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Encyclical Letter on Family

Deacon Keith A Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC
Catholic Online

"The Christian Family in the Modern World"

Pope John Paul's Encyclical letter on the Family is a Treasure and a Path to responding to the invitation to change the world!

In his encyclical letter entitled, "The Splendor of Truth", Pope John Paul II refers to the Sermon on the Mount as the "Magna Carta" of the Christian life . When the history of his Pontificate is written, another one of his wonderful letters, entitled, "The Christian Family in the Modern World", will be referred to as the "Magna Carta" of Christian Family life.

The wealth of teaching and practical foundation the Pope lays out in this very readable letter helps the reader to grasp the call to practical holiness that is lived out, day by day, in all of the mundane, challenging, joyful yet burdensome, earthly yet heavenly, "stuff", of the Christian family.

That is if we have the heart to see it this way and the will to live it in our daily lives.

When Christian family life is lived in this way, it both participates in and serves as a sacramental sign of the universal call to holiness that is the vocation of every baptized Christian. For most of the faithful, this universal call is lived out, day by day, in the Christian Family. That is how it becomes experienced as the "first church." It is there where we encounter the Lord.

This papal letter also develops a much-needed "new" (actually ancient) missionary model that is family- centered. If we begin to comprehend, incarnate and live out its message and respond to its invitation, we begin to grasp the ancient Christian understanding that the Christian family is actually the "church in miniature" and that every Christian family is a missionary cell of the broader family of the universal Church.

This process begins by our recapturing a "relational" of church life, a model that the early Christians lived; and through which they transformed the world of the first Christian millennium. The "world" of the first few hundred years of Christian history was not unlike our own. The early church simply lived differently in it. Their family life spoke volumes to a decadent, unhappy, culture around them.

This "relational" model is the path along which the "new evangelization" of the contemporary age must now proceed. A family-based missionary outreach such as that proposed within this letter will help to bring about the "New Springtime" of Christianity that John Paul has prophetically proclaimed throughout his pontificate.

The momentum for such a new missionary effort rests with Catholic families. We are all invited to undertake this work in earnest. The "mission field" is not only found in some distant place, it is found in our living rooms, our neighborhoods and our own communities. The challenge and the opportunity, the climate, of our contemporary culture are all ripe for this missionary effort. The hunger for God, particularly in our "post September 11th" world is palpable. Christian families are the new front line of the invitation to all men and women to meet God. Through holy families, the holy God is manifested. Through holy families, the Church will also "Christianize" the contemporary culture.

Pope John Paul reminds us in this letter that "the future of humanity passes by way of the family." Referring to the Christian family as the "domestic church" ," a society in its own original right" , and the "first and vital cell of society" , he re-presents the ancient patristic teaching on family life with a refreshing new purpose, power and vitality. He reminds all of the faithful that the baptized Christian family is a key which can unlock the treasure house of the "new humanism" (authentic Christianity) which we are called to build.

Some contemporary versions of what is called "humanism, in their radically secular or atheist worldview, are not "humanism" at all, at least in any authentic way. The human race - and every member of that race - will only find its destiny and fulfillment by finding its relationship to God. After all, we are all created in His image. Through the redemption of Jesus Christ, we are re-created. The oft-repeated paragraph 22 from "Joy and Hope" is a key to understanding this theme of a "new" and true humanism. It is one the Popes favorite Quotations from the Second Vatican Council -from a document that he helped to author. It also reveals the profoundly incarnational quality of his deep faith:

"In reality, it is only in the mystery of the word made flesh that the mystery of man truly becomes clear. For Adam, was a type of him who was to come, Christ the lord, Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of His love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling."

In other words, we can only become "fully" human through our redemption, sanctification and transformation in Jesus Christ. Christianity is the only fully authentic humanism!

For most of us, the process of "becoming" fully human and of conversion in Christ happens in the "stuff" of "ordinary" family life. From diapers to discipline, in the good times and in struggles, in the day to day realities of raising children, remaining faithful, paying bills, practicing charity, the family is a laboratory of holiness, the classroom of charity and the place of both meeting - and revealing- the love that finds its source, origin and completion in God.

Christian family life is also the roadmap for the rest of the Church and the hope for the future of the world. The "culture of life" and "civilization of love", that the Pope invites us to build in our day, starts at home. One of the fruits of holy families will be a rebirth of an authentic Christian culture. It will be established upon an authentically renewed witness of Christian family life.

This kind of family life is the antidote to the poisoned well of the atomistic "culture of death" which has polluted the current age. It is in learning to pour ourselves out for others, that we learn the way of the crucified One. It is through "losing ourselves" that we find ourselves anew and reject the lie that we are the center of the universe.

