Fr. Shenan J. Boquet: Putting the Family First

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January 15, 2019
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January 15, 2019

Laughing family eating sunday dinner in home

By Fr. Shenan J. Boquet, Human Life International, Jan. 14, 2019

Tucker Carlson of Fox News, Meet Bishop Thomas Olmsted

A pair of conservative authors writing in The Atlantic this week have highlighted the stark marriage statistics in middle-class America. “[D]ramatic increases in nonmarital childbearing, divorce, and family instability among the working class mean that only about 55 percent of children with working-class mothers will reach age 14 in a home headed by two biological parents,” they noted. Meanwhile, “only minorities of poor adults (26 percent) and working-class adults (39 percent) ages 18 to 55 are married.”

The numbers are somewhat healthier among America’s educated upper-class. But the weakening of marriage in middle-America means that the backbone of the country is weakening. For right behind these bleak marriage statistics, as Fox News host Tucker Carlson noted in a controversial recent monologue on his show, are “all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow—more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.”

Carlson has made a name for himself lately for sounding the alarm on the crisis in the family. “If you want to put America first, you’ve got to put its families first,” he concluded his recent monologue. “A country without strong families is a weak country,” he noted in another recent monologue, adding: “Supporting marriage and children is the best, maybe the only way for Republicans or any of us to save the country.”

I couldn’t agree more. I’ll never tire of quoting Pope St. John Paul II on this same topic: “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”

However, as a pastor, my area of interest and specialty is less the grand national solutions to the national problem than the individual sins and brokenness that contribute to the national problem. Carlson is no doubt right: we need visionary political leaders who can devise visionary economic and political policies that support families. But, we also urgently need visionary spiritual leaders who understand the scope of the problem, and are willing and able to challenge their flocks to build and heal their own families…one family at a time, one day at a time.

That’s why I am so delighted by the release of Bishop Thomas Olmsted’s recent apostolic letter, Complete My Joy. The bishop’s letter is addressed to the “husbands and wives, mothers and fathers” of the Phoenix diocese – the bishop’s diocese. The letter is a heartfelt appeal to families to – echoing Pope St. John Paul II – “become what you are even more.” There is so much that is worth drawing attention to in this excellent letter. But perhaps the best part of all – because it is so eminently practical – is the bishop’s six “key areas of growth” for strengthening marital and family life.

A few weeks ago, I noted Dr. John Cuddeback’s recent article in First Things, urging us to focus our attentions on renewing the “household.” That is, we must eschew the centrifugal forces of our distracted, excessively busy, profit-driven, superficial society, which seems to constantly fling family members away from the home so that they scarcely ever see one another. Instead, we must draw together, and live together, so as to build our family into an authentic, deep community of persons.

Naturally, readers might ask: “But how? Precisely what, today, can I do to make my family and household more loving and stronger?”

Six Ways to Strengthen Your Family

Bishop Olmsted’s six suggestions provide an excellent place to start. I will briefly examine each of them:

1) Keep holy the Lord’s day – Sometimes I suspect that the majority of Christians in our economically frenetic culture have completely forgotten that keeping the Sabbath holy is one of the Ten Commandments! Even part of that stalwart minority who do go to church on a weekly basis may not realize that Sunday church is the bare minimum necessary to keep this commandment. After all, the commandment does not say to keep “one hour” of the Sabbath holy – but the whole day!

Alas, many of us have forgotten what life was like not so long ago, when businesses were required to shutter their doors on Sundays. Nowadays, families – including many Christian families – are more likely to schedule their weekly shopping trips on Sunday than they are to devote the day to the kind of prayer, reading, play and rejuvenating leisure that were once the norm!

As with all of God’s laws, the prohibition against unnecessary work on Sunday, and the prescription of worship, turn out not only to promote the flourishing of our spiritual life, but also foster our purely human, physical welfare as well, including the welfare of our families. In former days, families routinely went on outings on Sundays together – hikes and picnics – or stayed at home reading the Scriptures or literature together or cooking and sharing conversation over a special Sunday dinner. Nowadays, many family members are lucky if they see each other for an hour on Sunday, amidst football or hockey practice, busy work schedules, shopping trips, TV shows and sports games, and household chores.

Bishop Olmsted says this about the Sabbath: “When Sunday is lived so as to truly become in every Christian home the Lord’s Day, a special day to praise Him, receive Him in the Eucharist, dwell joyfully in His love and with each other as a holy communion of love, I am convinced that the New Evangelization of our tired Christian West will flourish.”

2) Monthly Confession – Unfortunately, very, very few Catholics nowadays regularly make use of the Sacrament of Confession. Church law, however, demands that we go to confession at least once per year. The saints and great pastors, on the other hand, exhort us to go much more often than that. Once a month is an excellent goal for which to aim.

But what does this have to do with the family? Well, the peace of a family depends upon the peace in the hearts of its members. Love within a community does not grow in a vacuum – it grows in proportion to the growth in virtue of each of the community’s individual members. The intimacy and intensity of family life means that chafing, disagreements, and fighting are inevitable. Confession allows us to unburden ourselves of our guilt and resentment, and to return to the family restored and determined to infuse health into family life through our own personal virtue. Furthermore, by confessing regularly, parents set an example of humility for their children.

