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The Holy Family

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

I thought as our closing lecture on the theme of the family or marriage should be on the Holy Family. By now I am sure we have heard and read so much about the Holy Family. But there is such a thing as concentrating on the meaning of the Holy Family and especially the inspiration that the Holy Family should give us in our day when there are so many families, as you know, that are a memory of the past.

And I begin with a strange statement. Never in the history of the Church has there been a greater need for a feast of the Holy Family. Question: when is the Feast of the Holy Family? Please? Well, this is, this is fascinating. Well, what if I leave that as an open question? In one country after another, the Christian family which came into existence in Nazareth and then in Bethlehem, is under trial even to the point of survival in the current secularism or secularization of society. How many of you have a copy of my small paperback, The Catholic Family in the Modern World? I will make sure we have a stockpile for the next class in February. And, by the way, since the coming of Christ the Catholic family is not just a poetic or rhetorical model but the pattern of what all family life in the world must be. With the coming of Christ polygamy was removed from human history. We better know that. And the breakdown of marriage and the right to remarry as the Jews, that too ceased with the coming of Christ. Two Hindus marry; clearly theirs is not a sacramental marriage. Is a marriage between two Hindus, first of all, a valid marriage? Emphatically! Is a Hindu marriage monogamous? Must, oh pardon me I can see the questions in your eyes, are defacto all marriages into which Hindus enter, are they monogamous? Of course not, but a Hindu marriage by the will of God is to be monogamous. Bahara he marries Bahara she, two Hindus. Are they allowed, hear this, by divine law, by divine law may two Hindus who have entered into a valid marriage, may they separate and remarry? No! Do you hear that? Or two Jews or two anything? We begin to begin to see the devastation of once Christian societies when you see countries like ours torn apart. Where divorce is a commonplace and remarriage is assumed. It took God to become man. It took the Holy Family on the graces that, of course, Jesus Christ being the primary agent of those graces, it took the Holy Family to provide all human families until the end of time the grace they need, whether Christian or not, to remain a family. Family life came into existence with the coming of Christ in a way that no one anywhere in recorded history had lived “family life” before the time of Christ.

When Christ came into the world about the only thing the Roman Empire had was the word familia from which our English word family is derived. We’ve covered some of this matter before but never in the, what I like to make it, a compendious sense here. The familia of the Roman Empire was a household established by the civil law. And then, by the way, is the family in a country like ours; it’s the State that determines, totally contrary to the will of God. In this family the paterfamilias as he was called, the father of the family, was a male and there was a woman under his dominion and the servants and slaves. The family as Christianity has noted until modern times came into existence with the advent of Christ. So the word advent that we are completing this week, and, by the way, is this the shortest or the longest advent you can have this year? The longest otherwise it fell on Sunday. What if Christmas Day were on Sunday? It would be what? Would it be one day longer? So not quite the longest, almost. This is the advent of the family. The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph has been the inspiration of two kinds of families ever since, and I want to say something about each: the domestic family and the religious family. And when I use the word inspiration I don’t mean just inspiration as you might get out of reading, say, Shakespeare. No, the Holy Family is the principal channel of the graces that all families have needed ever since. And we plan to ask ourselves these questions: Four, what was the Holy Family? Why did Christ come into the world as man as a member of the Holy Family? Third, what are the lessons of the Holy Family for domestic families in the modern world? And how this needs to be said, and what are the lessons of the Holy Family for religious families in our day?

What was the Holy Family? The Holy Family was composed of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as described in the Gospels. Mary was a consecrated virgin. Joseph too lived a virginal life with his espoused wife, Mary. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. They were brought up together. We may say they were brought up together by God or brought together under the inspiration of God who had planned this family from all eternity. To all appearances, among their contemporaries in Palestine, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were a normal family. Joseph as head of the Holy Family was considered the natural father of Jesus, and Mary was regarded as the natural mother of Jesus. And notice, all of this was planned by God. In reality objectively, objectively Jesus did not have – question: did Jesus have a natural father? Yes, He had a natural divine Father. Did Jesus have a natural mother? Well, we may say “natural mother” but not quite because not having a natural human father, Mary surely conceived and gave birth to her divine Son but she did so, to put it mildly, supernaturally. So we use the word natural Father for Christ only in the divine order, and we may speak of Mary as the natural mother of God or of Jesus though we don’t fully mean the words we use. In reality, Joseph was not the natural human father nor was Mary the natural human mother in the ordinary sense of the word because she conceived her divine Son in virginity. And, and here we could become, well, a class in theology and teach four semesters on marriage, three classes a week, fifteen weeks each semester. If there is one thing that every natural mother of her child should learn from Mary it is that she will be as effective in rearing that child in the love of God as she is living, and watch the language, a truly chaste life. Mary was a virgin but the essence of virginity is not the absence, I repeat, the essence of virginity is not the absence of carnal intercourse. Can a woman remain a virgin and have had, say, under coercion, intercourse? Yes. The essence of virginity is chastity. I hope you hear this again. I mark every word that I say. I think the greatest need in the world today is chaste mothers and wives. I wouldn’t dare say that to some audiences. I know, I know. Mary, then, conceived Christ virginally but the essence is she conceived him chastely. Chastity is the surrender of the reproductive powers to the will of God. And married people, husbands and, with emphasis, wives, dear God they must be chaste.

