Franciscan Spirit Blog

Pope John Paul II’s Advice for Families

My friend and I were each eating a doughnut after Mass. He carried a book I recognized.

“How do you like that book?” I casually asked as we both took another bite.

“It’s great: The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, by that Covey fellow. I wish our Church would write something like this. You know, this fellow is a Mormon. We can learn a lot about family life from them. They think the family is really important.”

“I know,” I responded. “Our pope has written some great things about family, too.” A brief silence ensued.


Yes, he really has. John Paul II often addresses issues directly connected with family life. Most of his important insights are found in his work entitled Familiaris Consortio (it translates into English as On the Family).

The pope’s concern for family life is part of his overall understanding of the way we as persons, as images of God, develop through life. In his bookCrossing the Threshold of Hope, he shares the importance of interpersonal love in human life: “It is this vocation to love that naturally allows us to draw close to the young. As a priest I realized this very early. I felt almost an inner call in this direction. It is necessary to prepare young people for marriage; it is necessary to teach them to love….As a young priest I learned to love human love. This has been one of the fundamental themes of my priesthood—my ministry in the pulpit, in the confessional, and also in my writings.”

Seven Rich Ideas

I’ve studied the Church’s view of marriage and family life for as long as I’ve been married—now almost 37 years. I’ve taught at three Jesuit-founded­ universities and at St. Meinrad School of Theology, a seminary in Indiana founded by the Benedictines. But I almost always seem to be teaching this subject at the introductory level. As a Church we have often failed to communicate the rich teachings of our faith concerning marriage and family life.

Many Catholics have a general idea of what our faith is against in the area of marriage and family, but few seem to know what we’re for. Hopefully, this summary of seven key areas of the pope’s teachings will help Catholics and others appreciate more fully the challenging teachings of Pope John Paul II about the family.

A Foundation for Life

Especially during the early years of life, parents symbolize God for their children. In his teaching on the value of human life, the pope writes, “Within the ‘people of life and the people for life,’ the family has a decisive responsibility….Here it is a matter of God’s own love, of which parents are co-workers and as it were interpreters when they transmit life and raise it according to his fatherly plan” (Evangelium Vitae, #92). Parents make God real to the child.

The pope is quite sensitive about what happens in human life from conception onward. He knows that the early years of life are important and their effect is lasting. Parents have a major role in developing the human and spiritual life of their children. They are so important that the pope judges their role “irreplaceable.”

He addresses them as the “first evangelizers” of their children. Of course, they evangelize not so much by reading to an infant from St. Luke’s Gospel. Rather, it is by embodying gospel love in all their daily words and actions.

What an important message for our age when some children feel alone, their parents busy with other matters. What can be more important than being present to and loving one’s own children? Experts in child development agree on this. So does the pope.

In Familiaris Consortio, Pope John Paul II highlights the singular importance of family love. “Looking at [the family] in such a way as to reach its very roots, we must say that the essence and the role of the family are in the final analysis specified by love. Hence the family has as its mission to guard, reveal and communicate love…” (Familiaris Consortio, #17).

John Paul never tires of affirming the dignity of every human person. Everyone is created by God to love and be loved. This truth grounds everything he communicates about justice and peace, the role of government, the treatment of everyone in the Church and all social issues that confront the world today.

When it comes to family life, the same message applies. In fact, the full dignity of each person begins in the family, and if it fails to happen there, it probably will not happen elsewhere. The family is foundational for Christian life. There are two key relationships that affirm basic equality and dignity between persons. First, there is the love between the husband and wife. Their love is to be an expression of full self-giving. In the pope’s mind there is no room for one using the other as an object or thing.

Marriage is fully an interpersonal relationship. He underscores the importance of full and mutual love between the spouses. This is a main building block for his opposition to artificial contraception, which is less than a full expression of love and life.

His other area of concern is the relationship between parent and child. Again, full dignity and mutuality mark this relationship. Recent strong statements about child abuse under any circumstance demonstrate his concern.

