Family Life

by Rev. Mark Connolly

I would like to share a few thoughts with you on the subject of family life in general and your family particular. If you go back into history, you will find that there probably was never a time when family life was thoroughly at peace. From Adam and Even and Cain and Abel and even to the hardships of the first Holy Family, family life was always being assaulted. If you read the beautiful words of the historian Arnold Toynbee, his thirteen volumes make it very clear that of the nineteen civilizations that have existed since the beginning of recorded time, sixteen of them have crumbled from within because, basically, the family unit broke down. If you jump over many centuries to the time of Charles Dickens, you soon read that family life in England, with children being forced to work to help their families survive, was certainly not a very happy time. When you think of the millions of immigrants that came from all over the world, separated from their families to start a new life in a strange country, it is easy to read between the historical lines and realize the difficulties of the immigrants. When you come right down to the depression years in our country, family life was always being assaulted. From the beginning of time, family life has received many blows and assaults. When you compare the past to the present family life problems, there are many differences, but one in particular stands out. If you go back to the time of the depression, most of the difficulties family life experienced were basically physical. Today, because we have so much more, materially speaking, the problems are more mental and emotional. Years ago, in the days of the depression, families were concerned with putting enough food on the table, keeping the family members clothed, keeping a roof over everyone's head. Today, pressures, tensions, stress, anxiety and depression are assaulting family life in a completely different way than during the days of the depression.

Just take our decade. Never in the history of our country have we had as many teenagers, not only take their lives, but attempt to take the lives of others. The tragedy at Colombine High School is a clear example of how disturbed our family life has become. The war in Kosovo is another example of how families are being disrupted. The dictatorship of one man destroying the life of women, children and men. All because of ethnic cleansing.

All of us have a good idea of what a traditional home and family life is. When I was ordained to the priesthood and you were married, none of us ever thought that the traditional family would be so assaulted. Experts in sociology and psychology predict that with all the divorces and new step families and the single parent families in our country, the traditional family as we know it will cease to exist. If you compare this generation of parents and the parents of the depression era, you can see quite a difference in what is happening to family life. I think this is what prompted Sigmund Freud to say years ago that being a parent, even in the most ideal of circumstances, is an impossible vocation.

There are many ingredients that make some families survive better than others. And it is the ingredient of leadership that comes from the home. If you want to do your family a favor, no matter what position you have in the family, you can never minimize the power of the quality of your leadership in your own home. Leadership has to be moral, leadership has to be emotional, leadership has to be spiritual and working for the common good of your family unit.

Leadership that is moral. We all know that there is very little point in chastising your child who cheats in an exam if that same child knows that his father cheats on his income tax. Moral leadership sends signals to children that say, "I believe in honesty, I believe in integrity, I believe in values and priorities that will bring us closer to each other and closer to God." Basically, a good moral parent does not demand respect from his children. He commands it by what he is and what he does, not just by what he says. Every parent can say, "When you get married there are no books that really tell you what to expect and what marriage is all about." Every generation of married people can say the same thing. But as parents, and now that the Church does not have the influence on your family as it once did, your role is just that much more difficult. As parents you have to supply moral leadership based on good theology and good psychology and basic common sense. You are the teachers, the real educators, and the real psychologists of your family. Your moral leadership in these areas is the compass that will launch them on their journey back to God.

Leadership has to be emotional. If there is anything that you find out today in children who have attempted to take their lives, you will find that many of them searched for people, parents or priests who would just listen to them, listen to their cry for help. Long before they sell their favorite records, long before they become real loners, there is the search for someone who will just listen. The young people today have so many choices, so many options that their minds often experience an overload and that is why listening is so important - not just hearing, but listening. If there is anything in the field of clinical psychology that is hard and painful, it is the art of listening. Listening gives a person the feeling that his is not going to get a lecture on what he talks about, listening gives a person the opportunity to ventilate his grievances or unhappiness without a sermon coming. Listening gives a person the possibility of freeing his mind from the problems that are so confusing and bewildering. Once listening has taken place, a catharsis is experienced that relieves the person of the mental burden he is carrying. Basically, when listening is done correctly, the teenager or adult is more receptive to what you are going to say. There is a correlation between being a good listener and a good leader. This kind of listening leadership is so needed in the home.

Leadership has to be spiritual. Spiritual leadership means that your family members see in you a Christ-like personality. Just suppose for a moment that there was no such thing as a Catholic Church. And you, as parents, are responsible for the religious and spiritual development of your child. If there is one word, and one vocation that comes from both the Old and New Testament that will help you form your children, it would be the word servant. The vocation to servanthood that ever member of every family must have if they hope to be Christ-like personalities. If you read the Old Testament, the prophets tells us of the suffering servant who would be the person of Christ. If you read the New Testament, you will find that Christ spent his whole life in the service of others. "I did not come to this earth to be served, but to serve others." That is what each member of every family must be to each other. Parents and children must be servants, or offer service to each other. Not just in imitation of what Christ, the servant did, but that the family unit can survive. Priests and parents have one thing in common, they must help each other, must assist each other in bringing every child back to the God who allowed them to come on to this earth. Being a servant is not a question of choice or whether you are a parent or a child. It is what spiritual leadership is all about.

I think all of us know that family life will always be assaulted by the cultural and environmental and educational patterns that form our minds. It will be assaulted by war and bigotry. We have gone from a depression generation that had fewer suicides to a generation of material blessings that for strange reasons has many suicides and murders.

Each one of us has an obligation to protect as best we can the family unit that we all love. Moral, emotional and spiritual leadership are some of the ways that have to be personally implemented. G.K. Chesterson once said, "We are all in the same boat and all a little bit seasick." Eugene O'Neil countered that by saying, "We are all born broken and in need of a little glue." A coalition made of priests, parents and friends have an opportunity to help each other by the leadership they provide and in so doing not only give honor and glory to God, but also protect the family unit that God's son died on a cross for many centuries ago.

copyright © 1999-2005, Spirituality for Today