Once upon a time, certainly before the rise of the nation state, the family was absolutely fundamental to human life in just about any of its forms. The family was crucial for social welfare because there was no other; also for health care as there were no hospitals to speak of; and for education as well, because schools didn’t amount to much. The family also provided a workforce, particularly if you were farming; children could and did help with the work. Then if you were under attack, the family was your first form of defence. It’s clear, then, that the family – in this case the extended family – was at the very heart of human society.
In more recent times, however, the state has assumed prime responsibility for all those things. So where does that leave the family? What’s its purpose in vastly changed circumstances? The question becomes more pointed as children become increasingly an option. You have children when and if you want them. They’re not really necessary these days, and they can be a decided nuisance. But they’re certainly an option for those who want them and can afford them.
Marriage is increasingly seen as a relationship between two people, which offers emotional support to the spouses for a longer or shorter time. Emotional support is a good and important thing, but it hardly explains why marriage and the family are important. For other reasons, the family remains crucial.
When I say the family is crucial, I’m not speaking of some idealised “normal” family. Through the years I’ve come to see that there’s no such thing as a “normal” family. Every family is odd in its own way. All families are wounded in one way or another. So I’m talking about the reality of our families with all their oddness and their woundedness.
Beyond all the peculiarities, the family remains crucial – not to provide the things the state now provides, but to do other things that go to other depths of human life. Where but in the family do we begin to learn who God is? The mother smiling upon a new baby is perhaps the first and deepest lesson a child will ever learn. The pure, unearned love of parents is the baby’s first and greatest lesson about who God really is. What a child sees in the smile of its mother or father teaches the truth of God better than any theological book will ever do. So the family remains the place where the human being begins to learn who God really is. The state can’t do that.
It’s also in the family where we learn what love means – though in fact God and love are one and the same. To learn who God is, we have to learn what love is; and the family remains the prime school of love. If that lesson isn’t taught there, then I’m not sure where else it will be taught. Again, the state can’t do it.
In the end, the family remains the prime school of what it means to be truly human. I used to think that being human was something that just happened automatically as you moved through life. I don’t think that anymore; because in an often inhuman world the heart of stone is what happens automatically. The art we have to learn is the art of the heart of flesh, the truly human heart which is in the end the heart of God. Becoming human is a long and difficult journey that begins in the family and never takes its leave of the family.
This is why, beyond all the social changes, the family remains crucial; and that’s why the Synod of Bishops on marriage and the family really does matter. What Pope Francis has done with the Synod is to transform it from being primarily an event to being primarily a process. Earlier this year, we had the questionnaire in preparation for the first session of the Synod which took place last October. Now we are on a journey of preparation which looks to the second session of the Synod in October 2015. But it’s not just a matter of waiting for the event to happen next October. We are all on a journey from session to session of the Synod, because marriage and the family can’t be the exclusive concern of Bishops gathered in a hall at the Vatican. What will happen next October will be important, but so too is the time between now and then. This is a time for us all to ponder the reality of family life today to see where God is in the midst of the mess – not family life as we might want it to be, but family life as it actually is. Family life has changed and is changing, and the Synod will have to look at that before it speaks.
We can’t just keep mouthing the same things that we have been mouthing for centuries in the same way – especially if people don’t understand. We have to speak the truth in new ways that people can understand, ways that are in touch with the reality of family life. As part of the Synod process, therefore, the Bishops have to listen to people who are married and have a family; and that will happen in various ways in the Archdiocese. People like me will have to listen deeply to all kinds of voices.
The Synod will eventually have the task of saying to the world why the family remains crucial in the midst of all the flux, why the family goes to the heart of human life and is the basic cell of human society. The Synod will also have to outline how the whole community of the Church, not just the Pope and Bishops, can help married couples and their families to be what they’re meant to be and to take their place within God’s plan.
I invite you then, on this feast of the Holy Family, to join me in praying for the Church as we take this Synod journey together. Let’s pray this morning that the voices will be heard and the word the Church will speak through the Synod will be not just more burble but the word of Jesus Christ himself who learned the most basic lessons of human life within a family, growing there in “wisdom, age and grace” (Luke 2:52).
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane