Sunday, December 26, 2010

Eating Together As a Family—At Home And In Church—Makes a Big Difference!

(Holy Family 2010 (A): This homily was given on December 26, 2010 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr Raymond Suriani. Read Sirach 3: 2-7, 12-14; Colossians 3: 12-17; Matthew 2: 13-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Family 2010]

A few months ago, I came across a very interesting news item in a national newspaper. It was entitled, “The Family That Eats Together,” and it read as follows:

Another reason to gather around the table: Late last year, Columbia University’s National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse released “The Importance of Family Dinners V.” “Simply put: Dinner makes a difference,” the survey says.

In terms of substance abuse, “Compared to teens who have frequent family dinners (five to seven per week), those who have infrequent family dinners (fewer than three per week) are: twice as likely to use tobacco or marijuana; and more than one and a half times likelier to use alcohol.”

Eating together also impacts academics: “Compared to teens who have five to seven family dinners per week, those who have fewer than three family dinners per week are one and a half times likelier to report getting mostly C’s or lower grades in school,” the survey reported.

And, most important, family togetherness results in family closeness: “Teens who have frequent family dinners . . . are likelier to say they have excellent relationships with their parents.”

This also relates to faith: “Teens who have frequent family dinners are also likelier to attend religious services at least weekly compared to teens who have infrequent family dinners.”

The article then ended with the words, “Bless us, O Lord . . .”

We live in a very fast-paced society; we live in a highly-technological society—a society in which we have the opportunity to communicate with one another more quickly and more effectively than ever before. If you want to get an important message to your spouse or to your child or to your co-worker or to your friend all you have to do is shoot them an email or a text-message or a “tweet”—and it’s there.

And yet, the irony is—generally speaking, we are more isolated from one another now, in the early 21st century, than at any other time in human history! That’s because in the daily lives of many contemporary men and women, the technological “interface” of a piece of electronic equipment has to a great extent replaced the human face of their brothers and sisters.

I think this is one of the biggest reasons why so many people these days have trouble paying attention in school, at work—in church!—and in just about every other setting. They’re so accustomed to the 10 second sound byte or the two line email or text message, that they have trouble entering into a conversation with another person at a deeper level, and really listening.

In the Magnificat prayer booklet, the second reading for today’s Mass—this passage from Colossians 3—is given the title, “Family life in the Lord.” The text, of course, is specifically about life in the Family of God, the Church, but what St. Paul says there also applies to life in our individual families. He writes, “Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another.”

Those are some of the virtues that need to be practiced in a family, if that family is going to be stable and happy. But the thing is, if you want to be successful in living those virtues in your family, you need to be COMMUNICATING with the other members of your family in a caring, intimate way. That is to say, your communication with them has to go beyond a couple of daily tweets, emails, and text-messages!

This is why eating together makes such a difference! By the way, don’t you find it somewhat amusing—we now need to have a big, formal study done at an Ivy League University to tell us what ordinary people have known for centuries: that family bonds are forged and strengthened in the conversations that take place at dinnertime?

I remember being annoyed at my father many times when I was 8 or 9 and he called me home for dinner after school. I’d be having a great time playing baseball or football in the local field with all of my friends, and all of a sudden I’d hear my father’s voice in the distance: “Raymond, come home! It’s time for supper.”

“But dad, we’ve only got one more inning to go.”

“Get home now!”

“All right.”

Back then, I didn’t appreciate it—I thought my father was just an ogre who was out to ruin my fun.

But he was right. He wanted his family home to eat together, because he knew how important the conversation was at suppertime.

And speaking of conversations, can you imagine the ones that Mary and Joseph had on their way down to Egypt? Today’s gospel doesn’t tell us exactly what they spoke about, I know; but, given the amount of time they spent together—and given the depth of their individual spiritual lives—I’m sure they didn’t just engage in casual conversation about the weather!

Among other things, I’m sure they talked about their hopes and dreams for their newborn child. I’m sure they shared with each other their worries and concerns about how they would raise him, and what they would be able to teach him—given the fact that he was not an ordinary little boy!

And many of their conversations took place, no doubt, during the meals they ate together along the way.

The bottom line is this: the flight into Egypt was an extremely stressful time for Mary and Joseph. They were travelling on rough, dangerous roadways into a foreign country where their ancestors had once lived as slaves. But the flight into Egypt was also a special and sacred time for them: a time for them to bond as a couple; a time for them to prepare to be the best parents they could possibly be.

So obviously a message of this homily is to eat together as a family as often as possible.

But it’s not the only message!

I say that because we are attending a sacred, family meal right now here in church—a meal called “the Mass,” in which God, the Father of the family, feeds us, his adopted children, with his truth, and with the precious Body and Blood of his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. So, if the Columbia University study is correct in saying that family meals at home make a positive difference, I think it’s logical to assume that family meals in church also make a positive difference in people’s lives.

I decided to test this idea out by doing a little research online the other day, and during the course of that research I came across the results of several studies by the Family Research Council concerning people who attend religious services frequently. Not surprisingly, these studies yielded the following results:

• Adolescents from intact families who worship frequently are least likely ever to try hard drugs

• Adolescents who worship at least weekly are the least likely to run away from home.

• Parents who live in intact families that worship frequently report the lowest levels of parenting stress

• Children who attend worship at least weekly are more socially developed than those who worship less frequently.

So the complete message of today’s homily is this: Eat together as often as possible at home, but don’t ever, ever skip a meal here in church—for the sake of your family.