In declaring 1994 the International Year of the Family, with the theme Family Resources and Responsibilities in a Changing World, the United Nations has given people worldwide an opportunity to reflect upon the value and the meaning of family life.
The family is under serious pressure through the rapid pace of social change. A values revolution is taking place in our society, so much of which runs counter to the emphasis on permanence and fidelity which are essential elements in Christian marriage and family life.
What is the Family?
For some of us the experience of family life has been a positive one, while for others it may not have been such a life-giving experience. For good or ill our experience of family colours all of our future relationships.
The lessons learned within the family, the love and cooperation that comes from good family relationships, and the values learned within a loving family community are the foundations on which to build the future not only of individuals but also of the whole of society. When family life and values are sound the nation will be sound. Therefore the family must be accorded full status and protection by legislators. To relegate the family to a subordinate role is harmful to the growth of a just and peaceful society.
In our country, families have come from many different parts of the world to join the Maori people (tangata whenua) and made this their home. There is a wealth of experience in the many cultures that make up the family life of our nation. Maori and Pacific peoples show the way of the extended family (whanau), where several generations live together and nurture the young and care for the aged and infirm. To most people of European descent, the family means the nuclear family of parents and children. Whether the family is extended or nuclear it is an institution fundamental to the life of every society.
Ideally the family is a community of love in which people of all ages share the joyful and painful experiences of living. It is the place in which individuals learn about truth and goodness, about loving and being loved. We realise who we are only in relationship with others. Our sense of identity and respect for others comes from our experience of family providing the basic structure of our security and freedom.
The Christian Family
At its most fundamental level, the family is the community of a man and woman committed to love each other in the permanent and exclusive relationship of marriage, into which children are born and raised. These fundamental concepts of permanence, mutual love and responsible parenthood are indeed God’s plan for what the family is meant to be.
For Christians, the family has an added spiritual dimension. Sacramental marriage between two baptised Christians reflects God’s unfailing, unchanging and permanent love.
It is true that human love is always imperfect; that is why it demands effort. To live faithfully in mutual love in a marriage requires generosity, selflessness, forgiveness, communication and a sense of humour.
It is said that the greatest gift parents can give to their children is their love for each other. It is not enough that mother and father individually lavish their love on their children. It is only when each child experiences the faithful love of parents for each other, that he or she in turn can feel secure and trusting in love.
The family has been called “the domestic Church”, in other words, the smallest unit of the wider Church which itself is called to be a community of love reflecting the community of love which is the Trinity.
Christ entered our human existence as a child within a family. He was nurtured by Mary and Joseph and learned to live as a part of a wider family community.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph experienced anxieties and problems similar to families today. Our traditional reference to them as The Holy Family does not mean their life was in any way free from stress and pain. They are depicted as being forced to leave the security of home and fleeing for safety – a situation with which all refugee families can identify. For several generations families have come to Aotearoa-New Zealand as migrants from Europe, Asia and the Pacific, looking for enhanced opportunities and quality of life. They, too, have known the trauma and upheaval of starting afresh in a new culture.
Family Life Today
The family has been the basic unit of society for thousands of years. Today, traditional ways are being challenged. Rapid change has taken place in the mores and values of our society. Things once regarded as permanent and abiding are no longer seen by many as necessary or even relevant. As members of the Catholic Church we must uphold the Christian image of family given to us by God. To do less would be to contribute to its breakdown.
Unemployment touches most families and many others are forced to live with the threat of redundancy. 250,000 New Zealand children are in families dependent on income support. The sole-parent family makes up 26% of the New Zealand population. In addition to their many other problems, the sole-parent family is also often disadvantaged through unemployment, low income, restricted educational opportunities and insecure housing tenure.
There are childless couples; the divorced, separated, widowed and re-married; families where violence and abuse occur in the place which ought to be the haven of love and security. These families may require our support and affirmation, not judgment or condemnation because they may seem not to meet the ideal. We have to be attentive to the special needs of families under pressure and must recognise and affirm the real courage and determination of those families who face difficulties in a spirit of faithfulness to the way of love, which is Christ’s way. The church of the home can live and grow in every family.
A matter of increasing concern is the phenomenon of violence in the family. As we stated in our 1992 Pastoral Letter on Violence against Women and Children, escalating violence in the family home is a challenge to the whole Church community. We all need to become informed about the extent, the causes and the remedies of violence in family life.
We reiterate our call to those with pastoral responsibility who are so often in a privileged position to offer help in situations of violence. We request them to take advantage of opportunities for education and training in how to deal with these matters.
A special contribution the Church is able to make is the celebration of the sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist. Provided the necessary steps for resolving difficulties are being taken, the sacraments can be a significant part of the journey.
It is also part of our shared responsibility as citizens to monitor government legislation, supporting that which enhances the dignity of persons and opposing that which directly or indirectly devalues the family and contributes to violence.
Responsibilities within the Family
One of the main themes of the International Year of the Family is responsibilities. Parents are the first and most important teachers of their children. It is a privilege to be a parent, but with it comes the responsibility to be Christ to those in their care, to pray with and for their children, and to give them example of faith-filled lives. By being loved, sons and daughters are shown the example of a loving God who loves us unconditionally. In being forgiven, children learn how to forgive each other.
Through gentle discipline, self-discipline is encouraged. Parenting does not stop as children grow up. In the sometimes traumatic times of adolescence and young adulthood, parents need to learn how to support and not to dominate. Such relationships of love, trust and forgiveness between parents and children will continue when roles are reversed and parents in their turn need the support and care of their children.
A critical issue facing families today is the balancing of time between home and the workplace. Many parents are obliged to spend long hours working during the week and often during the weekend as well which can take its toll in family life. Intimacy between family members cannot be built if there is no quality time to share activities, feelings and aspirations. Our busyness can harm the wellbeing of others especially in the family who need us. Some families rarely even eat together. Time and energy spent outside the family home can leave little time to build family traditions and rituals that give us a sense of family identity, particularly Catholic family identity, for which it is necessary to set aside time to pray and worship together.
Support from the Church Community
There are many times when families need help to heal the hurts and solve the problems that beset them. These may come through illness, death, unemployment, abusive behaviour, separation or divorce or the many pressures of modern life. It is within the community of the Church that people should find the greatest support and understanding. The Church offers professional help at many levels through counselling, family support and other life-skill programmes. We can always do more. The International Year of the Family is a challenge to us all to search for more effective ways of supporting family life. We commend the engaged couples courses and the marriage enrichment and family support programmes that are already in place in our dioceses, and programmes, especially in parishes, that support families that are broken.
Cardinal Hume has written: “The beauty hidden in lives of quiet dedication and fidelity in so many families, including many who have experienced failure and loss, goes unreported and unsung. These are a treasured part of that civilisation of life and love which it is our common vocation to serve.”
In the dioceses around the country there are groups of people who are working in the area of marriage and family support. They advise us on the needs of family life and we express our gratitude for their work.
Bishops cannot do it alone. We need the support, the prayer and the commitment of all of you to help us widen the scope of our pastoral care for families under pressure.
We encourage all families to live to the full their calling to be a community of love for each other and to witness to the wider Church and community the grace, generosity and forgiveness of God’s unconditional love.
We warmly commend to you Pope John Paul II’s Letter to Families written in March this year, and leave you with a final word from that Letter:
“May all families be able to feel the loving and caring embrace of their brothers and sisters.”
Bishop Denis Browne
Bishop Peter Cullinane
Bishop John Cunneen
Cardinal Thomas Williams
Bishop Basil Meeking
Bishop Pat Dunn
Bishop Len Boyle
Bishop Max Mariu SM