Thursday, December 28, 2006

Everyone Needs A Family—A Spiritual Family

The Holy Family in a scene from the newly released movie, "The Nativity Story".

(Holy Family 2006 (C): This homily was given on December 31, 2006, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read 1 Samuel 1: 20-22; 24-28; 1 John 3: 1-2, 21-24; Luke 2: 41-52.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Family 2006]

A recent article in the National Catholic Register began with these words:

Robert was looking for love. What he found was a gang.

“I joined a gang for a family,” he told the PBS show Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. “I never had one when I was growing up. I joined the gang for a family. That’s it.”

Living with his new “family” led him to eight years in prison—for robbery and carjacking.

I share this with you today, to illustrate a very important truth: We all have a need to belong; we all have a need to be loved. We are human persons, who find meaning and purpose in our relationships with others, and in being a part of something bigger than ourselves.

In the plan of Almighty God, we are supposed to have these needs satisfied—to some extent—within our natural families. In paragraph 2207, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

“The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.”

But what happens when a young person grows up in a family that’s extremely unstable or dysfunctional? What happens when a young person grows up without any meaningful family relationships? Well then, very simply, you have a potential “Robert” on your hands: someone who’s very likely to get involved with an unhealthy group of acquaintances, who will lead him down the wrong path in life. It might not be a full-blown street gang (as was the case for Robert), but it will be an unhealthy group of acquaintances nonetheless. Some of you may know this, sad to say, from your own experience. It happens all the time.

Now obviously someone who comes from a good and loving family can also fall in with a bad crowd. But, to the extent that a family is broken or unstable, the odds of this happening greatly increase. If Robert, for example, had grown up in a family where he had received love, and good moral and spiritual guidance—as well as some healthy discipline—in all likelihood he would have resisted the temptation to get involved with a gang. And he would have avoided spending 8 years of his life in prison.

So our natural families are extremely important for our full development as persons, and for our healthy integration into society. But so too is our spiritual family! It seems that many parents in our culture right now don’t understand this; hence, they don’t take their spiritual lives very seriously. And that lack of concern for the practice of their faith has a direct, negative effect on the lives of their children. It’s also a reason why so many natural families break up these days. You see, in the plan of Almighty God, participation in the life of a spiritual family is supposed to guide and shape the life of our natural family.

That’s certainly how it was for Hannah, Elkanah, and their son Samuel (all of whom we heard about in today’s first reading). Their faith—their active participation in the Hebrew spiritual family—was at the center of their lives. It says there that after Samuel was born, Hannah took him to Eli the priest at the temple in Shiloh and said to him, “I prayed [to have] this child, and the Lord granted my request. Now I, in turn, give him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he shall be dedicated to the Lord.”

Hannah did that—she consecrated her son to God and to God’s service—because she took her religious practice and beliefs very seriously.

Obviously this was also the case for the Holy Family, whose Feast we celebrate this weekend. In today’s Gospel, for example, we hear about a trip that Jesus, Mary and Joseph made to Jerusalem when our Blessed Lord was 12 years of age.

Needless to say, they didn’t make this trip because there happened to be a “carpenters' convention” taking place in Jerusalem that Joseph wanted to attend. Nor did they make this trip to visit friends or for any other social reason.

They went, the Bible says, to celebrate the Passover! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were devout Jews who were deeply committed to God the Father and to the practice of their religion. They were members of the spiritual family of Judaism, and this was how members of the family celebrated the most important feast of the Jewish liturgical year.

And this devotion to their faith—this active participation in the life of the Jewish spiritual family—made a positive difference in their life together back in Nazareth. That’s clear from what it says at the very end of the story. There we are told that “[Jesus] went down with [Mary and Joseph] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.”

Now, to be sure, Jesus obeyed his earthly parents in his natural family first and foremost because he was God. but, on another level, it’s also true to say that Jesus was obedient to mary and joseph because of his active participation in his Jewish spiritual family! His Jewish religion, in other words, guided his moral conduct at home with his parents (as it guided his conduct everywhere else!). The fourth commandment of the Law said, “Honor your father and your mother,” so that’s precisely what Jesus did.

For us, the Catholic Church is our spiritual family. In fact, that’s one of the definitions of the Church given to us in the new Catechism. In paragraph 1655 it says, “The Church is nothing other than ‘the family of God.’” That is to say, it’s the spiritual family that God has established in this world through his divine Son.

It’s much more than an institution!

In this family we have a heavenly Father (St. John affirms this in our second reading today when he says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now”). We also have a spiritual Mother in our family, as well as a divine Brother and adopted brothers and sisters. We have a handbook of family life (basically that’s the Bible and the Catechism); and we have 7 special family “rituals” through which we receive from our Father all the graces we need for our earthly journey.

We even have a family inheritance awaiting us if we don’t turn away from it—an inheritance that’s literally “out of this world”!

This is why staying connected to the Church—this is why staying connected to God’s spiritual family—is absolutely essential!

Remember what I said at the beginning of my homily: “We all have a need to belong; we all have a need to be loved. We are human persons, who find meaning and purpose in our relationships with others, and in being a part of something bigger than ourselves.”

If we don’t stay connected to the Church, and have these needs satisfied in God’s true, spiritual family, then we will naturally look to have them satisfied elsewhere, in some other group. Just like Robert did.

It might even be in a religious cult of some kind, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Why do you think so many Jehovah’s Witnesses are ex-Catholics? It’s because once they rejected the true faith, they had a vacuum in their lives that needed to be filled! They needed some kind of “spiritual family” to belong to, so they joined one that teaches a lot of errors, after rejecting the one that teaches the full truth of Jesus Christ (which is the one that we are all blessed to belong to).

This, incidentally, is one of the primary reasons why I make evangelizing teenagers a top priority in my priestly ministry. It’s why I try to be there every Thursday night for youth group.

I’m committed to Thursday nights because I know how important it is that you teens get and stay connected with the Church. You need to know that the Church is there for you; that the Church is your spiritual family; that the Church is the place where you can learn the full truth of the Gospel—and find forgiveness, strength and hope for your lives!

Because if you find all of those things here, you’ll be much less likely to look for them ‘out there’—from those who would gladly lead you down the wrong path in this life.

Remember what Robert said: “I joined a gang for a family. I never had one when I was growing up. I joined a gang for a family. That’s it.”

Everyone needs a family—a spiritual family. And everyone has one—at least potentially—in the Church.

We pray that Robert has come to realize this since he was released from prison. And we have good reason to believe he has. It said in this National Catholic Register article that he’s now very involved with Homeboy Industries. Homeboy Industries is a program in Los Angeles for ex-gang members, run by a Jesuit priest named Fr. Greg Boyle.

Dear Lord, on this feast of the Holy Family, help us to understand that the Church is much more than an institution. Help us to see that it’s actually a worldwide spiritual family, and that we are all blessed to be members of it. Most of all, help us to be open to the many graces that you give us through the Church, so that we will stay on the road to heaven, and so that our natural families here on earth will be happier and healthier--and holier! This we ask through Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Brother. Amen.