Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran at the Knock Novena
Family: The First School of Human Values
Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran at the Knock Novena
Sunday 19th August 2018
The Bread of God’s Word
Some years ago, I spent a few months living in a parish in France. There was one grocery shop, one bar, one chemist shop, two restaurants and four bakeries. Bread is almost a way of life in France. You can’t start the day without it. When Jesus describes himself in today’s Gospel passage as “the living bread that has come down from heaven”, I think that is exactly what he means. He is a way of life. Your day would not be the same without Him. And He is not just talking about a day, or even a lifetime; he is talking about eternity.
We tend to understand this teaching of Jesus in terms of the Eucharist, as if Jesus was simply saying, “you need to go regularly to Holy Communion”. The Eucharist is, of course, the visible sign of his presence and his continuing relationship with us, (his communion with us) now that he is no longer physically present. But during his earthly life, the people had no need of the Eucharist, because Jesus himself was “bread” for them, nourishing them through his teaching and through the example of his life. Many of the great spiritual writers describe the Word of God as bread. In our first reading today, the wisdom of God is compared to bread and wine. The great biblical scholar, St Jerome, even goes so far as to describe the Gospel as the “body of Christ” and he asks why we are not as careful about it as we are about every crumb of the sacred host.
Becoming Bread for One Another
Our heavenly Father has given us his Son, Jesus, to be bread for our journey. If that is what our Heavenly Father does, then it is worth asking how, in our human families, we can imitate his example and become bread for one another. How can we, through our words and the example of our lives, become a source of wisdom, encouragement, healing and strength, for each other? This is something to which Pope Francis devoted quite a lot of attention in his encyclical letter on the “Joy of Love”. He describes the family as “the first school of human values, where we learn the wise use of freedom”.
The Human and Spiritual Growth of the Couple
It seems to me that we must receive before we can have anything to give. When a young couple preparing for marriage come to meet the priest to complete their papers, they are asked if they are committed to the practice of their faith. This is not about the priest “checking up” to see if they are going to Mass. It is about the Church encouraging them to do two things:
- to make real space in their lives for their personal relationship with God, who is the source of love, and whose presence in their lives will help them to live their relationship richly and generously
- to participate actively in the faith community, both so that they can be encouraged and supported and also so that they can encourage and support others
When we think of “school”, I suppose we think mainly of children but our human formation does not end when we are seventeen or eighteen. If the family is, as Pope Francis says, the “first school of human values”, then I think it begins with the adults. Think of any couple you know who have fallen in love and decided to marry. Long before they set up home together, they begin to develop the human skills that will sustain their relationship down through the years. They learn from each other. They learn to listen to one another, not only to what is said but often to what is not said. They learn to be patient, to express appreciation, to share space respectfully, to forgive and to accept forgiveness.
Pope Francis suggests that our preparation for family life begins in our family of origin, right from the day we are born:
For every couple marriage preparation begins at birth. What they received from their family should prepare them to know themselves and to make a full and definitive commitment. Those best prepared for marriage are probably those who learned what Christian marriage is from their own parents, who chose each other unconditionally and daily renew this decision. (AL 208)
The beauty of it is that, even when they become parents (or grandparents) and are taking responsibility for the formation of their children, the couple themselves are always at school, always learning from the experience of their life together to become more fully human and more fully alive. As a priest it has always been a privilege for me to visit an elderly couple in their home after fifty or sixty years of marriage and to find them, as they were in the beginning, in love with one another and happy to be together.
The Education of Children
Pope Francis devotes a whole section of Amoris Laetitia to the education of children and he comments that parents always influence the moral development of their children for better or worse (AL 259). Another way of putting this might be to say that there is no such thing as a value-free family. Pope Francis encourages parents to engage consciously, enthusiastically in the moral formation of their children. In a vacuum, someone else is always teaching your children and often you don’t know what they are learning.
- Space and Time:
We are rightly very conscious today of the need to protect children in a society where they are exposed to many risks. This is a lesson which we have taken very seriously in the Irish Church over the past fifteen or twenty years and in which we must and will continue to invest energy and resources.
At a more general level, I think it would be fair to say that, in many ways, the lives of children are much more structured and controlled than they ever were. I cycled to school at the age of four. These days, it seems that children are brought everywhere and brought home again. I’m not sure if the world is actually more dangerous than it was fifty or sixty years ago, but parents certainly seem more anxious to control every situation that their children may experience. In the midst of all of this, how do we help them to develop the authentic human freedom that allows them gradually to become self-responsible. Pope Francis suggests that this is only possible when parents take the time to listen and to understand.
