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The Christian Family: Parents For Eternal Life

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The family as a group of persons of common ancestry began with the human race. But if we are to understand the meaning of the Christian family, we should know something of the family in pre-Christian times. The reason is that Christ elevated the family to a dignity and stability that simply did not exist before He came into the world.

We can say that the prevailing form of the family before Christ was monogamy, with one man and one woman together with their children. But this must immediately be qualified. Many of the peoples practiced polygamy, especially those of Semite origin. It was therefore more common in the Near East, and less common among the people of India, the Greeks or the Romans. However, even among those nations which practiced polygamy, it was generally restricted to a minority of the population, nobles and the rich. On the other hand, divorce with the right to remarriage was practically universal among all pre-Christian people.

The Roman Empire in the first century of the Christian era is typical. Husband and wife could separate almost at will. One result was widespread instability.

In all the nations and not only among the Romans, the position of women was very low. Among barbarians, a woman became a wife through capture or by purchase. Among the most civilized, like the Greeks and Romans, the wife was generally considered the husband’s property, in fact, his slave laborer. The husband was nowhere bound by the same law of marital fidelity as the wife. Moreover, he was seldom bound to give her equal rights in the matter of divorce. Abortion and infanticide were practically universal. Roman law gave the father the right of life and death over even his grown-up children.

These facts of history need to be kept in mind as we begin to look at the origin of the Christian family.

When God became man in the person of Christ, He literally changed the course of human civilization. Among the changes He introduced, none was more radical than what He did to marriage and the family. The standing miracle of religious history is that Christ’s teaching on marriage and the family was accepted by so many peoples. For two thousand years it has remained a miracle of grace among those who believe in the power of His name.

Marriage Becomes a Sacrament

The most fundamental change which Christ introduced into the family was to raise marriage to the level of a sacrament.

When two baptized people marry, they receive the sacrament of matrimony. This means that their marriage is no longer merely a contract between themselves. It becomes a sacred covenant which they make with Christ and He with them. He becomes a partner in their marital relationship. He assures them the lifetime assistance of His divine grace, and through them to their offspring. He provides them, as husband and wife, and as father and mother, with all the light they need for their minds and all the strength for their wills to live up to the naturally impossible expectations He has of His married followers.

What are we saying when we say that Christ elevated marriage to the dignity of a sacrament? We are saying that the marriage of Christians has certain qualities which two millennia of the Church’s history have shown to be attainable through the merits of Jesus Christ. These qualities are stability and unity, equality and the practice of selfless charity, and a sanctity that prepares husband, wife and children for a blessed eternity.

Parents as Primary Educators: Parents for Eternal Life

What do we mean when we say that parents are the primary educators of their children? We mean everything.

  • We mean that parents begin to teach their children from the moment these children are conceived and born.

  • We mean that parents teach their children during the children’s infancy and childhood.

  • We mean that parents are the first and most important and indispensable teachers of their children.

  • We mean that unless the children are taught by the parents, the children will be getting only a substitute education.

All of this we mean when we say that parents are the primary educators. But we mean much more. After all, there is a primacy in what the children are taught.

  • They can be taught how to read and write.

  • They can be taught how to walk and to talk.

  • They can be taught how to eat and drink and take care of their things.

  • They can be taught arithmetic and spelling and history and geography.

All of these things they can be taught and should be taught. But what they mainly need is to know why God made them; why they are on earth at all; why they are in this world; that they are here in this life in order to prepare and train themselves for the world to come. In a word, children are to be taught that their short stay here in time is only a preparation for the world that will never end. They are to be trained for heaven.

That is why the subtitle of my talk to you is, “Parents for Eternal Life.”

Having said this, we are now in a position to get into the principal message I wish to share with you. It can be stated in a single declarative, or shall I say imperative statement: “Under God, parents are the first in time, first in authority, first in responsibility, first in ability, and first in dignity to educate their children for eternal life.”

Parents as Primary Educators

Even a generation ago, most people assumed that parents are the primary educators. Certainly over the centuries the primacy of parents as educators of their children was taken for granted. But then a number of things occurred which has put parents on the defensive as the main teachers of their children.

  • In one country after another, the State came to monopolize education from pre-school kindergarten through childhood and adolescence and young adulthood. In materially affluent societies like the United States, compulsory education by agencies controlled by the State became the law of the land.

  • Those in control of the government began to dictate what should be taught to the children, who should do the teaching, how the teachers are themselves to be trained. And unless the teachers were approved by the government, they were forbidden to teach.

But that was not all. Teachers associations were formed, notably in our country the NEA, the National Education Association, which has become dictators in the education of our children. These associations are supported by political power, which makes parents second citizens. Either parents conform to this dictatorship or they are forbidden to teach their children.

The phenomenon of day-care centers that have spawned throughout America is only a symptom of this State dictatorship in the education of children from their tenderest years in infancy.

But this is only the tip of the iceberg. For over two centuries in our country, dedicated and consecrated men and women--priests, religious and the laity--operated our Catholic school systems. It became the envy of other nations. I remember a bishop friend of mine telling me about his audience with Pope Paul VI in Rome. The Holy Father asked the bishop, “what has happened to your thousands of Sisters in America who have been doing such wonderful work in Catholic schools teaching tens of thousands of children their faith and preparing them for a good moral life here on earth and for heaven in eternity?” At this point, the bishop told me, the pope broke down in tears; he wept over the breakdown of so many once-flourishing teaching orders of men and women who sustained what had been a Catholic, Catholic school system in the United States.

