The Fundamental Vocation of the Family

The Holy Family by Francisco Bayeu y Subias

One of the most well-known and often repeated statements of Saint John Paul II – “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” – rings as true today as when he wrote it in 1981 in the conclusion of his apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (The Christian Family in the Modern World, 86).

That exhortation resulted from a synod of bishops convened one year earlier, the first synod at which Pope John Paul II would preside as pastor and shepherd of the Universal Church.  The core of his message was that God has a plan for marriage and the family, a message sorely needed at a time when family life is facing so many pressures in our world and culture.

Now this fall, Pope Francis will preside at his first synod of bishops, and just like his holy predecessor almost 35 years ago, he has called this worldwide gathering to help families strengthen and share their faith amid the challenges they face in today’s world.

The working paper for this Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization speaks to the fundamental vocation of the family, which is in a sense “a school of humanity, love and hope for society. The family continues to be the privileged place in which Christ reveals the mystery and vocation of the person” (Instrumentum Laboris, 31).

The family home is “the everyday place to encounter Christ” (Id., 36).  What Christ reveals, Saint John Paul reminded us, is that it is love that is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (Familiaris Consortio, 11).  As such, parents are the first and most important teachers of the faith for their children, offering an example of love and fidelity to God and to each other.  The most sublime model, of course, is the Holy Family, which reveals to all other families what they are meant to be – a loving communion of persons, in the image and likeness of the Trinity (Redemptor Hominis, 8; Letter to Families, 6-7).

In that context, the Christian home is a domestic church, where practices such as praying before and after meals, reciting the rosary, reading Scripture and attending Mass together foster knowledge of and friendship with Jesus, who should be at the center of each family.  With this witness of faith and love, parents “realize their vocation to be God’s collaborators in the development of the human family” (Instrumentum Laboris, 37).

As the foundation of society, the family is also the place where values are learned and transmitted.   “In a family, a person learns a sense of the common good and experiences the goodness of living together. Without the family, a person is unable to emerge from his individualism, since it is the only place to learn the power of love to sustain life” (Id., 33).

One key point of discussion at the Synod will be the importance of families being active in parish life, and of parishes supporting families, especially through ministries that promote evangelization.  Parishes as a “family of families” offer a crucial place for the pastoral care of families facing difficulties who are in need of God’s mercy and love and should provide “ongoing formation on the value of marriage as a vocation and the rediscovery of parenting, motherhood and fatherhood, as a gift” (Id., 49).

This spring, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the world’s families, asking them to pray for the success of the Extraordinary Synod and I join with our Holy Father in requesting your prayers. As Saint John Paul said and as Pope Francis also teaches us, the future of humanity does indeed pass through the family.

This is part four of a series on the family.