As we fold the Christmas table linens and pick up the scraps of wrapping paper, it is tempting to compare our Christmas Day with the glowing images we saw on television or in the family pictures that accompanied many of the Christmas cards we received. For many if not most of us, the comparison can be disappointing. While the angels sang of peace on earth, they did not mention peace at the family dinner table.
Families can be messy, broken, and often painful. Anger, impatience, selfishness, and pride chip away at the relationships between siblings, between spouses, between parents and children, and between in-laws. The family can be a source of both hurtful words and hurtful silence. So why do we bother?
Pope Francis offers keen insight into why we should persevere in family relationships no matter how imperfect they are. In his homily on the Feast of the Holy Family, he joined two of his favorite themes: the family and mercy. He reflects on the distress Jesus caused his parents when he stayed behind in Jerusalem and his parents thought he was lost. The Holy Father notes, “… the Lord transforms the moments into opportunities to grow, to ask for and to receive forgiveness, to show love and obedience.”
Just as Pope St. John Paul II often referred to the family as the “domestic church”, Pope Francis calls daily family life a “domestic pilgrimage”. It is not an easy road. This journey that we travel together offers the opportunity to ask for and receive forgiveness, to manifest humility, and to learn the power of love. However, these virtues can only be nurtured if we stay the course.
There are certainly times when the hurt and abuse are so great that normal family relations are impossible. We pray that the perpetrator will repent and ask forgiveness. Whether or not this happens, the Christian response must be one of forgiveness and love. There is no mistake that is beyond the bounds of God’s mercy; and with God’s grace, there is no hurt that cannot be healed. But healing requires that we open our heart to the possibility of mercy, and let go of the bitterness that obstructs forgiveness.
Fortunately, the source of most family discord lies not in grave sins of abuse but in the more common vices of greed, jealousy and pride. For example, my sister questions my methods for teaching my toddler to use a spoon. Rather than seeing this as a simple inquiry, I view it as an attack on my parenting abilities. After all, she has always been the bossy big sister who thinks she knows everything. Every comment my sister makes is now colored by this perspective and my pride is wounded by this perceived barrage of criticisms. Rather than endure the discomfort of her comments I avoid her. I reject our family bonds, and try to make my own pilgrimage of daily life without her.
The roots of this family dynamic probably run very deep but I do not have to be bound by long-standing rivalries, grudges, and negative interactions. Instead, I can continue the family pilgrimage with my sister and try to attribute a positive interpretation to her words. The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Ignatius in this matter in paragraph 2478:
Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love.
How would my response differ if I believed my sister was asking questions about my parenting choices out of a sincere interest and loving concern? What reason would I have to get angry?
But what if my sister really is trying to annoy me and attack my parenting skills? Sometimes there is no positive spin that can take the sting out of words or actions. If that is the case, think about the brokenness that must be present for a family member to bear ill will towards another. The Christian response is one of compassion, not anger. Rejecting her is not an act of mercy. My sister needs my love and prayers more than ever. Our relationship may never be picture-perfect, but it does not have to be grounded in mutual hate.
It is important to note that this family pilgrimage extends across generations. The way I treat my siblings, my parents, and my in-laws models family relations for my children. As a mother, I pray that my children will always be close to each other and love each other. Yet, if I do not value my own relationships with my siblings, why should they value theirs? If I am not patient with my aging parents, how will my children learn to be patient with me as I grow older? If I treat family relationships as disposable, will they not do the same? The family is an intergenerational school of love and mercy.
Pope Francis calls us to a Jubilee Year of Mercy. It is a year to contemplate the wonder of the infinite Divine Mercy. It is also a year to reflect that mercy in all of our relationships. Our family ties are the ideal starting point. If our domestic pilgrimage is guided by mercy and forgiveness, love will flourish. Then strengthened by the lessons learned in family life, we can bring this message of mercy to the whole world.