“The real question”, he says, “is not where our children are physically……. but rather where they are existentially, where they stand in terms of their convictions, goals, desires and dreams”.
He goes on to ask:
“Do we seek to understand ‘where’ our children really are in their journey? Where is their soul? Do we know? And above all to we want to know? (AL 261)
- Rights and Duties
If children are formed with an exclusive focus on duty and responsibility, there is a real risk that in adult life they will lack warmth and flexibility. They will find it easier to enter into contracts than to form mature relationships. This was a feature of the Victorian era, when children were supposed to be seen and not heard. But there is of course the opposite extreme, where everything revolves around the desires of the child.
In a world where parents are often time-poor and children spend a lot of time with carers, it is easy to understand how giving them what they want can become a kind of substitute for doing things with them. In this context Pope Francis recognises the challenge posed by electronic devices, which can form children to expect that everything in life happens at digital speed.
“Postponing desires” he says “does not mean denying them but simply deferring their fulfilment. When children or adolescents are not helped to realize that some things have to be waited for, they can become obsessed with satisfying their immediate needs and develop the vice of ‘wanting it all now’. This is a grand illusion which does not favour freedom but weakens it.” (AL 275)
- Commitments and Virtues
I grew up in a world where people tended to live in the same house and work in the same job and stay in the same relationships for all of their adult lives. It is not like that today. You hear people saying that young people find it harder nowadays to make commitments. It is hardly surprising, given that there is so little permanence about anything. If it was a problem in the past that people were rigid in their views, the challenge today would seem to be that even the most fundamental values are seen as exchangeable when something new or different comes along.
St. Thomas Aquinas describes virtue as “the habit of doing good”. We don’t become just or truthful, simply because we sometimes act justly or truthfully. There is an element of habit, or commitment involved, in the development of every one of the virtues. This is where the tension sometimes arises between the will and the feelings. In recent generations we have begun to recognise the importance of feelings and how they motivate us to act. On their own, however, feelings also have the capacity to pull us in every direction. Part of moral education is learning to acknowledge our feelings and to bring them under the guidance of the rational will. It is only then that our actions are fully human and truly free.
Pope Francis comments that one of the important responsibilities of parents is “shaping the will of their children, fostering good habits and a natural inclination to goodness. (Al 264). He suggests that an element of the moral education of children is the “free and valued repetition of certain patterns of good behaviour”. (AL 266). Wishful thinking on its own does not give rise to virtue.
The big challenge for adults, of course, is that children do not just learn from what we say; they learn from what we do. In our second reading today, St. Paul has a word of encouragement for the people of Ephesus, which could equally be helpful to parents. He says: “be very careful about the sort of lives you lead, like intelligent and not like senseless people. This may be a wicked age, but you redeem it (by the example of your lives)”.
- Disappointment and Perseverence
Authentic teachers always meet with resistance, because what they say challenges people to dig deep. That was the experience of Jesus when he encouraged his followers to live by the Spirit and to seek the kind of “bread” that gives eternal life. Many of them turned away and no longer followed him, (Jn 65). In much the same way, parents experience disappointment when their children grumble and turn away. I don’t think that means that we give up on the task of formation, but it may mean that we have to come at it from a different angle. Pope Francis comments that we don’t form people just by making rules. People, including children, are less inclined to blind obedience – and that is probably a good thing. There is a useful piece of advice for us in the First Letter of St. Peter: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15).
Parents sometimes feel that they have to agree with their children, especially their adult children, just to keep the peace. Of course you will always love them and accept them, and they need to know that. But you love them best by remaining true to yourself. That way, they know where to find you. It is a delicate balance, but it is a great achievement if you can do it.
Parents and Schools
I want to finish by saying a few words about schools. Pope Francis says “Parents rely on schools to ensure the basic instruction of their children, but can never completely delegate the moral formation of their children to others.” (AL 263) We are blessed in the quality of our Catholic Schools and the generosity of our teachers and our volunteer boards of management. But parents are the primary educators of their children. Your children have more confidence in you than you might think. They look to you for guidance, even if they sometimes roll their eyes and groan. They long for consistency and part of that is the continuity between home and school. So by all means have confidence in your local school, and in the teachers to do their job to the highest standard, but have confidence in yourselves as well.
In a few days we will begin the World Meeting of Families and, next Saturday, we will welcome Pope Francis, here and in Dublin. My prayer for all of us today is that this will not be just an event to look back on with nostalgia. Rather, through God’s grace, may it be the beginning of a new journey towards a richer, more fully human and faith-filled living of family life, in our Church and in our society.