The Church calls the family a “school of love.” It is where we learn the essential lessons of unconditional love. Experiencing unconditional love is so important for us to be able to understand the love that God has for us, a love that allows us to be ourselves, to be accepted and loved without reservation. Truly, it is fundamental to our development into healthy adults. The family, of course, begins with the spouses, who commit to love each other without condition – in sickness and in health, etc. We do this imperfectly, granted, but our commitment to love one another should override the various hurts, disappointments and temptations that undoubtedly occur.
In addition, we have the joy and responsibility of bringing children into the world and raising them in the faith. We teach them to know and love God, about Jesus who redeemed us, about the Holy Spirit who guides us. We introduce them to prayer and the sacraments. All of this we do primarily through example, living our Catholic faith well. Just as children acquire language through listening and observing, so they learn the most fundamental rules of life through what they see and hear in the family.
The Church recognizes the importance of the family and states this over and over in many official documents. However, she struggles, I think, to understand how to accompany families, especially when they are in difficulty. It is important to affirm the very important work that is performed by married couples and to acknowledge the difficulties that they may experience from time to time. It can be heroic to push through marital crises, to honor one’s vows when the going gets really tough. Support needs to come from the pulpit, and this in turn assures people that the priest is someone they can turn to in need.
The Church needs to nurture the vocation of marriage and teach married people how fundamental they are to the Christian mission. Ideally, this should begin before marriage and include a process of discernment. But wherever we are on the journey, the Church should be there to deepen our understanding of our role in society and also to give us the tools to develop a deeply Christian understanding of marriage. Most of us will not attend workshops or retreats; this needs to be an ongoing aspect of preaching the Gospel. After all, we are all part of a family and most of us are or will be married spouses.
I think because most Catholic priests are not married, they are hesitant to preach about married life. (At least that has been my experience.) It may be that they do in fact need to learn more about the struggles of keeping a marriage healthy, but resources are there – use them! Healthy, faithful families are the lifeblood of the Church and society. It is hard to overstate how important it is to nurture them, especially today, with so many assaults on family life.
Married couples who are faithful to their vows and to Christ are important witnesses to our priests. They need support from us, too. Don’t leave them hanging, preaching the hard truths of our faith to lifeless parishioners, getting nothing but flack from the local know-it-all. Let them know when they have inspired you or provided a helpful insight. Thank them for supporting you in the challenges you face as a faithful Catholic.