The Reconciling Family

In this article, I will explore what Pope Francis teaches in The Joy of Love about the family as a means and as a school of reconciliation.

Each family is a kind of salvation history, which from fragile beginnings grows into something precious and enduring. Each family mirrors, in its own way, the pilgrim journey of the People of God, beginning with Abraham and culminating with the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in the book of Revelation.  In this way, Pope Francis picks up on a key insight of Pope Paul VI – the family as a domestic Church.

Just as the vocation of the People of God is set out at Sinai early in their journey, so the vocation of the Christian family is given to them from the beginning of the marriage.  The man and the woman are called to leave their parents and cling to one another, becoming as one. In their love and fruitfulness, they are to reflect the union of Christ and His Church. Children, by honoring their parents and learning to love and accept one another, are called to become “living stones” that build up the family.

No man or woman comes into a marriage perfectly mature in faith or in any other way. All are works in progress. All come into a marriage carrying the effects of their own sins and the sins of others against them. All are affected by various influences in society that are not always healthy for Christian family life. Each spouse will be disillusioned by the other, when one sees that the other cannot live or love perfectly and cannot give everything that the one may need. Each spouse will sin against the other at times or hurt the other even without intending it.

Parents may feel disillusioned by their children, who may not become all that the parents hoped. Children, too, will feel disillusioned by their parents, who are not all that the children would want them to be.

This disillusionment can be caused by the failures and sins of someone else in the family. However, our own inflated egos are also a source of this hurt. We do not want an imperfect person as part of “my” family, no more than we want to belong to an imperfect parish or an imperfect Church. We want to feel that our family is the “best,” because it reflects well on our individual egos.

Finally, we are disillusioned with ourselves. It is impossible to live a lie in the context of a family -- or any community. Interactions with others bring out our own sinfulness. We are often too quick to blame others for something hurtful we have fostered in our hearts and then said or done.

When we look at the history of the People of God, we find the same problems surfacing again and again. At the same time, we find a constant call to repentance and reconciliation with God and with one another. What we failed to do through our hardness of heart is restored in Jesus Christ. Christ heals and restores hardened hearts, leading them through the Cross to reconciliation and new life.  Most people first encounter this in family life.

Family life is a “shepherding in mercy.” Here, we learn hospitality – how to welcome another person as he or she is. Here, we experience disillusionment or hurt, as even the most loving family member will sin against another member at times. Here, we encounter forgiveness and reconciliation.  Spouses learn to forgive one another. Children learn forgiveness and reconciliation by seeing their parents forgive and be reconciled to one another.

Family life teaches us that things cannot always go my way. It teaches us that to love is to be focused on the other, not ourselves. Building ourselves up at the expense of the others always hurts the family. Humble service builds it up.  Family love seeks to understand weaknesses, show compassion, and forgive wherever possible. Tallying up someone else’s faults every time one feels slighted increases family division. We learn, in families, to cherish the good name of another and to never criticize others. Each one of us is a mixture of light and shadow. Each one of us needs, as the Lord reminds us, to remove the beam in our own eye before we presume to remove the speck in someone else’s eye. We learn trust. We learn that it is better to heal wounds than cause them. We learn that, when we forgive or overlook a fault, the whole family benefits from it. We learn that the success of one family member does not lessen the others but brings blessings on all.

Having learned of reconciliation in our own families, we know that we remain sinners on a journey of faith throughout life. We know that we will stumble and fall. We need forgiveness and healing. If we have learned the lessons of reconciliation in our families, we will easily see the importance of the sacrament of reconciliation.  The reverse is also true. The sacrament of reconciliation helps us to be reconciled with family members and with others we may have sinned against.

One way for families to foster their call to be a place of reconciliation is to read over the pope’s meditation on St. Paul’s hymn to love (1 Corinthians 13) which can be found in Chapter Four of The Joy of Love.  It can be an excellent examination of conscience. It will show where we have failed, but it will also give us that positive guidance to set us back on the right path.