I was at an informal meeting of ministers from various local Christian churches. At one point, the discussion drifted into the topic of family life and subsequently into the domestic challenges faced by married ministers. Among those challenges was how to strike the right balance between being a servant to their respective congregations and beyond, while being a caring spouse and parent within their own families. It was really lovely to see that all of them genuinely wanted to be great pastors and great family men at the same time. Then I made my contribution: ‘My wife and children never complain.’ For a split second there was a stunned silence, followed by an outburst of laughter. ‘There is some wisdom in having unmarried clergy’ was the light-hearted conclusion of one of the ministers.
Today’s Feast of the Holy Family, celebrated always on the first Sunday after Christmas Day, underlines the importance of the family as the most fundamental building block of the human community. Jesus, the only Son of God, became Man in the human family of Mary and Joseph. He was nurtured as a baby by them. Mary and Joseph took care to provide Jesus with a practical and formal education. Based on his use of wide-ranging everyday examples and imagery in his teaching, we can make an educated guess that Jesus was involved in domestic chores and challenges as well as in those of the wider local community. As presented clearly though indirectly in today’s gospel reading, Jesus wasn’t ‘wrapped in cotton wool’. Mary and Joseph started looking for the twelve-year-old Jesus after a day’s journey back home from Jerusalem. So, Jesus was immersed in family and communal life from his birth, shaped and formed by all those experiences that he’d had. It’s true about each one of us too. Who and what we are today has been a result of many things, including encounters and experiences ever since we were born. Most of them are long-forgotten or untraceable, but nevertheless they have made us what we are – for better or for worse. Surely, we should be grateful to God for all those elements that have formed us; and particularly for our own families.
There’s another important element in today’s gospel: the religious education of children. We are very fortunate in Moray to have three Catholic primary schools. We are even more fortunate to have truly dedicated catechists in St Mary’s and St Peter’s, tirelessly providing attractive and creative ways of delivering religious education. But although these are extremely important and impossible to overrate, these are essentially secondary means of religious education. The main ‘school of faith’ is the family. This is the natural environment in which children acquire most of their life skills by imitating their parents. That’s the way children learn things. When I worked as a teacher, I could actually see my pupils’ parents reflected in their children’s manners, gestures, language and so on. If the domestic environment is lacking in any religious aspect, like prayer, Mass attendance or Christian domestic rituals, any external efforts to instil any practices tend to prove ineffective in the long term. That has been brought home to me over and over again when I was leading Sacramental Preparation for children, with most of them disappearing off the radar the day after making their First Communion. I’m extremely grateful for your continuous active support of our catechists and helpers; but if we want to ensure a long-term future for our Christian community, we need to create a positively and naturally religious environment in our own families. Our families can be ‘holy’ – not because they are flawless and perfect, but because Jesus keeps His promise that ‘where two or three are gathered in my Name, I am there among them.’