“Jesus invites us not to be afraid to live in the world even if in it one sometimes runs into conditions of conflict and sin. In face of violence, of injustice, of oppression, a Christian can’t close himself in himself or hide in the security of his enclosure. The Church also can’t close herself in herself; she cannot abandon her mission of evangelization and service.”
9 February 2020, Angelus
The quote above, taken from this morning’s Angelus address by Pope Francis, contains a message that applies to two issues that we’ve discussed recently at WPI: raising children in the faith and building community. On Friday, Dan Amiri wrote about the challenges and choices faced by parents in passing the faith on to our children. As Catholic parents with children ranging in age from 3-13, my wife and I are just now beginning to face the challenges of helping and guiding our children as they begin to enter their decisive adolescent years. We look back at how our own parents educated us, recognizing successes we want to emulate and failures we hope not to repeat.
We also look to other parents in our network of friends and fellow parishioners for examples of what to do and what not to do. We also take note of the great variety of personality types and combinations of situations and challenges that are unique to each family. No two families are alike, and every person has a path to Christ that is theirs alone. There’s not one standard playbook for raising a Christian family.
One of the areas where Pope Francis’s thought has strongly influenced my thought is in understanding the organic and spontaneous nature of the faith: the idea that the work of the Holy Spirit isn’t something we can ever contain or put in a box; it constantly adapts and grows and sprouts up in new places, offering new and unpredictable opportunities to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others. This applies also in families: there’s not one set of rules for bringing up children in the faith. Anyone with children can tell you that you will face unexpected challenges (and even devastating tragedy) that no amount of planning or even prayer can provide sufficient emotional preparation for. Parents must adapt and make decisions that they never imagined possible.
It is important, therefore, to remain grounded much more in who we are than what we do. It is much more possible to remain steadfast in our confidence that we are loved by God, rooted in our faith, and committed to being the best parents we possibly can, rather than creating a specific road map for successful Catholic parenthood and following it to the letter. The former permits us to adapt to unexpected challenges and to recover from setbacks. The latter will only amplify failures and unrealistic expectations.
As parents, our calling is to be the “salt” that protects food (or in this case, the family) from corruption. It is in remaining steadfast–not successfully maintaining a schedule or following a program–that we show our true discipleship. As Francis also said,
“A disciple is ‘salt’ who, despite daily failures — because we all have them –, rises from the dust of his mistakes, beginning again with courage and patience, every day, to seek dialogue and encounter with others. A disciple is ‘salt’ who doesn’t seek consensus and applause but makes an effort to be a humble and constructive presence, in fidelity to the teachings of Jesus, who came into the world not to be served but to serve. And there is such need of this attitude!”
This applies especially to questions about raising children Catholic in a world whose message often runs contrary to our most deeply-held values. It’s related to our choices about education and the activities in which our children take part. The temptation for Catholic parents is often to try and shelter our children from as many worldly influences as possible. The problem with this approach is that we risk “sheltering” our children and leaving them unprepared to live as Catholic Christians in the real world. Conversely, an approach that is too lax may lead to children becoming exposed to temptations and dangers at an early age, before they reach maturity and their consciences are sufficiently formed to handle them.
And in the end, the choice to embrace the Catholic faith belongs to each person alone. Pope Francis said, “The Gospel goes on to remind us that children are not the property of a family, but have their own lives to lead” [AL 18].
The second issue is related to the first: how we, as Catholics, build community. Last week, Daniele Palmer attended a conference in Rome sponsored by “National Conservatives.” The opening speaker was Rod Dreher, author of The Benedict Option, and attended by a variety of conservatives and populists from around the world. Setting aside their political and religious philosophies, the conference organizers do express valid concerns about one serious issue: the failure of the Church to provide structures to effectively build up community life among Christians. Pope Francis himself has echoed his concerns about this important problem.
But where both sides recognize a problem, they diverge on the solutions. As illustrated by the “Benedict option,” the solution presented by the nationalist/traditionalist faction involves the building of enclaves or “safe havens” for those who are like-minded and have similar worldviews. This might relieve certain kinds of tension in the short term, and perhaps provide comfort to families worried about the dangers their children might face in the world. Yet this approach has the same limitations as those of giving a child a sheltered upbringing. It also hinders us from fulfilling our Gospel mandate to evangelize.
As Pope Francis said this morning, “a Christian can’t close himself in himself or hide in the security of his enclosure.” Francis reminds us of our duty to spread the light of Christ in the darkness:
“A disciple of Jesus is light when he is able to live his faith outside restricted spaces, when he helps to eliminate prejudices, to eliminate slander, and to have the light of truth enter in situations vitiated by hypocrisy and lies. To give light, but it isn’t my light, it’s Jesus’ light — we are instrument so that Jesus’ light reaches all.”
The difference here is that of the Church as fortress vs. the Church as field hospital. The fortress has high walls and heavy gates, and the only ones who may enter are those admitted by the gatekeepers. The field hospital is chaotic and busy, is entered and exited from all sides, and the workers often run outside to approach and welcome the incoming wounded. The image of the field hospital is not unlike that of the spontaneous and organic work of the Holy Spirit; it is adaptable, mobile, and gets to work at a moment’s notice. It appears where it is most needed, and goes out to heal those most in need of care. The fortress, meanwhile, stands in place with its heavy stones. It remains until its stones crumble or its usefulness expires, when it becomes a monument or museum to be studied or photographed.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Francis proposes an alternative to an enclosed and self-referential view of ecclesiology, which he dubs the “missionary option.” He describes it as “a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the Church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.” This can also be applied to our approach to our families and communities. While our families and communities must remained grounded in our faith, we must always remain engaged with the world. In that way, we can bring the light of Christ to all.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.