“Father, hear the prayers of the family you have gathered here before you” (Eucharistic Prayer III). What do we think of when our parish priest reads these words at Mass? Are we alert enough to hear and embrace this petition?
Do we consider this reference to our being a “family” a merely poetic expression or pious exaggeration? Or do we embrace in faith the reality that all of us gathered for Sunday Mass are, in fact, members of the Family of God?
Pope John Paul II emphasized throughout his pontificate that the Church is nothing other than the Family of God. Why? Because, through our Baptism, each one of us has been “born again” as a child of God. We participate—even now—in God’s own life. And this life is familial, not solitary. As the Holy Father said, “God in His deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since He has in Himself fatherhood, sonship, and the essence of the family, which is love.”
How refreshing it is to understand the Church as a family, rather than as an impersonal institution or even as a congregation of isolated individuals who all happen to believe in Jesus. This understanding is especially challenging today, since we’ve largely lost our sense of “family” and many of us have been wounded by brokenness and division within our own families.
A family is where our home is. It is where we should always be welcome. This is especially true in God’s family, from which all other families derive their existence (Eph. 3:14-15). My favorite image in this regard is the parable of the Prodigal Son, which reveals how welcoming and merciful our Heavenly Father truly is.
While God’s family in the Old Testament was built upon the twelve tribes of Israel, God’s New Testament family is built on the firm foundation of the twelve apostles. Bishops, who are the successors of the apostles, have been called by Christ to be our spiritual fathers. They are the visible source of family unity within their own diocese. That’s why St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch and a disciple of St. John the Apostle, would write in 110 A.D.: “Those, indeed, who belong to God and to Jesus Christ–they are with the bishop.”
From the earliest times, there have been presbyters (“priests”) who have been given the mission of assisting the bishop in spiritually fathering God’s family in local communities that have come to be known as parishes. These communities—your parish and my parish—are local manifestations of God’s family, a family that brings together people of every race and nation, that encompasses not only the pilgrim Church on earth, but all those who have died in God’s friendship. What a magnificent family we have—and what great love the Father has bestowed on us in making us His children (1 Jn. 3:1)!
Yet our own experience of the Church might make it difficult sometimes to view the Church as a family. This is particularly true when we encounter polarization and dissent instead of family unity in the Church.
Surely one of our deepest desires and most heartfelt prayers is for unity within our own natural families. We long for reconciliation with our parents, siblings, spouses, and children, which often involves the healing of long-standing divisions and misunderstandings.
Similarly, as members of the Family of God, we must likewise make fervent prayer for Christian unity a top priority. This includes not only the healing of rifts that have divided Christendom for centuries, but also the healing of the rifts that plague the Catholic Church in our own country and maybe even in our own parish right now. And this certainly must include prayers for the “family members” we find most difficult to love.
In trying to promote harmonious living within my own family, I frequently encourage my children to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We need to be constantly on the lookout for creative ways to build up rather than destroy. And as the “pastor” of my domestic Church, I do exercise authority when I need to do so. However, I much prefer that my children learn to work things out among themselves than come running to me every time they have a grievance with their siblings.
When it comes to parish life, some problems won’t go away overnight. They require ongoing, constructive attempts to foster good personal relationships. When problems make us turn our hearts against members of our parish–perhaps even our pastor–we run the serious risk of becoming “part of the problem.”
This may come as a shock, but my own family is not perfect. Inevitably problems and disputes do arise. Sometimes they’re even my fault!
There is also no such thing as a perfect parish. Problems arise, and sometimes, despite our best efforts, they persist. What do we do?
The most important thing is that, as Bl. Teresa of Calcutta taught, we are called to be faithful, not successful. We must not grow weary of doing the right thing (2 Thess. 3:13). In some cases, the right thing involves taking the real suffering of not successfully “fixing” a problem and offering it in union with Our Lord’s sacrifice.
And just as problems in my family are often all or partly my fault, all of us as members of the Family of God must continually seek the renewal and healing of our own hearts.
At the heart of family life is generosity, which literally means “full of giving life.” In a natural family setting this involves openness to the gift of children, as well as myriad acts of charity and hospitality. That’s what a home is all about.
Similarly, if we pour ourselves out in generous service on behalf of the Family of God, the results will be life-giving, as many more children of God will feel at home in the Church. And perhaps, then, our parish will be ready to welcome new members into our family, and maybe even reach out effectively to disgruntled or alienated family members in the spirit of the new evangelization.
Isn’t that what the “new evangelization” is all about?
This article originally appeared in the May 2000 issue of Lay Witness, the official publication of Catholics United for the Faith. For more information on the Church as “Family of God,” see the best-selling “Catholic for a Reason” series, beginning with volume I: Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God.