“When we are aggravated and fighting in the family, when tempers are short and patience is thin, it is time for a spiritual cleansing,” writes Bishop Olmsted. “Teach your children to go to confession regularly, once per month, and you will instill in them a habit that will guard their soul throughout their lives. I can think of few other things you can do for them that would have a more lasting positive effect in their lives, and bring peace to your home.”

Laughing family eating sunday dinner in home

 3) Consistent daily family meal – This might be my favorite of Bishop Olmsted’s six recommendations, not necessarily because it is the most important, but rather because it is the most basic, and the simple to implement. And yet, for all that, it also has the potential to utterly transform many families within a short time. “It is hard to imagine a more effective step toward family communion outside the sacraments,” writes Bishop Olmsted.

Indeed, family meal-times should be considered as what they truly are: sacred times. It is no accident that the great sacrament of our faith – the Eucharist – was instituted at a meal and takes the form of a re-enactment of that meal. To gather around a table and nourish our bodies in community also turns out to be the divinely-endorsed way of nourishing our souls.

“The regular meal together as a family has a certain grace to it, a spiritual gravity and ability to foster discovery of each other over time,” says Bishop Olmsted, “Families need to disconnect from the world’s pace, be present to one another and break bread together.”

 4) Spend time together as spouses – Perhaps this one seems so basic that it goes without saying. And yet, how many couples nowadays admit that they go days, or even weeks, without having a meaningful conversation with their spouse, due to the busyness of their schedules! This is not a recipe for creating a cohesive family unit. If the parents are not communicating with each other, and sharing their troubles and consolations with one another, how can they possibly effectively lead their family?

The love that a mother and a father show to one another is the love that will be modeled by the other family members. If mom and dad take no interest in one another’s lives, if they do not encourage each other in their struggles, if they do not pray together, then how will their children know what self-giving love looks like, and how to show it to others?

“Relationships are built with the material of time,” notes Bishop Olmsted. “Recall how in the Gospels, Jesus, though he was God Himself, took regular time away from His disciples to be alone with His Father. As spouses, time away from household tasks and children is a fundamental source of renewal for your marriage.” Bishop Olmsted suggests a regular date night, or time spent together in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

5) Establishing clear digital boundaries – Technology has so gradually become so ubiquitous in our lives that many people simply fail to notice how pervasive it has become…or how enslaved they are. Make no mistake, however, an unprecedented revolution has taken, and is taking place. Unfortunately, many people are wholly asleep to the ways that technology is disrupting their relationships – or even their capacity for relationships.

“[T]echnology has a logic to it,” notes Bishop Olmsted, “and the logic is ‘keep looking at the screen.’” This logic is invading into every aspect of family life. Even the sacred space of the dinner table – for those families who even do regularly eat together – is increasingly reduced to a collection of human beings silently glued to their screens.

Technology may be necessary, but it must be controlled, otherwise it controls us. Every family needs a technology manifesto – a well-thought-through technological philosophy, accompanied by practical, enforceable policies, set out on paper if need. Some suggestions might be: no cell-phones at the dinner table, no TVs in bedrooms, internet-filtering software on all internet-connected devices and scheduled technological “down-times.”

“Without establishing clear boundaries for digital devices at home, your ‘plan for spiritual life’ can easily be undermined and even sabotaged,” writes Bishop Olmsted. “The digital era has brought about great opportunities to spread the Gospel, but we cannot remain naïve to the reality that technology can also bring about harm and even great evil to our homes. Pornography, violence, profanity, endless ideologies and angry political material are often available at the palm of your children’s hands.”

Parents have the right – and, indeed, the duty – to control how the outside world enters their home. Many parents are unfortunately far too quick to give in to peer pressure or the pleas of their children, wishing to avoid a fight or to appear “weird,” instead of enforcing clear guidelines that foster the health of their family. However, setting clear, strictly-enforceable guidelines for yours and your children’s screen-time can be one of the most effective ways of fostering real activities that nourish family life: “real play, real conversation, and real friendship,” in bishop Olmsted’s words.

6) Consecrate the family home to Mary – With so many forces arrayed against family life these days, it would be foolish for any family to try to go it alone. Every family needs spiritual protection. For this reason, Bishop Olmsted is urging every family in his diocese to consecrate their family to the Blessed Mother, under the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

This is a wonderful idea, and something I urge every family to consider. Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of Human Life International. It is under the apparition at Guadalupe that our Lady routed the satanic Culture of Death embraced by the Aztecs and converted millions of hearts to Christ.

“Her intercession for our families is key to winning the spiritual battle again in our time,” says Bishop Olmsted. “My dear sons and daughters, if you haven’t done so already, invite Our Lady to dwell with you through consecrating your home to Jesus through her Immaculate Heart.

There’s No Time Like Now

I hope that you will seriously consider how to implement each of these six suggestions in your own family life. For, as Bishop Olmsted noted in a recent interview about his letter, “The basic unity of society is the family. The basic unit of the church is the family. And that means that the healthiness of a society and the healthiness of the church is the healthiness of each family.”

We are currently witnessing a coordinated cultural attack on the institution of the family. There are many potential solutions to this crisis. However, it is in our power to take meaningful steps, today, to protect our family against anti-family forces.