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Reorienting Family Life—Living the New Evangelization

August 2, AD2016 0 Comments

Birgit - holy family
“The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”—C. S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy

“Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand,” St. Thomas Aquinas said. The catechism teaches us that God loved His creatures into existence according to His wisdom so that “we might share in his being, wisdom and goodness” (293). It pretty much sums up the Christian life.

John Paul II (then Karol Wojtyla) wrote, In Love and Responsibility, “Love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom – it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means just that: to limit one’s freedom on behalf of another” (135). In his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, he wrote,

Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. (§10)

Empathy as a Pathway to Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Faith and science affirm that love is an encounter. There are complex neurobiological connections which contribute to our capacity to love, and our need for nurture. In the book, Born for Love, Maia Szalavitz and Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D, confirm that “empathy and love require specific experiences to develop.”

They state,

It is in our nature to nurture and be nurtured. However—as the bloody history of our species suggests—the development of these capacities isn’t automatic. Empathy isn’t extended to everyone. And certain specific experiences, certain particular actions on the part of those closest to us, are required for empathy to develop in children. Though Americans especially like to proclaim independence, our health, creativity, productivity, and humanity emerge from our interdependence, our history of relationships. (4) [Emphasis mine—SH]

The interdependence of creatures as a communion of persons is something that transcends natural and historical existence. It is, in God’s plan, a reflection of an eternal reality (953):

Communion in charity. In the sanctorum communion, ‘None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.’ ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.’ ‘Charity does not insist on its own way.’ In this solidarity with all men, living or dead, which is founded on the communion of saints, the least of our acts done in charity redounds to the profit of all. Every sin harms this communion.

Szalavitz and Perry note that empathy, from “the German word Einfühlung, means ‘feeling into’”. It is distinct from the word sympathy, translated from the Greek root which means ‘feeling with’ (12). Pope Francis is empathetic, encouraging the Christian community to ask forgiveness for “having not accompanied” so many families.

Reclaiming the Wounded Family

The family is the first institution to shape a child’s world. Empathy and love, mercy and justice are woven into family life. Pope Francis wrote in Amoris Laetitia, “The triune God is a communion of love, and the family is its living reflection” (§11, 9). [To get a glimpse of triune love in the family—read The Face of the Triune God.]

Do we consider that some of our brothers and sisters have not yet encountered the extravagant love of God? Fulton Sheen, in The World’s First Love: Mary, the Mother of God, described an Oriental proverb which expresses the truth that the “first deities the child has to acknowledge are the parents.” What if the child’s “deities” did not respond with triune love and affection?

“Whenever a child is given to his parents, a crown is made for it in Heaven; and woe to those parents if that child is not raised with a sense of responsibility to acquire that crown!” (101)

New research suggests that “positive childhood experiences” that include “affectionate touch”, “free play” and “family togetherness”, are predictive of mental health and relational maturity by developing the “social brain”. Extravagant Affection in Infancy Leads to Healthier, Happier, More Relational & Moral Adults, according to one study cited by Dr. Greg Popcak.

One writer argued that Pope Francis has contributed to an identity crisis in the Church, in the wake of AL. If there is an identity crisis, it’s not in the Church—it’s in the world. Paul Kengor, Ph.D, wrote in Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage, that marriage and family life were culturally transformed by Marxist ideology, the “influential work that launched a revolution unprecedented in its destruction” (1).

The Church has denounced the “the culture of the ephemeral” which destroys marriage and family life (a “real” problem which is much more “stubborn” and beyond the politics of presidential candidates “who seem equally distasteful”). The healing of family life requires a reorientation to truth, the rejection of falsehood, and forgiveness.

Reorienting Family Life—Living the New Evangelization

AL is a continuation of honest dialogue and Catholic thought.

Archbishop Charles Chaput has previously reflected on “agendas” in Catholic dialogue: He cautioned those who “want to use the pope to further their own agendas, and others [who] want to ignore the pope so they can promote their own agendas.” In a November 14, 2013 post, Chaput remarked,

I think the question is: Is there a discontinuity between the leadership of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, and the new kind of leadership of Francis? I think no, he said in an interview.

Chaput published pastoral guidelines, writing,

In all of this the Holy Father, in union with the whole Church, hopes to strengthen existing families, and to reach out to those whose marriages have failed, including those alienated from the life of the Church.

As lay people, we too can accompany those who feel isolated or alienated, with empathy and joyful evangelization. Authentic witness reveals that the “hardness of God”, as C.S. Lewis said, is “kinder than the softness of men.” At the heart of the mission of the Church is, “in essence, a person, Jesus Christ” (CCC 426). Francis is ‘feeling into’ the concrete situations of those who lack meaningful relationship to the Church, and ‘who do not know Jesus’—those at the “peripheries.” His papacy reflects the maternal dimension of the Church in its pastoral concerns, and the love of God the Father for all people.

