Today, even secular media are heralding the importance of family to the well-being of children. We see advertisements advocating for the family dinner table. While they may also be trying to promote certain food products, the message is clear: the wellbeing of children rests on the well-being of the family. The Church always has known this: each of us is part of the Body of Christ and if one of us suffers, we all suffer (1 Corinthians 12:26). She also speaks of the family as the domestic Church, and of parents being the first preachers of faith to their children (Lumen Gentium, II, 11). But so much seems to be getting in the way: school projects; soccer and basketball games and practice, even on Sunday; both parents needing to work long hours, missing family meals and the opportunity to say grace before meals together; faith-filled grandparents being hundreds of miles away; cell phones disrupting family time together; and social media even replacing family as the source of faith and strength for children.
Faith, the cornerstone for living, always has been passed on by one generation to the next. But in today’s mobile society the standard form of family is the nuclear family. And that family size continues to get smaller, and children can be denied the great gift of another brother or sister. This can breed a false sense of self-sufficiency with the resulting sense of social isolation, despite parents and children being thoroughly exhausted from efforts to be members of the local and business communities. The gift of being part of the healing Body of Christ is not recognized. What can be done to build up the family, the domestic Church, and to support the family’s role in passing on the faith?
Methods of social communication can help, with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins using such communication media as Skype and FaceTime. But are they ever used to pass on the faith? Do families use them to pray together while miles apart? We are encouraged to tell each other we love each other, as we end conversations, but do we bless each other? Are diverse vocational roles recognized among family members: married, single, clergy, consecrated life? Is the rich potential of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, with their ability to be evangelizers to young family members, recognized, or are they also socially isolated, even by choice? They also need to experience the gift of being part of the Body of Christ.
We may fear to speak of faith to family members and others because of fear of being alienated by loved ones. There are simple ways to pass on the gift of faith. And who can object to a simple, “God bless you; I am praying for you”? Efforts need to be made to be present to each other, if possible, even if only at some holidays. A strong witness is a beloved grandparent going to church at such times.
When family members are present in our homes, there is evangelization in saying grace before meals with each other, even if family members choose to be silent witnesses to it. And the most important is the gift of love we share with each other, as each baptized person is part of the Body of Christ, even when not recognized by some. And what children experience, they will mimic in adult life and in their own nuclear families. That is how they will or will not pass on the life-sustaining and life-enriching gift of faith.
MARIE HILLIARD, MS, MA, JCL, PH.D., RN, is senior fellow at The National Catholic Bioethics Center. She has an extensive background in nursing, medical ethics and public policy (and is the former director of the CT Catholic Conference). She is a canon lawyer, co-chairs the Ethics Committee of the Catholic Medical Association, is president of the National Association of Catholic Nurses USA, and is a Colonel (Ret.) in the U.S. Army Reserve, where she served as RN for over 20 years. Having published extensively, she has likewise won Catholic Press Association award recognition.