Clearly, the pope has a warm spot in his heart for children. His desire to embrace children is well-known and respected. What a great symbol it is to have the pope, the leader of the Catholic Church, stop before a child, look into that child’s eyes and communicate his love for that child! We are reminded of Jesus doing the same.

It is parents who are charged with communicating this tender love of God to their children. Hopefully, this message will remain with them forever. During the International Year of the Family (1994) Pope John Paul II wrote: “The family is indeed more than any other social reality, the place where an individual can exist ‘for himself’ through the sincere gift of self. This is why it remains a social institution that neither can nor should be replaced: it is the ‘sanctuary of life’” (Letter to Families, #11). Family is that community of persons oriented to the full development of personhood in each member. It does this through love.

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The Domestic Church

The Second Vatican Council brought forward from the writings of the Church Fathers the description of the family as “the domestic Church.” In Familiaris Consortio the pope speaks of the family “as a ‘Church in miniature’ (ecclesia domestica) in such a way that in its own way is a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church” (Familiaris Consortio, #49).

This is a strong affirmation of the family’s identity. He is saying that the family itself is a Church according to its own way of life. Pope Paul VI, in his writings on evangelization, taught that the family possesses all the essential features of the Church. Therefore, it is somewhat inaccurate for families to say that they go to church, because they are already Church at home. It may be messy, terribly unstructured, noisy and disorganized, but it’s still Church.

Pope John Paul II has used this title for the family hundreds of times both in his writings and in public addresses. I was in Washington, D.C., when the pope first came to America. He said to the thousands assembled on the Mall that the family is a Church, a domestic Church. I cheered. The implications of this teaching are momentous. It’s a whole new way of thinking about and experiencing family life.

As Catholics, we were always taught that what happened in church is exceedingly important. Now we can include everything good that takes place in family life as the grist of what makes us saints.

My wife and I recently painted the interior walls of our home, a task that can be a genuine burden. But in the course of my brush strokes, I suddenly thought of this seemingly mundane action as roughly equivalent to Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel. My feelings immediately changed. I felt quite proud of my monochrome mural on the wall of the living room. I was decorating our family cathedral.

Consciousness makes a big difference, and the pope has the philosophical training to know this. That’s why he repeats over and over that the Christian family is the domestic Church.

The pope further describes the role of the family in the Church. “Christian marriage and family build up the Church: for in the family the human person is not only brought into being and progressively introduced by means of education into the human community, but by means of rebirth in baptism and education in the faith is also introduced to God’s family, which is the Church”(Familiaris Consortio, #15).

Parents Minister to Their Children

The pope greatly respects the role of Christian parents in the life of the Church. He challenges them: “By virtue of their ministry of educating, parents are through the witness of their lives the first heralds of the gospel for their children. Furthermore, by praying with their children, by reading the word of God with them and by introducing them…into the Body of Christ—both the eucharistic and the ecclesial body—they become fully parents, in that they are begetters not only of bodily life, but also of the life that through the Spirit’s renewal flows from the cross and resurrection of Christ” (Familiaris Consortio,#39).

Here again the pope extends important ecclesial language to include the life of the family. Parents are the “first heralds” of the gospel to their children. Too often we think of evangelization as something done by adults for adults. We think about the RCIA program or hospitality events of the Catholic parish. These are important ways to bring outsiders into the warm embrace of God through the life of the Church.

But that kind of evangelization is designed to bring people into the Church. What about those already baptized who live in Christian families? How do we best keep them in? Here is where the ecclesial life of the family is so important. Child development experts know that what is communicated in the family often sticks with a person throughout life. First impressions can be lasting ones. New connections in the brain, once established, are rarely, if ever, altered. They can be built upon, or added to, but they cannot be totally erased.

One great challenge of our times is alerting Christian parents to the importance of their role as “family evangelizers.” Ask any catechist where the most important catechetical experience of the child occurs and before you’ve finished asking the question, they will reply, “in the home.” The home is where basic Christian ministry happens, where the Word of God is first and continually proclaimed and where one can recognize and experience God’s great love.

