The recent Synod on the Family gathered a lot of attention for only a couple of issues, that of the reception of communion for those who are divorced and remarried, and the question about ministry to gays. But in many ways, the challenges facing the family all over the world are much more numerous than these two significant issues.
When we consider the family not only in the United States but around the world, these are challenging days. In the 2013 US Census, we learned that more adults were not married than were married. More than a third of children in the United States are being raised in single parent households. When we consider particular circumstances, two thirds of all African American children are in single parent households, more than half of Native American children are in single parent households, and almost half of Hispanic households are single parent households.
Consider this quote from the Population Research Bureau. “Researchers have identified the rise in single-parent families (especially mother-child families) as a major factor driving the long-term increase in child poverty in the United States. The effects of growing up in single-parent households have been shown to go beyond economics, increasing the risk of children dropping out of school, disconnecting from the labor force, and becoming teen parents.”
When we then think about the results of the breakdown of the family, and the documented effect of the increase of poverty, the concerns are tremendous. The United States bishops working through Catholic Charities USA, write the following. “Poverty does not strike all demographics equally. For example, in 2012, 13.6% of men lived in Poverty USA, but 16.3% of women. Along the same lines, the poverty rate for married couples in 2012 was only 6.3%–but the poverty rate for single-parent families with no wife present was up to 16.4%, and for single-parent families with no husband present over 30%.” When we consider the effect of poverty around the world, the disparity in income levels is even greater.
How did this happen? To be sure, we have always had the effects of sin in our world. We have been selfish, we have been greedy, we have been evil. And while not all structures are healthy, it seems as it has become fashionable to attack some of the structures that provided greater stability. Not only that, it is fashionable to repeat narratives that suggest these structures in fact never provided anything good.
But holiness provides something wonderful and good, because true holiness means we reflect the love and power of God. It seems to me that we need to renew our energies to families that reflect this holiness. Holy families share. Holy families promote commitment. Holy families support the quest for the truth. Holy families promote more than anything the quest for love, the quest for the profound relationship that God calls us to live forever.
It is important to say that the invitation to holiness is available to all families. We never say that single parent families, and other non-traditional families cannot be holy. Quite the contrary. But when we consider the example of the Holy Family, it is a story that reminds us that even in the most difficult circumstances can lead to a loving, eternal relationship with God. This relentless attention to God made the family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, even with difficulties, holy. As we consider the events of Christmas, we know that much of the journey of the family was a struggle. There was the journey to Bethlehem for the census. There was the lack of suitable housing. There was the exile into Egypt due to the threat on the life of Jesus. But there was never a lack of attention to their relationship with God.
What does a family need to do to be holy? First and foremost, the holy family of today is focused on the call of God. Family life is a vocation. This means that family life is first and foremost a response to the initiative of God. When families remember this, the foundation of family life is solid. When families imitate the life of the Church, being the home of love, sacraments, forgiveness and grace, they fulfill the vision of the Second Vatican Council which referred to the holy family of today a “domestic Church.”
This means that families today are called to witness to the Church at its best. And it means that each of us, since we all have the personal call to holiness, must witness to this love both in our families and outside our families. The world today is in desperate need to the witness of family love that allows all humans to thrive. Too many witness violence, lack of opportunity, addiction, greed and selfishness. Since these get a disproportionate coverage in the media, it can be easy to forget that peace, opportunity, tolerance, generosity and living for others is in fact prevalent in many families.
Are you centered on the quest for holiness? Do you see being part of a family as a vocation that leads to holiness? Do you make time in the life of your family to foster prayer, learning about God, serving others, helping reduce poverty and working for structural change that leads others to God?
All of this has as its core the Incarnation of Jesus who by coming into our world modeled the quest and life of holiness for us. Once humanity and divinity was joined, it became even more clear to humanity that a life of grace could foster an eternal relationship of love. When we do so, holiness becomes as visible as clothing, since Saint Paul calls us to wear holiness.
So this Christmas season is an invitation to incarnate holiness in our own lives and that of our family. You and your family can by holy. And that is something to celebrate.