There is a "close link between Catholic teaching on this matter and the view of the human person which the Church proposes" , writes John Paul in this letter on family life. Why? Because it in the family that we learn to love and learn how to be fully human.

The message of this letter involves, in its application, a lifetime of work. Its implementation will require generations. The devastation which generations of secularization and misguided modernisms have reaped upon the institution of the family will require extraordinary prayer and heroic sacrifice to heal.

Fortunately, the wisdom of this encyclical letter, a distillation of classical Christian teaching, is presented in a well written format that lends itself easily to reading and studying. The missionary methodology laid out in its pages reveals a hope-filled approach to cultural recovery. This kind of hope is so deeply a part of this Pope's pastoral and prophetic style. It needs to become a part of our families worldview and self conception.

The Holy Father wants us to understand that in order to comprehend the deeper meaning, purpose and mystery of marriage and family life we must go back to the "beginning" of creation itself. In the beginning of the encyclical letter (after a re-grounding of the meaning of marriage through a wonderful treatment of the theological, spiritual and very human insights gained from the Book of Genesis) he presents the profound transformation of marriage, and family that occurs through baptism into Christ.

It is in that context that he explains the vocational and missionary nature of Christian marriage and family life. Marriage is not only something that we do; it is a response to the Gospel invitation to lay down our lives for the other and therefore becomes a school for holiness. When we begin to grasp the sacramental nature of Christian family we also are better able to live the existential and missionary call implied in the phrase that the Pope uses so effectively in the beginning of this powerful letter-- "family, become what you are".

As Christian families we are to actually become a "domestic church", in the home, for the sake of the broader family of the Church. Through our participation in Christ (and therefore in His Body), we join in the universal Christian mission of evangelization, redemption, sanctification and transformation of the world around us. This more than piety, it is prophecy.

What is most profound in the letter however is the marked move in this encyclical letter from analogy to what theologians and philosophers call "ontology", in its' discussion of Christian family as a vocation. "Ontology" refers to the very nature or essence of something. In other words, this encyclical doesn't simply treat Christian marriage and family as "like" a church. Rather it speaks of it as a church. Additionally, Christian marriage and family is presented as a vocation, a response to a specific invitation from God.

Pope John Paul cites his predecessor, Pope Paul VI, and his encyclical entitled "Evangelization in the Modern World". Therein we find the language of analogy "The family, like the Church..." This kind of language of analogy has been reflected in many of the encyclical letters of the second half of the second millennium that addressed Christian family life.

Pope John Paul II takes this even analogy even deeper in this letter. In doing so he re-presents the older insights of the early church fathers in a fresh new way. He refers back to an instruction he gave at a conference at Puebla and states "...the future of evangelization depends in great part on the Church of the Home". No longer does the occupant of Peter's chair use only the language of analogy but rather uses the language of ontological participation. The Christian family is not just like the Church, it IS the Church.

In his discussion of the missionary task of this Church as it affects the international order, a task many would think beyond the reach of most families, he writes, "Insofar as it is a "small scale Church", the Christian family is called upon, like the "large scale Church", to be a sign of unity for the world and in this way to exercise its prophetic role...."

Section IV of the encyclical letter, entitled "Sharing in the Life and Mission of the Church" is even more pronounced in this evolution of analogical language about the family to ontological language: "In turn, the Christian family is grafted into the mystery of the Church to such a degree as to become a sharer, in its own way, in the saving mission proper to the Church by virtue of the sacrament"

This is further detailed in the explanation of the educational mission of the Christian family that is found in paragraph 38: "Thus in the case of baptized people, the family, called together by word and sacrament as the Church of the home, is both teacher and mother, the same as the worldwide Church".

This encyclical letter, indeed in all that is contained in the body of wisdom given by John Paul the Great, we find the building materials for the reconstruction of the devastated vineyard of the "domestic Church", the family, and through her, of the Universal Church. I join many others in believing that he will go down in history as the "Pope of the family".

If the faithful will both read and then, through grace, try to live out this message, the Church can have the impact on our current age that the call to the "New Evangelization" will require. If we live the Truth of the Christian message in the "stuff' of daily life, we will provide a path along which many will trod in their journey to the One who created them and who calls them into an eternal relationship. After all, Christian families can become the first church that many of our contemporaries enter.

The Christian claim is that Truth is a person, Jesus Christ, who still manifests Himself in the flesh through His body, the Church.

The smallest cell of that Body is the Christian family. That church is now called on mission to change the world!

Deacon Fournier is a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia serving at St. Benedict's Catholic Church, a dynamically orthodox Roman Catholic Parish, dedicated to fidelity to the Magisterium and faithfulness to the Church's mission of sanctification, evangelization and transformation. He holds degrees from Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and is currently a PHD student at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is entitled, "The Prayer of Mary: Living the Surrendered Life".


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