Archbishop John C. Nienstedt – Jesus Christ – Defender of the Family
I am delighted to be with you here tonight, as we pray side by side with our Divine Master, truly present body and blood, soul and divinity in the Blessed Sacrament. We gather as men, fathers, brothers, priests, sons, grandsons, and friends and this s so essential, for who are as social beings; however it is even more important to gather together in this community of faith to worship Him who is the way, the truth and the life for each of us.
Tonight, I have been asked to share with you some thoughts as to how Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, defends and protects the reality of the family. I am pleased to speak on this topic, as it is so very important for these days and times in which we live. The family today is truly a threatened entity, repeatedly attacked by forces that seek to radically alter its definition, dismantle the permanent and unitive bonds that support it, and corrupt the members, male and female who make up the family, particularly through the pervasive evil of pornography. The battle for the future of the family is a very real one, and that is why it is so important to reflect on the role that Jesus Christ plays as defender of the family.
Let us turn first to Sacred Scripture, from the Gospel of Luke (2:41-52)
“Each year Jesus’ parents went to Jerusalem for the feast
and when he was twelve years old,
they went up according to festival custom.
After they had completed its days, as they were returning,
the boy Jesus remained behind in Jerusalem,
but his parents did not know it.
Thinking that he was in the caravan,
they journeyed for a day
and looked for him among their relatives and acquaintances,
but not finding him,
they returned to Jerusalem to look for him.
After three days they found him in the temple,
sitting in the midst of the teachers,
listening to them and asking them questions,
and all who heard him were astounded
at his understanding and his answers.
When his parents saw him,
they were astonished,
and his mother said to him,
“Son, why have you done this to us?
Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.”
And he said to them,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
But they did not understand what he said to them.
He went down with them and came to Nazareth,
and was obedient to them;
and his mother kept all these things in her heart.
And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and favor
before God and man.”
This particular passage from the Gospel of Luke gives us a very rare glimpse into the life of the Holy Family. In fact, it is the only account of Jesus’ life between his birth and public ministry. It, therefore, demands our special attention.
This passage is not easy to interpret. When his parents find him, Jesus is seated among the wise teachers of the time. In the Scriptures, wisdom is connected with a sense of a God-given mission. Hence, the retort of Jesus to his parents on why he fell behind is not meant to be hurtful nor impetuous. He was merely acknowledging his special vocation before his heavenly Father. But that, nevertheless, left his mother and father in anguish, confused by a clear case of misunderstanding his intent.
We are told earlier in the passage that Christ journeyed to Jerusalem not only with his mother and father, but also with a huge train of relatives and fellow pilgrims. Christ was a member of a real human family, with their own historic roots, as well as their personal stories, and communal traditions. In a deliberate and free choice,
ChrGod ist choose to enter into human history as all humans do – within the context of a human community, the heart of which is the human family, itself on pilgrimage through the millennia. Let us be clear, the human family, with all its fragility and difficulties, is not a social convention that can be arranged as a particular government or politician sees fit. Rather, as one recognizes by even the briefest of historical surveys, there is something profoundly natural about the family. It flows from the very complementarity of men and women, as well as the innate commitment all parents naturally have to their children. This natural institution and unity predates any state, and indeed, forms the fundamental basis for a proper understanding of the larger sense of community. As the family goes, so goes society. Is it any wonder that one of the serious plagues of families living in poverty is, in many cases, the complete breakdown of the family unit? Poverty, drug addiction, and the loss of a sense of self-worth, all point directly to the deterioration of the family. And yet we know that even families living with healthy economic means are not exempt from such struggles either. Financial stability is not enough to ensure that the family will flourish. The family must be a place of real love, caring, and concern, not just an oasis for the satisfaction of material or physical needs.
