Follow the Way of Love
In my previous reflection (Domestic Church in Quarantine), I mentioned a document written by the US Catholic Bishops called Follow the Way of Love, so I thought I would share a summary of the document I had written for my Fundamental Theology class as part of my masters degree. The content and style was influenced by the assignment.
In the introduction to Fides et Ratio, Pope John Paul II asserted that a search for meaning has always compelled the human heart (Fides et Ratio 1). The first context in which a child begins this search for meaning is in the family, and the family is a powerful opportunity for meaning to be discovered. Recognizing the importance of family, the United Nations General Assembly declared 1994 the International Year of the Family. Affirming the importance of the family and recognizing the further potential for the family to be a context in which faith grows, Pope John Paul II determined the Church would participate in the United Nations initiative by beginning a Year of the Family on the Feast of the Holy Family in 1993. The holy father saw participation in an initiative of the United Nations as an opportunity for the Church to make herself present in the world in the spirit of Gaudium et Spes (Gratissimam Sane 3). The bishops of the United States also participated in the international year by writing a message to families titled Follow the Way of Love: A Pastoral Message of the U.S. Catholic Bishops to Families. This message elucidated the symbolic potential for the experience of love in the family to reveal the love of God and to engender faith within the members of the family.
The letter was authored by the Committee on Marriage and Family and approved by the bishops on November 17, 1993. The letter was written for people in all varieties of family situations; the conclusion specifically addressed married couples, parents, children, spouses who are separated, divorced and widowed persons, and single parents. The letter was divided into three main sections:
Families Are a Sign of God’s Presence
Families Are Challenged by Change and Complexity
Families Are Supported in the Church
The first section, “Families Are a Sign of God’s Presence,” established the thesis for the letter. The bishops wrote, “the basic vocation of every person … is the same: follow the way of love, even as Christ loved you (cf. Ephesians 5:2). The Lord issues this call to your family” and “it is a participation in the work of the Lord, a sharing in the mission of the Church. It is holy.” The bishops emphasized “what you do in your family to create a community of love, to help each other to grow, and to serve those in need is critical, not only for your own sanctification but for the strength of society and our Church."
The bishops explained the Lord gathers us, forms us, and acts in the world through our families. The early Church articulated this by calling the Christian family a domestic church. While this teaching was underemphasized for centuries, it has been brought to light again by the Second Vatican Council and today we are continuing to uncover its rich treasure. Families need not be extraordinary to live this reality. In fact, the bishops stressed the ordinary ways in which the family carries out the mission of the domestic church and provided several examples such as when families believe, love, foster intimacy, evangelize, educate, pray together, serve one another, forgive and seek reconciliation, celebrate, welcome, act justly, affirm life, or raise up vocations. Of course, no family can do this perfectly and it is because of God’s grace at work that a family is holy.
Having described the calling of the family, in the second section, “Families Are Challenged by Change and Complexity,” the bishops explore some of the challenges families face in following this calling. The bishops explained, “some family pressures are due to broad social forces over which a family has little control. But other pressures are caused by personal choices, sometimes involving human weakness and sinful behavior." The bishops chose four challenges to discuss in greater detail in the letter.
The first challenge faced by families is living faithfully. The prevalence of divorce in our society is a clear indication that fidelity is not easy. The bishops said, “married couples have taught us this decision to love is one we have to make over and over again, when it feels good and when it does not.” The bishops referenced I Corinthians 13 as the blueprint for how to live out this daily commitment to love and they recommitted the Church’s prayers and support for couples who are struggling to remain faithful.
The second challenge faced by families is giving life. In a culture which increasingly views children as more of a burden and less of a gift, it is challenging for families to remain committed to a love that is creative of life. There are many ways in which the love of a family is life giving, most especially in the birth or adoption of a new child into the family. Giving life to a new child is not simply giving birth to the child; the birth of child is “the beginning of a lifetime commandment: nurturing, teaching, disciplining, and, finally, letting go of a child."
The third challenge faced by families is growing in mutuality. Husbands and wives are equal in dignity and value, but the bishops asserted that this equality does not imply sameness in roles or expectations. In a society promoting the idea that gender identity can be chosen and controlled by each individual, couples are called to recognize and appreciate the unique gifts of each gender. The bishops challenged spouses to live in mutual submission and to avoid domination by either spouse.
The fourth challenge faced by families is taking time. Life in our society seems to get busier every day. Families can easily fall into the trap of living their lives in constant motion cascading from work to school to sports to extracurriculars to homework to housework to yardwork to television to email to social networking to gaming to eating to socializing and maybe even to going to church. This incessant frenzy of activity makes spending time loving each other as a family challenging. The bishops said, “to thrive, love requires attention, communication, and time – to share a story or confide a need, to play a game, to tell a joke, to watch and cheer on – time to be present to another’s failure or success, confusion, despair or moment of decision."
Finally, in the third section, “Families Are Supported in the Church,” the bishops explained how the Church supports families as they face challenges in being the church of the home. Marriage and family life is meant to be a witness to love for all people so the bishops encouraged families to share more of their experiences. The bishops pledged several ways in which the they would form stronger connections with families including welcoming dialogue, supporting families organizing to help one another, requesting theologians and pastors to develop resources for families, studying how to improve marriage preparation, being more attentive to families in irregular situations, broadening efforts to welcome ethnically diverse families, and continuing national advocacy for public policies that promote the family. The bishops concluded the letter by writing, "If all the members of the Church are to follow Christ's way of love, it is essential that we continue speaking with, listening to, and learning from each other. We are the one Body of Christ: the Church in the home, in the small community, in the parish, in the diocese, in a universal communion. We share one Lord, one faith, one baptism. We are one family in Christ!"