In Evangelii Gaudium he stated, (Part III, §15, quoted in part):

The new evangelization for the transmission of faith concerns itself with (1) The ‘ordinary pastoral ministry’ to help believers grow; and (2) ‘the baptized whose lives do not reflect the demands of Baptism’, [12] who lack a meaningful relationship to the Church. . .

Lastly, we cannot forget that evangelization is first and foremost about preaching the Gospel to those who do not know Jesus Christ or who have always rejected him. Many of them are quietly seeking God, led by a yearning to see his face, even in countries of ancient Christian tradition. All of them have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet. It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’. [15] [Emphasis mine—SH]

Joyful Encounters, Reconnection to Others

An opportunity for us to deepen our own faith and evangelize may come unexpectedly to us one day. We should be prepared to encounter—to  ‘share’, ‘point’, and ‘invite’ others joyfully to Christ’s banquet, in a spirit of worship and truth. We are created to communicate truth in the communion of the Holy Spirit (koinonia) to the world (948). By mindfulness of the actions by which the Holy Spirit calls us to communicate, we may avoid occasions of spiritual pride.

If joyful encounters are the beginning of a meaningful relationship to the Church, then there is no better model for joy and hospitality than The Blessed Virgin Mary who moves us to love Jesus and serve others with meekness and humility.  Mary is the model for catechists. Surely, she is sensitive to the suffering of wounded family life.

As members of the mystical body of Christ, we should not be indifferent to the reality of the unique spiritual suffering of “domestic violence and abusive relationships”. There are complex and challenging issues where divorce, addiction, child abuse, pornography, and marital infidelity distort family relations, especially if they are generational. These are profound spiritual wounds that require an empathetic response and sound pastoral care.

Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D., a prominent expert in the healing of family trauma wrote,

Recovery from trauma involves (re)connecting with our fellow human beings. This is why trauma that has occurred within relationships is generally more difficult to treat than trauma resulting from traffic accidents or natural disasters. In our society the most common traumas in women and children occur at the hands of their parents or intimate partners. Child abuse, molestation, and domestic violence are all inflicted by people who are supposed to love you. (210)

Spiritual vitality is relational. Sometimes in sharing the good news of the Gospel, we forget to wait on the Holy Spirit, and to relate; failing to empathize with those among us who need to reconnect—who need to know that the Cross is more powerful than their circumstance, their past, or their pain.

How ‘Spiritual Worldliness’ Hurts the Church and the Family

In a Catholic World Report post  Francis remarked, “Reference has been made to evangelization. This is the church’s reason for being. ‘The sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing’ (Paul VI). It is Jesus Christ himself who, from within, impels us.” He also remarked, “The evils that, in the passing of time, afflict the ecclesiastical institutions have a root in self-referentiality, in a sort of theological narcissism.”

The Church, when it is self-referential, without realizing it thinks that it has its own light; it stops being the ‘mysterium lunae’ and gives rise to that evil which is so grave, that of spiritual worldliness (according to De Lubac, the worst evil into which the Church can fall): that of living to give glory to one another. To simplify, there are two images of the Church: the evangelizing Church that goes out from itself; that of the “Dei Verbum religiose audiens et fidenter proclamans” [the Church that devoutly listens to and faithfully proclaims the Word of God – editor’s note], or the worldly Church that lives in itself, of itself, for itself. This should illuminate the possible changes and reforms to be realized for the salvation of souls.

[Note: ‘mysterium lunae’ originated with the Church fathers. St. Ambrose wrote that ‘the Church shines not with its own light, but with that of Christ’.]

A New Beginning, Invitation to Healing and Reconciliation

Francis may not be as precise as some theologians prefer—but, he confronts the ‘spiritual worldliness’ and a ‘worldly Church’ which would fail to ‘go out of itself’. Francis, then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, remarked in a 2007 interview (referred to in the CWR post), “Spiritual worldliness is putting oneself at the center.” If I understand Francis correctly, ‘spiritual worldliness’ closes itself to love. This would be contrary to the fecundity of its maternal dimension. The Church, as a good mother would desire, longs to reunite her children.

As a revert, I was moved to return to the Church by the ‘sweet joy of evangelizing’ of those who shared ‘a new song’— who invited me to reconnect and with the psalmist pray,

Psalm 40:2-5

Surely, I wait for the Lord;
who bends down to me and hears my cry,
Draws me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the muddy clay,
Sets my feet upon rock,
steadies my steps,
And puts a new song in my mouth,
a hymn to our God.
Many shall look on in fear
and they shall trust in the Lord.
Blessed the man who sets
his security in the Lord,
who turns not to the arrogant
or to those who stray after falsehood.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Sarah is a student, wife, and mom, with a passion for writing and dark roast coffee. She was inspired to return to the Catholic Church after reading a book on prayer which she found in an old box, late one evening. She was still awake in the wee hours of the morning, enchanted by the beauty and truth of her childhood faith. She holds a degree in sociology. She is a graduate student in bioethics at the University of Mary, and a member of Women Speak For Themselves. She blogs occasionally at

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