But the family is more than a natural gathering of persons on earth; the family also has a profound spiritual dimension. Our faith teaches us that the Holy Trinity is itself a community of life and love. There- in God the Father gives himself to the Son, who in turn gives himself back to the Father. This self-giving love between the Father and Son is so powerful and so real that it indeed is a Divine Person, the third person of the Trinity, whom we call the Holy Spirit. When the family centers its communal life in the faith, the sacraments, and the life of the Church, that family partakes in this very mystery of the Blessed Trinity. Pope Benedict explains it thus: “The family is, so to speak, the earthly entrance door for the savior of mankind, which at the same time, gives to the home life of love and communion the greatness of being a privileged reflection of the Trinitarian mystery of God.” (Message to Cardinal Varela, 12/30/11)
Thus, we find that the Holy Family exemplifies its own reflection of the Holy Trinity: Mary, Mother of God, gazing lovingly upon the child Jesus, and Joseph, the faithful steward, embracing both of them with paternal concern. By their own right, each individual of the Holy Family is an important figure. But what makes the Holy Family or any other family, “holy”, is that the individual members love each other with the love of God, situating that love in the context of God’s love. St. Joseph took his family to Egypt by means of a very dangerous route. This was an action that put his family at great risk. However, he loved God and trusted in His Divine providence. St. Joseph situated the love for his family within the framework of his love for God. In other words, the love of God came first. We see this too, in the way that Jesus responds to his parents – his Father’s love comes first. A father or a husband mirrors this example of this divine love. The bonds of the family will, therefore, be all the greater based on the degree by which husbands and fathers love God.
Let’s now return to the passage from Luke’s Gospel:
In the climax of the passage, Christ reveals his very identity – “I must be in my Father’s house.” The whole of Jesus’ life can only be understood in terms of his relationship to his heavenly Father. The concerns, duties and desires of his Father are the focus of Jesus’ mission. Everything in his life, even his relationship to his earthly family, are all directed by and subservient to this primary, filial commitment. So too in every family – God must be placed in the center and serving him must be the driving force that gives energy to what each member does.
Let’s face it – as Christians, we have been given the meaning of life – to know, serve and to love God in this life, so as to be with him forever in the next. All of our natural desires and inclinations, including the great institution of marriage and the family, must be ordered to this end by every Christian. Christ is the defender of family life, largely by manifesting what is most essential to making it succeed: that is to say, doing the will of the heavenly Father.
And so we must ask ourselves – is God the center of my family’s life? Do I lead the members of my family in prayer, providing them with good example, or have I neglected those solemn duties that I promised when my child was baptized? Do I devote time to listen to my wife and children over meals, at bedtime or riding in the car? Am I committed to Sunday Mass, or am I willing to skip it in deference to a hunting or fishing trip? Am I regularly confessing my sins, and encouraging my family to do the same? Do I tithe, or contribute some of my financial resources to the parish and other charities, eager to give back in thanksgiving what God in His goodness has given to me? These are all important questions that we must be willing to ask ourselves in a thorough and regular examination of conscience.
As many of you are aware, we are about to begin this October a “Year of Faith”, called for by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict the XVI. A big part of this year will be reviewing the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Documents of the Second Vatican Council, both of which are being celebrated within the context of this Year of Faith. But fundamentally, the purpose of this year is to inspire people to become even more committed to a new evangelization, as it relates to spreading the Catholic faith to a secular world.
It is my conviction that the true success of the new evangelization is dependent upon the revitalization of the family. In 1993, Pope John Paul II stated that the Church’s mission to the family must be placed “at the center of the new evangelization.” (L’Osservatore Romano, 3/31/94) This imperative has continued with Pope Benedict XVI, who many times has championed the rights of the family.
