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Family Life as “Domestic Pilgrimage”

December 29, AD2015

Pixabay-FamilyMeal

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.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Denise's vocation is being a wife, mother, and grandmother. Her occupation has wound its way through being a practicing family physician to studying Catholic health care ethics to writing and teaching about all things Catholic. She is a fellow with Human Life International and regularly contributes to the HLI Truth & Charity Forum. She also writes a monthly column for Zenit.org. She and her husband John have been married for thirty years and have lived all over the United States, courtesy of John's Air Force career. They are now settled in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and blessed with four children and three grandchildren (so far).

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  • Mary

    What an honest post! I “wallered” in self-pity on Christmas. After looking at social media (must remember to not do that next year!), I wondered where I went wrong as a mother. I didn’t get a family picture because the boys (who are now men) scattered as soon as they could. We didn’t play games like I saw friends doing with their families. Our Christmases definitely aren’t “made for tv/movie”! Thank you for this post!

  • james

    This brings up an interesting parallel observation practically NEVER discussed at all in any context – the
    fourth commandment :honor thy father and mother. I have yet to hear never mind expounded upon, what would constitute a mortal sin in a family context /setting. In today’s mobile society where siblings leave for far away places seldom to return. Is talking to ones parents (or siblings) less than a week a year the kind of DIS-honor God envisioned when He placed that omission on the top ten ? Would continuing to live one’s own life thousands of miles away while an aging parent or sibling slips the bonds of life in a
    medical setting or at home constitute a mortal or grievous sin and should such a family member be denied
    Communion for acting this way ? After all, it is very similar to divorce when you think about it.

    • Hey, James! Merry Christmas! And a great idea for a future post. Thanks for bringing it up!

    • james

      YW

    • adam aquinas

      I would believe that “mother and father” would mean those who loved, cared for and nurtured us in our formative years. No rational being nor a compassionate God would command us to honor a parent who abused us physically or sexually or emotionally. That would defy logic and reason unless honor means you confront the evil of that abuse. In a case where we are loved, honored and nurtured by a person we owe a duty to honor….in my view love means being there even when you don’t have to and there a numerous ways of being there….especially at the time of need or passing of a carer,

    • james

      True. And this would extend to foster and grand parents should they have taken on this
      role. It also extends to siblings to work out all adversity as this affects parents more than
      anything – the thought that a brother or sister is estranged from one another rips a mom
      and dad apart and violates this 4th command. A house divided honors no one.