Nursery of Society and the Church

“The future of the world and the Church passes through the family” (Familiaris Consortio, #79). We find this principle enunciated time after time by Pope John Paul II. He is deeply aware of the flow of history.

No one celebrated more fully the opportunities offered by the passage into the new millennium. He truly captured that moment. By establishing the family as the entrance point in personal history, he reminds us that society and the Church are tied to the lives of real people. This is especially emphasized when he defends the importance of life.

Reflect on these words in his great social encyclical, Centesimus Annus: “It is necessary to go back to seeing the family as the sanctuary of life. The family is indeed sacred: It is the place in which life—the gift of God—can be properly welcomed and protected against the many attacks to which it is exposed, and can develop in accordance with what constitutes authentic human growth. In the face of the so-called culture of death, the family is the heart of the culture of life” (Centesimus Annus, #39).

History, for this pope, is not an abstraction. He experienced major events of history as World War II unfolded in his own neighborhood. He experienced the onslaught of Communism by seeing it transform the political life of his beloved Poland. He also witnessed the breakdown of Communism as one quite involved. While he has no children, no grandchildren and no immediate family to think about, he ponders the future with passion and deep concern.

He sees the life of the family as instrumental in forming the future. In the family, we learn the basic skills of relating to others. Children learn hospitality and ways to deal with life’s challenges. They learn respect for self and respect for others. They learn the value of people within and outside their family. They develop ways of dealing with differences.

All these foundational human skills of relating to others are fashioned first within the family. In the family a sense of vocation and of discipleship is formulated. For the pope, the future begins in the family.

A Spirituality of the Ordinary

I have a favorite passage in Familiaris Consortio which I must share. Pope John Paul II is discussing family prayer. Prayer involves: “Joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointments, birth and birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries of the parents, departures, separations and homecomings, important and far-reaching decisions, the death of those that are near, etc.—all of these mark God’s loving intervention in the family’s history” (Familiaris Consortio, #59).

What a comprehensive list of what’s constantly happening in families! I particularly like the mention of “departures, separations and homecomings.” So much of family life is exactly that—family members coming and going and coming back again. The door of the family home could easily be a revolving door.

Think of all those families where the parents thought they were sending grown children into the world to fend for themselves.  But what to parents’ wondering eyes should appear, but the “children” returning with all of their gear!

Yes, family spirituality is fully relational. The love of God is thoroughly mixed with love of neighbor into a rich spiritual stew. Family prayer is often said on the run. While all parents crave moments of silence, constant noise may often be the order of the day. Moments of interpersonal life often outnumber moments of solitude. And that’s all O.K.

Dads and moms are not monks and nuns. Their spiritual vitality percolates from what happens each day in the confusion of their home church. In this place, the Spirit of God stirs the air and sanctifies the spaces between family members.

Families, Become What You Are

The pope begins his expanded presentation of the role of the Christian family in today’s world by saying: “The family finds in the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what it is, but also its mission, what it can and should do. The role that God calls the family to perform in history derives from what the family is….Each family finds within itself a summons that cannot be ignored and that specifies both its dignity and responsibility: family, become what you are” (Familiaris Consortio, #17).

Part of the pope’s vision is an understanding of all creation as it flows from the mind and heart of God. Pope John Paul II concludes that God has high expectations for the Christian family. Its role is central in advancing God’s reign on earth.

This pope is a complex blend of realism and idealism. The tension between the two is not relaxed for a minute. In God’s plan, the Christian family is a community of life and love. It is a living cell of people committed to each other. In their love for each other, there comes forth new life—day after day. This love reflects God’s as it takes on graced sacramental form in very ordinary families. It is a reflection of the Trinity—creating life out of love.

Creating a Christian family, a family where mutual love and care find daily expression, may be one of the most difficult of all human tasks. With the writings of this pope, families can be comforted; their efforts are of central importance for the life of the Church and are building God’s kingdom now and forever.

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