During my Ad Limina visit this past March, the Holy Father delivered a personal speech to the bishops of our Province, who were present. His message stated clearly: “The future of humanity passes by way of the family. Indeed, ‘the good that the Church and society as a whole expect from marriage and from the family founded on marriage is so great as to call for full pastoral commitment to this particular area. Marriage and family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself.’” (Ad Limina speech to U.S. Bishops, 3/9/12, cf. Sacramentus Caritas, 29)
Therefore, I encourage all of you to participate as fully as possible in this Year of Faith. At its heart, the year demands a personal encounter with the person of Jesus, and a seeking to see his face anew. You, my brothers, need to play a critical role in this task by committing yourselves to leading your family closer to Christ. In Christ’s call to you to be a husband and father, he is in fact serving as defender of the family, for it is through men such as you, ordinary, real and faith-filled men, that God desires to work. Your wife and your children must come to see Jesus in you, your attitude, your devotion as well as through your actions of supporting them materially, spiritually and emotionally.
And yet, I admit that this is no easy task, for there are many forces, both individualistic and secular, that threaten the cohesion of the family. Before these challenges, my brothers, rely on God and on each other. In the midst of our temptations, our Lord upholds us. In his Good Friday address, Pope Benedict XVI assures us of this support:
“In times of trial and tribulation, we are not alone; the family is not alone. Jesus is present with his love, he sustains them by his grace and grants the strength needed to carry on, to make sacrifices and to overcome every obstacle. And it is to this love of Christ that we must turn when human turmoil and difficulties threaten the unity of our lives and our families. The mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection inspires us to go on in hope: times of trouble and testing, when endured with Christ, with faith in him, already contain the light of the resurrection, the new life of a world reborn, the passover of all those who believe in his word.” (Good Friday Address, 4/6/12)
As husbands, fathers, brothers and sons, there is much that each of you can do to strengthen the family, and to bring your family into closer contact with Jesus. But if I may, I would like to offer some practical steps:
1) If you are a married spouse, live out your vocation in love and fidelity. Be a selfless and giving husband, always putting your wife and her needs before your own. Marriage is the foundation upon which Christian families are built. Renew your vows frequently.
2) Exercise your role as father with the virtues of faith, charity, prudence, compassion and generosity. Develop those habits today that you want to instill in your children. Remember that your children are watching you; they may even be learning lessons from you that, in fact, you may not want to give them.
3) Follow the example of Jesus in being a servant leader for your family. Jesus teaches us that true leadership is found in serving others. So we too, should spend ourselves by leading others through our service as a husband and a father. Do I live my vocation with the seriousness it deserves? Do I do so, even amidst the many distractions that are constantly at play?
4) Do not be ashamed of your family; be proud of your wife and children. Defend them from slurs and gossip. Moreover, be aware of the breakdowns and pitfalls of family life, such as contraception, infidelity, a lack of “family time”, false idols that put other things before God and the Church, as well as being taken in by the media’s campaign to redefine marriage.
5) Get involved with organizations and grass-roots movements that promote and defend the family. With a vote on the marriage amendment only a few months away, I encourage you to contact your pastor or his representative as well as the Minnesota for Marriage campaign, to volunteer in whatever way you are able. Also please remember that not voting for the amendment on Election Day is a no vote – in order for your vote to count, one must mark the ballot with a yes.
Lastly, and most importantly, you must pray and sacrifice. Pray for your family and for all families, pray that God may bless your family and protect it from harm. Practice penance and mortification for the sanctification of your wife and children. Pray for the passage of the marriage amendment, pray that politicians and government leaders will take steps to defend the family in public policy, not tear it down.
My brothers, Christ wishes to defend the family and he wishes to do it through you – are you ready to accept this challenge? With the grace of God, I know that your answer is a resounding yes.
Allow me to conclude these remarks with a prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Word coeternal with the Father, you lived among us and chose to be part of a human family so as to enrich all families with your blessings. Through your obedience to your parents, Mary and Joseph, you made family life holy. We humbly pray for your favor upon and protection for the families of all those gathered here tonight. Through your presence and grace, may we imitate your Holy Family in becoming a faith-filled community of life and love. We ask this through the intercession of Mary, our Mother and St. Joseph, patron saint of the Church, and in the powerful name that you carry as our Great High Priest. You who live and reign with the Father and Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.”