The Greatness of the Family: John Paul II and GK Chesterton
The family roots us, makes us human, and even makes us like God.
St. John Paul II Fellows at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, are doing a deep dive into the St. John Paul II’s teaching about the family, and we want to share far and wide what we are discovering.
Pope John Paul II begins his Letter to Families with a reference to his programmatic encyclical Redemptor Hominis (The Redeemer of Man) in which he says, “ man is the way of the Church.” Likewise, says St. John Paul, Christ has entrusted to the Church “the family to her mission and ministry.”
We see this in the sacramental ministry of the Church, which from baptism/birth to unction/death, the Church accompanies the person in each great transition of life.
We see it also in her theological mission, which is to accompany the person in the context of the family as a privileged pathway to God. God set apart the sacred mission in the family by sending his Son into a particular family to discover his vocation of redemption.
Chesterton wisely observes that the family has enjoyed special sanction in the history of the world. The revolution of the Christian faith merely intensified this sanction into a sanctity: “It did not deny the trinity of father, mother and child. It merely read it backwards, making it run child, mother and father. This is called, not the family but the Holy Family, for many things are made holy by being turned upside down.”
The family is first and most important because it is common to all, yet each instance is unique and unrepeatable.
Those who have lost their family in some way experience an “anguished sense of pain and loss, one which will subsequently burden his whole way of life. The Church draws near in such circumstances because she knows the fundamental role the family is called upon to play in every person’s life.” Furthermore, she knows that a person “goes forth to realize in a new family unit his particular vocation in life.”
The incarnation first turned the family upside down so that Christ could learn to turn the world upside right. The Holy Family was the first domestic Church, the primary cell and incubator of the ecclesial Church. Thus, JPII says “the divine mystery of the Incarnation of the word has intimate connection with the human family.”
The family unit is both common to all yet unique and unrepeatable. This gives every person their own unique “existential horizon,” says St. John Paul II. Part of this uniqueness is the subjectivity of the family, which both parents construct for the child. The unity of the parents flows from the differences they hold together as husband and wife, mother and father. The differences are brought together in a peaceful bond, which allows the child to learn the ways of God who has brought this couple together in holy matrimony. This is a deep mystery, which involves both marriage and the church (see Ephesians 5).
Some questions I ask my students:
- Both the United Nations and the Catholic Church made 1994 the “Year of the Family.” In 1980, John Paul II called a Synod of the Family and Pope Francis did the same in the year 2014-15. Why so much emphasis on the family? Has it helped actual families?
- What was the unique “subjectivity of your home life?” How did your parent’s “difference-unity” help form you?
- The Church “draws near” to those who families have been damaged. How is our work with students informed by this observation by St. John Paul II?