In his Sunday Angelus this week, Pope Francis returned to a topic that he’s discussed many times, one that hasn’t received as much attention as more “controversial” subjects related to doctrine and moral theology, but is central to his papacy nonetheless: handling problems in the family. Indeed, while Francis has convened two synods on the family, traveled to two World Meetings on the subject in Philadelphia and Dublin, and written an apostolic exhortation on the subject, most pundits and commentators have focused on his teachings regarding the divorced and remarried and homosexuality. Francis’s pastoral advice regarding love and harmony in the family have gone largely unnoticed, despite it being a central theme of his papacy.
Many of us have spent time with family very recently, perhaps traveling great distances to reunite with relatives over Christmas. For some of us, we came together despite harboring great resentment or open wounds in our relationships. For others, the wounds are so great that making peace and spending a holiday together proved impossible. Perhaps part our family came together, while an unresolved conflict or a past sin meant an empty place at the table. In other families, maybe celebrating together was greatly desired, but great distance or military deployment made a full family gathering impossible.
All families have their troubles. Some families successfully put aside their resentments and disagreements, and manage an amicable gathering despite resentment bubbling just beneath the surface. Others fall into open conflict, what Francis described in 2016, “they raise their voices, they squabble, and even plates go flying!”
Pope Francis has brought up the “plates flying” or “plates smashing” image numerous times in his his papacy. In the Saint Peter’s Square on Saturday, 26 October 2013, he acknowledged this reality, and gave us this reminder:
And the last word: sorry. We all make mistakes and on occasion someone gets offended in the marriage, in the family, and sometimes – I say – plates are smashed, harsh words are spoken but please listen to my advice: don’t ever let the sun set without reconciling. Peace is made each day in the family: “Please forgive me”, and then you start over. Please, thank you, sorry! Shall we say them together? Please, thank you and sorry. Let us say these words in our families! To forgive one another each day!
The life of a family is filled with beautiful moments: rest, meals together, walks in the park or the countryside, visits to grandparents or to a sick person… But if love is missing, joy is missing, nothing is fun. Jesus gives always gives us that love: he is its endless source. In the sacrament he gives us his word and he gives us the bread of life, so that our joy may be complete.
It’s ironic that the Feast of the Holy Family follows so closely after Christmas, that the Church calendar holds up our model of a perfectly loving family so soon after many of us have revisited the wounds and anger that infest our family life. That said, the feast also occurs at the dawn of a New Year, a year that can promise new hope and healing and reconciliation, or at least the opportunity to resolve to be more forgiving and more loving to our families.
Still, even the Holy Family was not free from its troubles and anxieties. The Gospel of the day illustrates an event, losing Jesus in the temple, where Mary and Joseph both become greatly distressed about Christ’s disappearance, and any parent can imagine the fear they must have felt upon realizing that he had been separated from them for three days. In yesterday’s Angelus address, Francis drew attention to the anxiety Mary and Joseph felt while Jesus was missing, followed by their astonishment at finding him teaching the Doctors in the temple.
Francis reminds us,
To be astonished is to open oneself to others, to understand others’ reasons: this attitude is important to heal compromised relations between people, and it’s also indispensable to heal the open wounds in the realm of the family. When there are problems in families, we take it for granted that we are right and we close the door to the others. Instead, it’s necessary to think: “But what good does this person have?” And to marvel at this “good.” And this helps family unity. If you have problems in the family, think of the good things that your relative has with whom you have problems, and marvel at this. And this will help to heal family wounds.
Francis teaches that the anxiety Mary and Joseph felt was resolved by the centrality of Jesus in their lives. He draws a parallel between the absence of Jesus from their lives and how we often let days go by where we take Jesus for granted or fail to think about him, to pray, or read the Gospel. Putting Christ at the center of our lives can heal wounds caused by conflicts in families, and can even lead to reconciliation and resolution of differences.
Francis goes on,
“Mary and Joseph looked for Him and found Him in the Temple while He was teaching. We too, especially in the house of God, can encounter the divine Teacher and receive His message of salvation. In the Eucharistic celebration, we have a living experience of Christ. He speaks to us, He offers us His Word, He illumines us, He illumines our path; He gives us his Body in the Eucharist from which we draw vigor to face the difficulties of every day.
And today we go back home with these two words: astonishment and anxiety. Am I able to be astonished when I see others’ good things, and so resolve family problems? Do I feel anxious when I have moved away from Jesus?
Let us pray for all the families of the world, especially those in which, for different reasons, peace and harmony are lacking. And we entrust them to the protection of the Holy Family of Nazareth.”
Often family wounds and conflicts are never resolved, at least on this side of Heaven. Many times, personalities or stubbornness fails to reconcile those who refuse to let Christ enter into the relationship. In other cases, someone might have no realistic option, other than to forgive and reach an interior peace regarding a conflict in the family.
But in a great many families, a spirit of openness and forgiveness that is centered on Faith in Christ can heal long-lasting wounds, and bring about holiness reminiscent of the Holy Family.