We go on. We are asking ourselves what happened. What is it that now, more than ever before in the history of our country, makes it absolutely necessary, under God, for parents to realize that they are the primary teachers of their children?

What has happened? Beyond all that we have so far said, in nominally Catholic circles, there has grown an avalanche of ideas that are contrary to the teachings of Christ and His Church.

We now have professed Catholics in positions of great influence who are teaching that:

  • Christ was a human person like the rest of us, subject to the same passions as we. When the movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ” was to be released, I spoke by telephone to the producer in Hollywood. I pleaded with him not to release this blasphemous film. He told me the film was produced under the guidance of a priest-theologian, whom I know personally. He was one of the leading “dissenters” from the Church’s teaching authority.

  • Catholics are now being taught that the Pope is not the supreme teacher of faith and morals in the Catholic Church. Bishops either individually or in their national conferences have the right to reinterpret papal teaching. They did this in 1968 when the same Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, in which he declared that contraception is a grave sin against God.

  • Catholics are now being taught that homosexuality is a natural inclination that some people have. Therefore, we are to recognize that sodomy is normal for some people. Homosexuals, actively practicing sodomy are provided with parishes and pastoral care--under the guise of Dignity, in open defiance to Catholic morality as taught since the dawn of Christianity.

Parents for Eternal Life

So the litany of secularism goes on. Its most principal target is our children.

This then brings us face to face with the gravest duty of believing Catholic parents. They must be convinced that their primary responsibility as parents is to prepare the children that God gave them—for eternal life.

Yes, parents are the primary teachers of their children in all that pertains to the children’s lives here on earth. But that is not all. That is not primary!

What is primary? The parents’ most fundamental duty is to prepare their children for eternity.

Parents must, and the word is must teach their children from birth on that

  • God created us to know, love and serve Him in this life in order that our souls may reach heaven.

  • Parents must teach their children that everything in this life is to be only a means of leading us to our heavenly destiny.

  • Parents must teach their children that while everything in this life is intended by God to lead us to heaven, not everything is to be used in the same way

    • Some of the persons, places and things in our life are to be enjoyed,

    • Other persons, places and things are to be endured,

    • Other persons, places and things are to be removed. Why? Because they lead us to sin.

    • Finally, there are persons, places and things that God asks us to surrender. It is an invitation from God to sacrifice what we like in order to express our greater love of God.

  • Parents must teach their children that they have a fallen—I like the term “falling”—human nature. We are not naturally prone to do what God wants but what we want.

  • Parents must teach their children that if they are going to cope with their natural tendencies to pride and lust and anger and envy and greed, and avarice and gluttony--they need the constant help of God’s grace.

  • Parents must teach their children that to obtain the necessary light and grace to know God’s will and the necessary strength to do it, they need to pray and receive the sacraments.

All of this is locked up in the simple statement that parents are parents for eternal life. God gives them children in this world, but not for this world.

Parents, in God’s plan, are to conceive and give birth to, and nourish and educate their children for life after bodily death. After all, the only purpose that God has in having parents here on earth is that they might raise families for everlasting life in heaven.

As Christ made so plain, after the last day there will be no more giving in marriage after the last day of what we call this world. Why not? Because the quota of those who are destined for eternal happiness will be complete.

Parents must always keep this vision clearly in their minds. We are fathers and mothers of children for heaven. Our one hope is to be reunited in heaven with our families, our children and grandchildren and great, great grandchildren, in the everlasting City of Jerusalem which is our heavenly home.

How are Parents to Become Primary Educators

Needless to say, the vision we are describing can remain just that: a vision. It can be an ideal or even a dream. But God wants it to be a reality. This, I am convinced, is the providential reason that God has allowed so many forces of error and evil to plague the modern world, and with emphasis, our own American society.

Where sin abounds, St. Paul tells us, there grace even more abounds. In His providence, God wants to wake parents up from their lethargy. He wants them to open the eyes of their souls and see what is going on. He wants them to come out of their dream that so many parents are still sleeping in and arouse them to the gravest, and I means gravest duty they have before God. What is that? To pay whatever price they have to in order to educate their children for eternal life.

Of course this will not be easy. Of course, parents with this faith vision will be criticized, even ostracized. Of course, parents will have to give up many things that the modern world has provided in such profusion for their own and their families enjoyment here on earth.

But the price is worth it. When Christ told us, “Take up your Cross daily and follow me,” He was speaking not only to individuals in general, but especially to parents.

To be the primary educators of their children for eternal life is not easy for parents. It never has been since the dawn of Christianity. But in today’s world, intoxicated with its own pride, addicted to its own pleasures, indoctrinated in its own idea—that only temporal life exists and eternal life is a mirage—to become parents of eternal life demands heroism.

Only heroic parents can be parents for eternal life. But let us not be afraid. Christ told us, “Have confidence, I have overcome the world.” So can we parents, provided we believe that the Son of Mary is the Son of the Eternal God; provided we trust that His promises to us will certainly be fulfilled; and provided we love God so much that no sacrifice is too great to bring ourselves, our families with us, to that everlasting home for which we were made.


Lord Jesus, Mary, Mother of the Holy Family, obtain for all Catholic parents the grace to raise their children for a heavenly eternity. Teach us parents to do everything which your Divine Son tells us to do. If we do, we shall be reunited not only as families. We shall join the Holy Family of the Most Holy Trinity.

Make us parents courageous and firm and clear: that we are the primary teachers of our children to prepare them for that final graduation on the first day of a heavenly eternity. Amen.

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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