By Lindsay Schlegel
In 1994, the Church celebrated the Year of the Family. Nearly thirty years later, Pope St. John Paul II’s “Letter to Families” remains relevant, encouraging, and worth a read, especially as we prepare to celebrate his feast day on October 22.
Popular culture will tell you that the Catholic Church doesn’t understand families, that She asks too much of adults and doesn’t understand what kids really need. These assessments are the fruits of a lack of education, poor interpretations, and passed-along misconceptions. The only remedy for these is to go straight to the source—that is, right to the Church Herself—with an open mind and a humble heart, ready to receive whatever one finds there.
There is more wisdom in this letter than one blog post can hold. The few lines highlighted here only begin to reveal the beauty of the Church’s teaching on and love for the family.
Truth #1: “The divine mystery of the Incarnation of the Word … has an intimate connection with the human family.”
The love with which God created the world is the same love which the family has as its origin. Scripture is full of marital and familial language. We know that God chose to send His only-begotten son into a human family, to be raised and cared for. Further, the “filial ‘obedience’ of Christ [is] … the first expression of that obedience to the Father ‘unto death’ … whereby he redeemed the world.”
Truth #2: “Prayer increases the strength and spiritual unity of the family, helping the family to partake of God’s own ‘strength.’”
The pope encourages “prayer by the family, prayer for the family, and prayer with the family” as a means of bringing family members together in love and truth. He writes that through prayer, one understands more fully what it is to be a person. It is only in understanding why and by whom we were created that we will come to the true and eternal happiness for which we all naturally long.
Truth #3: “By his very genealogy, the person created in the image and likeness of God, exists ‘for his own sake’ and reaches fulfillment precisely by sharing in God’s life.”
Man is the only creation who is an end in himself. That end is life with God. These two ideas may seem contradictory, but the pope explains that we must look at the connection between God and man as “a relationship, a complementarity, a unity.” Within the family, parents must recognize this in themselves, as well as in their children; we are all ends in ourselves, and we are all made for life with the Lord. We have to remember that “the will of the parents should be in harmony with the will of God.”
Truth #4: “The times in which we are living tend to restrict family units to two generations … not infrequently due to the belief that having several generations living together interferes with privacy and makes life too difficult.”
I’ll speak from my own experience on this one: My in-laws live in a senior suite attached to our house. Sometimes it does interfere with privacy, and sometimes it does make things difficult. But more often and more importantly, it means that my husband can help care for his father each day. It means my kids witness their grandparents’ faithfulness through in-person baptismal day and feast day celebrations. It means my in-laws (whom I affectionately call “Dad” and “Mama”) are here for us when we need them. It means each of us has a tangible, necessary, and loving reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around us.
Truth #5: “The family is indeed—more than any other human reality—the place where an individual can exist ‘for himself’ through the sincere gift of self.”
Man cannot find himself until he willingly gives himself to others. The family is the most basic and simultaneously the more profound circumstance in which to do that. The pope writes, “This is why [the family] remains a social institution which neither can nor should be replaced: it is the ‘sanctuary of life.’” There is no substitute, and we must pray and work for the dignity of marriage and the family.
We are made for communion and community, and it is a special vocation and a beautiful gift to have a family of one’s own. The letter addresses the reality that some families are in difficult situations, but are no less worthy of love and the universal prayer of the Church.
This month, as we celebrate a saint who understood the dignity of the person and the value of the family so deeply, may we pray for all families to witness to the tremendous love of our Father for every one of his children.
Lindsay Schlegel is the author of Don't Forget to Say Thank You: And Other Parenting Lessons That Brought Me Closer to God. She and her high-school-sweetheart-turned-husband live in New Jersey with their five children.