The Parish Family

25 Oct

“Listen graciously to the prayers of this family, whom you have summoned before you.”

—Eucharistic Prayer III

What do we think of when our parish priest reads these words at Mass? Are we alert enough to hear and embrace this petition? Do we consider this reference to our being a “family” a merely poetic expression or pious exaggeration? Or do we embrace in faith the reality that all of us gathered for Sunday Mass are, in fact, members of the Family of God?

Catholic theology since Vatican II has emphasized the reality that the Church is truly the “Family of God.” Why? Because, through our Baptism, each one of us has been “born again” as a child of God. We participate–even now–in God’s own life. And this life is familial, not solitary. As Blessed John Paul II wrote in 1979, “God in His deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since He has in Himself fatherhood, sonship, and the essence of the family, which is love.”

Further, according to Pope Benedict XVI in his 2005 encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est, our heavenly Father’s desire is to unite all people into one family in Christ:

“The Spirit is also the energy which transforms the heart of the ecclesial community, so that it becomes a witness before the world to the love of the Father, who wishes to make humanity a single family in his Son” (no. 19).

How refreshing it is to understand the Church as a family, rather than as merely an impersonal institution or even a congregation of isolated individuals who all happen to believe in Jesus. This understanding is especially challenging today, since we’ve largely lost our sense of “family” and many of us have been wounded by brokenness and division within our own families.

A family is where our home is. It is where we should always be welcome. This is especially true when it comes to God’s family, from which all other families derive their existence, as we hear in today’s reading at Mass(cf. Eph. 3:14-15). My favorite image in this regard is the parable of the prodigal son, which reveals how welcoming and merciful Our Heavenly Father truly is.

While God’s family in the Old Testament was built on the twelve sons of Israel, God’s New Testament family is built on the firm foundation of the twelve apostles (cf. Eph. 2:19-20). Bishops, who are the successors of the apostles, have been called by Christ to be our spiritual fathers. They are the visible source and foundation of family unity within their own diocese (cf. Catechism, no. 886). That is why St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and a disciple of St. John the Apostle, would write in 110 A.D.: “Those, indeed, who belong to God and to Jesus Christ–they are with the bishop.”

From the earliest times, there have been presbyters (“priests”) who have been given the mission of assisting the bishop in spiritually fathering God’s family in local communities that have come to be known as parishes. These communities–my parish and your parish–are local manifestations of God’s family, a family that brings together people of every race and nation, that encompasses not only the pilgrim Church on earth, but all those who have died in God’s friendship. What a magnificent family we have–what great love the Father has bestowed on us in making us His children (1 Jn. 3:1)!

Yet we all know that our own experience of Church–in our own parishes and throughout our country–sometimes makes it difficult to view the Church as family. All too often we encounter polarization and dissent instead of family unity. Therefore, I’d like to propose some practical things we can do as lay people to build up the Family of God in our own backyard.

Pray for Unity

One of our deepest desires and most heartfelt prayers is for unity within our own natural families. We long for reconciliation with our parents, siblings, spouses, and children, which often includes the healing of long-standing divisions and misunderstandings.

Similarly, as members of the Family of God, we must likewise make fervent prayer for Christian unity a top priority (cf. Jn. 17:11, 20-23). This includes not only the healing of rifts that have divided Christendom for centuries, but also for healing of the rifts that plague the Catholic Church in our own country and maybe even within our own parish. And this certainly must include prayers for “family members” we find most difficult to love.

Capture the Vision

We need to meditate long and hard on the truth that the Church is the Family of God in order to have a fully Christian vision. As St. Paul writes, we need to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2). A tremendous help in this regard is daily Scripture reading and regular recourse to the sacraments. And now we have the Catechismas a sure guide for deepening our understanding of Church teaching.

By fully immersing ourselves in the riches of the Church, we open ourselves to the life-changing action of the same Holy Spirit who tells us we are children of God and who empowers us to call upon God as “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:14-17). Through the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit, we will more fully understand and manifest in our lives the truth about the Family of God.

Get Involved

In trying to promote harmonious living within my own family, I frequently encourage my six children to be “part of the solution, not part of the problem.” We need to be constantly on the lookout for creative ways to build up rather than destroy. One way is to put our time, talent, and resources at the service of our parish.

Some problems at the parish level won’t go away overnight, and require ongoing, constructive attempts to foster good personal relationships. When problems make us turn our hearts against members of our parish–perhaps even our pastor–we run the serious risk of becoming “part of the problem.”

Bear with Difficulties

This may come as a shock, but my own family is not perfect. Inevitably problems and disputes do arise. Sometimes they’re even my fault! As my daughter Virginia has been telling me for over a decade, “Daddy, you’re being part of the problem.”

There is no such thing as a perfect parish. Problems inevitably arise, and sometimes, despite our best efforts, they persist. What do we do?

The most important point is that, as the late Mother Teresa taught, we are called to be faithful, not successful. We must not grow weary of doing the right thing (cf. 2 Thess. 3:13). In some cases, the right thing involves taking the real suffering of not successfully “fixing” a problem, and offering it in union with Our Lord’s sacrifice (cf. Rom. 12:1).

And just as problems in my family are often all or partly my fault, all of us as members of the Family of God must continually seek the renewal and healing of our own hearts.

Work Things Out

As the “pastor” of my own domestic Church, I exercise authority when I need to, but often the best way to proceed is to encourage my disputing children to work out their differences themselves.

Similarly, while situations arise that require recourse to the pastor or perhaps even to a higher authority, such recourse should be sought only after good faith efforts have been made to resolve the problem at the lowest possible level (cf. Catechism, no. 1883). And all our actions in this regard require discernment, as well as obedience, patience, and charity every step of the way

Heroic Generosity

The Fellowship Of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), a dynamic, college campus evangelization and leadership training program, calls young men and women to “heroic generosity.” Indeed, all of us are called to give ourselves fully to God and His will for us.

We do well to remember that generosity literally means “full of giving life.” Understandably, then, generosity in a natural family setting involves openness to the gift of children, as well as myriad acts of charity and hospitality. That’s what a home is all about.

Similarly, if we pour ourselves out in generous service on behalf of the Family of God, the results will be life-giving, as many more children of God will feel at home in the Church. And perhaps, then, our parish will be ready to welcome new members into the family, and maybe even reach out effectively to disgruntled or alienated Catholics in our midst, reminding them that, after all, there is no place like home.

Isn’t that what the new evangelization is all about?

Portions of this article originally appeared in the May 2000 issue of Lay Witness. For more information on the Church as “Family of God,” see the best-selling “Catholic for a Reason” series, beginning with volume I: Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God, which I co-edited with Scott Hahn.

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