and the sciences are helpful, but they are no substitute for truth, goodness and beauty, which truly feed our souls and families. In the pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes, they underscored the need for wisdom in our rapidly changing world. Wisdom enables man to pass “through visible realities to those which are unseen.

Our era, the Council Fathers said, needs such wisdom more than bygone ages if the discoveries made by man are to be further humanized. For the future of the world stands in peril unless wiser people are forthcoming.”[14]

The vast social experiments with the family that are currently underway – such as same-sex unions, the mechanization of sex through IVF, the push for surrogacy, widespread pornography use, and the increasingly accepted idea that one’s gender can be fluid and is self-determined – all speak loudly to what happens in the absence of wisdom.

In our work to restore and support vibrant family life, we would do well to listen to the guidance of the Second Vatican Council Fathers. “Modern culture,” they said, “must be led to a more profoundly restored covenant with divine Wisdom. Every man is given a share of such Wisdom through the creating action of God. And it is only in faithfulness to this covenant that the families of today will be in a position to influence positively the building of a more just and fraternal world.” [15]

Entering into “a covenant with divine Wisdom” requires being in more frequent contact with God through daily prayer in the family. As family life ministers, many of you are probably already promoting and teaching parents how to make prayer a part of their family’s life.  If you aren’t, this should be your number one priority.

Parents and children need to learn how to hear what the Prophet Elijah called the “still small voice”[16] of God within the noise and distractions of modern society. One way that we have tried to encourage this in the Archdiocese of Denver is through a curriculum we created for religious educators who are preparing children for Reconciliation, First Eucharist and Confirmation. The curriculum teaches children and parents how to practice lectio divina in their family.

By prayerfully reading and engaging with God’s Word, children and parents receive the wisdom of the Holy Spirit, are filled with his life, and inspired to creatively weave faith into the fabric of their family’s life together.

One obvious way that this takes place is through weekly or even daily attendance at Mass and frequent Confession. But some families have also begun to celebrate the baptismal days, feasts of the saint they are named after, and other holy days in the life of the Church. These parties include catechesis and fellowship with other likeminded families and become a highlight of the year for the parents and children.

These are just a few ways that families can incorporate Catholic culture into their life and encourage the growth of the gift of wisdom.

What Can Parishes & Dioceses Do?

Beyond initiatives parents can take to strengthen their families, we should also be asking what parishes and dioceses can do to help them.

There are several things that parishes and dioceses can do that don’t involve launching entirely new initiatives. For instance, many parishes already have a pro-life group or a connection to a crisis pregnancy center to support moms and dads in difficult circumstances. What is typically missing, though, is outreach to those in the local neighborhood and parish boundaries. Too often, we wait for people in need to come to us, instead of seeking them out. This kind of apostolate is pro-life, but it’s also profoundly pro-family, especially if you are able to pair those in crisis with a mentor couple that can accompany them in their difficulty and remain in their lives beyond the birth of their child.

When we surveyed the people in our archdiocese about the needs of the family prior to the 2015 Synod on the Family, one of the clearest needs that arose was the need for accompanying families after their marriage. The process for forming engaged couples is certainly something that takes place. But what is being done in those early years of marriage, when the divorce rate is the highest?

The Holy Father notes in Amoris Laetitia:

“Among the causes of broken marriages are unduly high expectations about conjugal life. Once it becomes apparent that the reality is more limited and challenging than one imagined, the solution is … to come to the sober realization that married life is a process of growth, in which each spouse is God’s means of helping the other to mature. Change, improvement, the flowering of the good qualities present in each person – all these are possible. Each marriage is a kind of ‘salvation history,’ which from fragile beginnings – thanks to God’s gift and a creative and generous response on our part – grows over time into something precious and enduring.”[17]

Helping married couples through this process of maturing in their love and marriage will bear fruit in strengthening not just their marriage but the broader community. More experienced couples who have been married a number of years should also be invited to help these newly married couples in this process by sharing their wisdom and offering emotional support.

There are also some very practical ways that parishes and dioceses can support families, such as offering financial health classes, connecting couples with solid Catholic counseling, running a food pantry, or forming a Natural Family Planning support group.

Conclusion

My friend and fellow bishop, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, recently gave a talk on “The Pastoral State of Marriage and the Family Today.” The main challenge for the Church today, he said, is to “rediscover the radical ‘newness’ of the Christian message about the family.”

He also offered this profound insight: “Before Christianity, no one had ever spoken about marriage in terms of a love that lasts a lifetime, or as a calling from God, or as a path that can lead to holiness and salvation. It was a new and thrilling idea to speak of man and woman becoming ‘one flesh’ and participating in God’s own act of creating new life.”

 We are living in impoverished times, not just materially impoverished but more importantly spiritually impoverished. In this context, the Catholic family can and should be like a lighthouse illuminating the way for others in stormy seas.

The early Church was able to flourish despite a series of persecutions that lasted almost 300 years because our ancestors in the faith had a deep, lasting faith in Christ and salvation through him. They did not belong to the world, just as Jesus did not.[18] They were in the world, but not of it.

I would like to leave you with a story of love in a family from Saint Mother Teresa’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Listen to the power of the family.

And so here I am talking with you, I want you to find the poor here, right in your own home first. And begin love there. Be that good news to your own people. And find out about your next-door neighbor. Do you know who they are?

I had the most extraordinary experience with a Hindu family who had eight children. A gentleman came to our house and said: ‘Mother Teresa, there is a family with eight children, they have not eaten for so long. Do something.’ So I took some rice and I went there immediately. And I saw the children, their eyes shining with hunger — I don’t know if you have ever seen hunger.

And [the mother] took the rice, she divided the rice, and she went out. When she came back I asked her, ‘Where did you go, what did you do?’ And she gave me a very simple answer: They are hungry also. What struck me most was that she knew. And who are they? A Muslim family, and she knew [they were starving]. I didn’t bring more rice that evening because I wanted them to enjoy the joy of sharing. But there were those children, radiating joy, sharing the joy with their mother because she had the love to give. And you see, this is where love begins at home.

Let us devote ourselves to first growing love in our families and then sharing it in our neighborhoods and parishes, states and country. In doing so, we will help build up family life and ensure that the ultimate goal of heaven is made manifest to the Church and the world.

The future needs the family.

Thank you for your kind attention and may God bless you and this conference!

 

[1] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, p. 242.

[2] Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, # 11, Nov. 21, 1964,

[3] Pope Saint John Paul II, Letter to Families, #11, published on February 2, 1994.

[4] Cf. Genesis 1:27, 2:24, NRSVCE.

[5] Cf. Gen. 1:27.

[6] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (AL), 11.

[7] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), #1731-33.

[8] AL, #33.

[9] Cf. AL, 33.

[10] Preface by Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen for the American Edition of Radio Replies, 1938.

[11] 2018 Survey of 1,858 women by The Morning Consult and New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/upshot/americans-are-having-fewer-babies-they-told-us-why.html

[12] https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/millennial-life-how-young-adulthood-today-compares-with-prior-generations/

[13] Ibid.

[14] Gaudium et spes, 15.

[15] Ibid.

[16] 1 Kings 19:12.

[17] AL, 221.

[18] Cf. John 17:14-18.

[1] Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option, p. 242.

[2] Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium, # 11, Nov. 21, 1964,

[3] Pope Saint John Paul II, Letter to Families, #11, published on February 2, 1994.

[4] Cf. Genesis 1:27, 2:24, NRSVCE.

[5] Cf. Gen. 1:27.

[6] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (AL), 11.

[7] Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC), #1731-33.

[8] AL, #33.

[9] Cf. AL, 33.

[10] Preface by Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen for the American Edition of Radio Replies, 1938.

[11] 2018 Survey of 1,858 women by The Morning Consult and New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/07/05/upshot/americans-are-having-fewer-babies-they-told-us-why.html

[12] https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/essay/millennial-life-how-young-adulthood-today-compares-with-prior-generations/

[13] Ibid.

[14] Gaudium et spes, 15.

[15] Ibid.

[16] 1 Kings 19:12.

[17] AL, 221.

[18] Cf. John 17:14-18.