Envy, greed, selfishness, harsh words, sibling rivalry, infidelity, illness, tragedy, violence, abuse – the list sounds like much like the headlines on your average nightly news show or the subject of anguished conversations among distraught parents and grandparents lamenting the discord they witness daily in their own families. We listen to the stories, shake our heads in bewilderment at the litany of struggle and sorrow that we hear, and wonder out loud how things in our world could have gotten so bad.
The reality is…things have always been this bad. Ever since Eve succumbed to the devil’s temptations ate the forbidden fruit, strife in family life has been present. The first murder the Bible records was the fratricide of Abel, driven out Cain’s envy. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt out of jealousy. God’s beloved King David took Bathsheba in adultery, had her husband killed in battle, and then suffered through the tragic death of his child. It doesn’t end in the Old Testament. Jesus recounts the story of the Prodigal son, who insults his father by demanding his inheritance while his father is still alive, only to squander it on dissolute living. Martha, annoyed and exasperated, whines to Jesus about her sister Mary’s perceived laziness. The mother of James and John shamelessly jockeys for the position her sons will have in Jesus’ kingdom. The list goes on and on.
Pope Francis, continued his catecheses about family life at this past Wednesday’s audience, reflecting on family wounds – “the harm done in the family itself – a most awful thing!” The Pope spoke of the seriousness of such wounds, highlighting in particular, the danger in letting these wounds fester:
“We are well aware that no moments are lacking in any family history in which the intimacy of dearest affections is offended by the behavior of its members. Words and actions (and omissions!) that, instead of expressing love, subtract or, even worse still, mortify it. When these wounds, which are still remediable, are neglected, they worsen: they are transformed into arrogance, hostility and contempt.”
The Biblical examples above are all evidence of the potential for dysfunction in family life – dysfunction, which left unchecked, can lead to devastating consequences. What is the root of much of this dysfunction? The Holy Father points out the interdependence of members of a family saying “Everything is connected together in the family : when its spirit is wounded in some point, the infection contaminates everyone.” He does not mince words in his diagnosis of the cause of brokenness within families:
“And when a man and a woman, who committed themselves to be “one flesh” and to form a family, think obsessively of their own needs of freedom and gratification, this distortion profoundly damages the heart and life of the children.”
This obsessive selfishness has been present in the human heart since our first parents. There is only one antidote for it: holiness, fueled by prayer and the sacraments, and reliant on God’s grace.
To both prevent and heal from the wounds within our families, we look to the saints as our models of holiness. According to Pope Benedict XVI in his encyclical Spe Salvi: “The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great hope.”
The shining example of a life of holiness and hope in the midst of grave family difficulties is St. Monica. St. Monica persisted in prayer for over 30 years for the conversion of her wayward son Augustine, as well as her pagan, adulterous husband. Her fidelity bore the incredible fruit of Augustine’s dramatic conversion and his subsequent unparalleled influence on the church which continues to this very day. Her prayers and life of virtue also led to her husband’s conversion and her own elevation to the ranks of the church’s canonized saints.
In more recent times, we see the example of St. John Paul II whose early family life was wounded by the tragic death of his mother when he was only eight years old, and the untimely death of his older brother when he was twelve years old. Through the prayers and witness of his own Father’s life of holiness, the young Karol Woytija was able to overcome these tragedies by turning to the Lord in faith and hope.
As we carry the crosses of family wounds in our own families, let us ask the saints for their intercession and the Lord for his grace to overcome those wounds. In this way, our families can shine as a beacon of hope for others who are still struggling.