For the folks at St. Paul Parish in St. Paul, Missouri:
As some of y’all may already know, I grew up in Georgia, which is basically Baptist country. Catholics were only about 3% of the total population of my home diocese of Savannah. And as you’d drive the through the Georgia, you’d often see these signs outside of the Baptist churches with catchy little slogans advertising the theme of the coming Sunday’s homily: “The attitude of gratitude,” or “The real reason for the season.” One was both catchy and relevant to today’s feast, the Feast of the Holy Family. It read: “God has children, but no grandchildren.”
It sums up pretty neatly a certain theology of grace. Each man must carry his own weight: no one can simply ride his parents’ coattails to heaven. Therefore, God has no grandchildren.
But this is not exactly the Catholic view. Though we admit that no man is saved or lost purely on account of his family, we also insist that families strongly influence our decision for or against God. The family is the soil within which the spiritual life takes root. In other words, we can help each other get to heaven.
We see this most clearly in the example of the Holy Family. When God was setting the stage for the Incarnation, he did not simply begin with Christ, who descended ready-made and full-grown. Instead, God began a generation back. He prepared Mary and Joseph to be Christ’s parents, so that they could play their role in awakening and forming Christ’s religious personality. God prepared Mary by preserving her from sin, and He prepared Joseph by visiting him in dreams, equipping him to protect his family from all harm—physical and spiritual. The influence went in the other direction as well: Mary and Joseph were sanctified by the grace of their Son, and through the “surprise” of Christ they were given a chance to surrender their own designs and to respond heroically to God’s call. The Holy Family was above all a sharing of spiritual goods.
But the same thing can be said of every Catholic family. Take, for instance, the parent-child relationship, one of the deepest-going relationships in human experience.
The spiritual influence of the parent is nowhere more evident than in the sacrament of baptism. Our Baptist brothers and sisters do not baptize until the child can make an adult decision for Christ: God has no grandchildren. But Catholics usually baptize their children as infants. Though a baby doesn’t yet have the mental capacity to make the act of faith for himself, the parents’ act of faith “stands in” for the child’s. The child is “carried” by his parents, not only physically, not only mentally, but spiritually. And it is on the strength of the parents’ faith that eternal life is born in their child. We all start out, in a certain sense, as God’s grandchildren.
Infancy is admittedly an extreme case. As children grow older, of course, they gain more and more spiritual independence. The mystery of freedom becomes apparent: even parents who “do everything right” cannot guarantee that their children will follow. But even older children remain deeply marked—and considerably assisted—by the faith of the family. This is true in the obvious ways: the religious example of the parents, the family’s participation in Mass and the other sacraments. It’s no less true when, as the letter to the Colossians reminds us, we refrain from “provoking” each other “to anger,” when we bear with another’s faults patiently, when we forgive. And family members are often the hardest to forgive…
The spiritual influence of parents continues all the way to the end of their lives. One example: the mother of one of my best friends from college passed away on Christmas Eve. She was as a devout woman and she died a very holy death. Among the last deeds that my friend observed of his mother was her surrender to God and her reception of communion. My friend related to me the way that this has affected him. After she died, heaven ceased to be just a theological “place”; it became a home, a home that he now yearns for. And now, when he goes to communion, he goes not just to meet Christ, but to meet his mother as well. A deepening and intensification of faith came about for my friend through the holy life and death of his mother, and this in a way he could never have accomplished on his own. Even as a grown man, he remains a spiritual grandchild.
As we ourselves approach holy communion, then, let us be mindful of grace working in both directions. We go to the Eucharist to draw the strength to be holy families. But, in an ideal situation, we return to our families to increase our hunger for that same Eucharist, and for the eternal of which it is a pledge.
May it be so in our families.