Towards the end of his 1981 Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II writes: “The future of humanity passes by way of the family.” The family is at the heart of God’s plan for the human race. In fact, the human family is a reflection of God’s own inner trinitarian life. Pope Francis notes: “The Triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection.” (Amoris Laetitia, 11) What role, though, does the family have in the Church’s mission to “make disciples of all nations?” (MT 28:19)
In Unleash the Gospel, Archbishop Vigneron reminds us that parents “are the primary evangelizers as well as the primary catechists and educators of their children.” (Marker 7:2) Vatican II, in its Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, Lumen Gentium, no. 11, provides a vivid description of how Christian spouses, united by love in the sacrament of matrimony, establish what may be called “the domestic church:”
From the wedlock of Christians there comes the family, in which new citizens of human society are born, who by the grace of the Holy Spirit received in baptism are made children of God, thus perpetuating the people of God through the centuries. The family is, so to speak, the domestic church. In it parents should, by their word and example, be the first preachers of the faith to their children; they should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each of them, fostering with special care vocation to a sacred state.
Evangelization begins within the family, and parents must realize that “there is no greater gift they can give their children than a relationship with Jesus and his Church, which endures throughout eternity.” (UTG, Marker 7:2) This relationship with Jesus must be sustained by prayer, example and the sacraments — especially the Eucharist. Parents must try to mirror the self-sacrificing love of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. They must be careful in the way they speak to each other and their children. As Pope Francis teaches, love within a family must be expressed by words such as “please,” “thank you” and “sorry.” (see Amoris Laetitia, 133)
The Church teaches that “the matrimonial covenant … is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 1601) As a sacrament, marriage is a means of holiness endowed with its own special graces. Vatican II teaches that by virtue of this sacrament spouses “are penetrated with the spirit of Christ, which suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope and charity. Thus they increasingly advance the perfection of their own personalities, as well as their mutual sanctification, and hence contribute jointly to the glory of God.” (Gaudium et Spes, 48)
The family is missionary by its very nature, and its mission is both inward and outward. The inward missionary call is found primarily in the duty of parents to raise their children in knowledge, virtue and holiness. The outward missionary call of the family is to reach outward to neighbors, friends, classmates and co-workers as living examples of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. This is especially important with regard to those who do not know Christ or his church. As St. Paul VI explains, “The first means of evangelization is the witness of an authentically Christian life. … ‘Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.’” (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41)
Spouses who are not blessed with children of their own can serve as witnesses of Christ in their parishes and places of employment. This is the great call of the laity. As Vatican II teaches, the lay faithful are called “to work for the sanctification of the world from within as a leaven … especially by the testimony of a life resplendent in faith, hope and charity.’ (Lumen Gentium, 31)
Fathers and mothers fulfill their missionary call when they raise their children in the faith and provide them with living examples of what it means to be a Christian man and woman. In this Year of St. Joseph, we need, as Father Donald Calloway, MIC explains in Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father, “the spiritual fatherhood of St. Joseph to help us protect marriage and the family.” Fathers should find in St. Joseph a model of Christian manhood — for St. Joseph was chaste, virile and totally committed to the care of the Holy Family.
In his apostolic letter on St. Joseph, Patris Corde, Pope Francis notes that “fathers are not born, but made; a man does not become a father simply by bringing a child into the world, but by taking up the responsibility to care for that child.” (7) The Holy Father also observes: “Children today often seem orphans, lacking fathers.” (ibid) Sadly, all too many families today are missing fathers. This is not only due to untimely deaths but also to desertion and dereliction of duty. Fathers who accept the responsibility of caring for their children and loving their wives contribute greatly to the call of Christian mission. Good parents are not centered on themselves but on the needs of their children. These needs, though, are not only physical but emotional and spiritual.
Fathers should look to St. Joseph as a model because, as Pope Francis teaches, “he did not think of himself, but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus.” (Patris Corde, 7) Mothers can look to the Virgin Mary as a model because she nurtured, cared for and suffered in communion with her divine Son. As St. John Paul II notes, Mary “signifies the fullness of the perfection of ‘what is characteristic of woman,’ of ‘what is feminine.’” (Mulieris Dignitatem, 5)
What, though, are some practical ways families can grow in holiness? When children are young, they need to see how important the life of faith is from their parents. Fathers and mothers should provide structured times of prayer — not only at mealtimes, but also in the evening. The family rosary is highly recommended. Venerable Patrick Peyton, CSC would often say: “The family that prays together stays together.” Prayer in the home, however, is never sufficient if it does not support a sacramental life centered on the Eucharist and frequent confession. Children should learn to appreciate the liturgical year, the lives of the saints and the seasons of Advent and Lent. Religious devotions associated with different cultural and ethnic traditions should especially be encouraged.
Parents should have images and symbols of the faith in the home such as crucifixes, images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and those of Mary, St. Joseph and other saints. These images are sources of grace and instruction for children. There should likewise be Bibles in living rooms and bedrooms. As children learn to read, they should be encouraged to read and meditate on passages from sacred Scripture. Parents should introduce the children to religious films that tell the story of salvation. Family trips can be planned that include stops at religious shrines or beautiful churches.
As children get older, parents should talk about the faith and provide suggestions to their children about sharing the faith in a way that is truthful, gentle and respectful. They should remind their children that they must manifest charity and patience with people who attack or ridicule the teachings of the Catholic faith. This sometimes is difficult, but the teaching of Christ is clear: “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” (Mt 5:44)
A missionary family also witnesses to the faith by the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Support for causes harmonious with Catholic moral teaching is very important — whether it be praying before an abortion clinic, protesting peacefully against social injustice or volunteering in a soup kitchen. To be authentically Catholic, though, such activities must be nourished by prayer and the sacraments. A Catholic missionary family must be nourished inwardly by the Eucharistic Lord in order to witness outwardly to the love of Christ for all people.
“Fathers and mothers fulfill their missionary call when they raise their children in the faith and provide them with living examples of what it means to be a Christian man and woman.”