Yet, still on part one, Jesus, Mary and Joseph were a family, which raises the next question. Why did Christ come into the world as a member of the Holy Family? Or drop the word Holy, why become a member of a family? It could be anything else but a Holy Family if He was a member but why a family? Why, then, the Holy Family? When God came into the world as man He was born into a family in order to redeem not only human individuals but human families. Ah, again, every one of these sentences, I mean it, deserves at least an hour lecture. God as God we know is not an individual being. Say that again – God is not an individual being. God, God is a society. God is the society of three infinite individuals, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and, consequently, when we speak of God becoming man, sure, only one person, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became man but behind the incarnation were all three Persons. All three Persons are the cause, as we say, of the incarnation. That’s why Mother Mary, as you know, is given three names: as the daughter of God the Father, as the mother of God the Son, and as the spouse of God the Holy Spirit. God became man to redeem not just individuals but families, and the two go together. Individuals will be only as redeemed as the families are redeemed and vice-a-versa. The family of the human race needed redemption. With Christ’s coming, the family as we have known it for almost twenty centuries is a result of the Holy Family. As I use these words I put these notes together to make sure that the essentials at least I will not miss. But I say to myself, well, and I’m not guessing, I have taught by now some thousands of students, nearly over two thousand at Western Michigan; what a difference between the ears hearing something and the mind grasping it. What a difference! It is with the Holy Family that the redemption of the human family began.

We go on. The family will survive, notice I’m not merely saying the Christian family but the family, the family will survive and thrive and develop only where there is or there are still believers in the Holy Family. I think I’ve told you this story. Some years ago I got a letter from a missionary in Africa. He was writing for his bishop. They had been there, the missionaries, for some years and they found out that some time before the Christian or Catholic missionaries had come there had been some Protestant missionaries, some sect had gone through that territory and baptized everybody in sight. Well that raised some problems because, for baptized people, two baptized people once they marry they enter into a valid marriage. That marriage no power on earth can dissolve. I did tell you this didn’t I? So the bishop had to find out whether it was a valid, well, valid baptism because just about everybody was taken to the water and thousands of people were immersed and baptized. I had checked the practices of those people. The one baptizing was standing on the shore. All those to be baptized were immersed in water. No baptism. So the bishop thanked me, “Thanks, now we can go on.”

But, remember, and we said before, since the coming of Christ and the Holy Family, Christ’s law on monogamy, on the indissolubility of marriage contract, holds for the whole human race. Memorize that. Hear it. That’s the law of God. Does that hold for the Muslims too? It sure does! Does that hold for Elizabeth Taylor too? It sure does! In other words, in terms of divine grace, the grace we need as not only as individuals but as social beings and, with the deepest emphasis, as members of a family. The single most devastating consequence of the de-Christianization of once Christian society especially in Europe and the Americas has been the destruction of the family. And that is the word, destruction. The word is still in our vocabulary; the reality has gone except among those who still have enough faith to sustain them. And the first time, years ago, in a lecture that I gave when I use the word heroic I used it relative to the family. Only heroic family can survive. All others will be wiped out as families. Harlots, prostitutes, and for the men all the vocabulary that by now our media are providing. Divorce, cohabitation, adultery, fornication, homeless children, childless couples - I don’t mean you want children but you don’t want them - abortion, and sodomy are the natural fruits of paganization of what for millions had been stable, fruitful, and peaceful family life. And of course by now millions are the victims of that de-Christianization and not only the guilty people themselves. Am I clear? Adultery never stops with the adulterers. Never, never. Fornication never stopped with the fornicators. The consequences go on generation beyond generation. Indeed, as I am sure we’ve said, this is one reason that our faith tells us God will have a general judgment on the last day to reveal to the whole world both the blessings that have come from the practice of virtue and the tragedies, the evil consequence, of a single sin. Drop a pebble on a quiet sea and the waves scientifically go to the farthest shore, which may be 7,000 miles away. And we are now reaping the adultery, the fornication that broke loose in the western world in the sixteenth century. That’s why I tell people and I’ve told, I’m sure, you more than once you can spare yourself the trouble of reading the 54 volumes, in English, of Martin Luther. Don’t waste your time. It’s all summarized in one word, in the monosyllable, sex. That’s all the Protestant revolution was about. People who still wanted to call themselves followers of Christ, well, in plain Anglo Saxon wanted to have sex. So they found a monk who had sex problems, and he started a new religion: how thoughtful. And it has been that way ever since. When I lecture to my Protestant students at their seminaries – of course I don’t quite use this vocabulary – but I tell them, I tell them what I’m telling you. One reason why, for example, in Chicago while teaching in the Lutheran School of Theology, more than one of my students after finishing a course was not sure he wanted to remain either a Lutheran or be ordained a Protestant minister. I didn’t do a thing. All I told him was the truth.

The lessons of the Holy Family for domestic families. And I thought as much time as we’ve spent on marriage and family that we should say something, and that’s why I am doing what I am doing here, on both the domestic family and, what we call in the Church’s vocabulary, the religious family because, my friends, what is happening in the domestic family the disintegration has been going on, the corresponding disintegration of religious families. And in teaching as I do, teaching religious as I will be from tonight on leaving, Lord willing, for New Mexico to give a retreat at a monastery, and I’ll tell them as I have been telling religious for years: in your hands, in your lives rests the future of family life. You be faithful to your vows and then you will merit the graces that husband and wife and children need to sustain them in their lives. How many wives have told me, one in bitter, virulent anger, “You come live with me with my husband,” and then she used a choice name, “and this nun (so-and-so), final vows, vowed herself to Christ; look at her!” How married people need this not mere, I repeat, good example. This is grace. I tell people and have over the years, religious, one of the main reasons you take the vow of consecrated chastity not to marry and have a family of your own is that you might merit graces for those who have such trials in raising their own families. But you be faithful you sister so-and-so, you father so-and-so.

First, then, the lessons of the Holy Family for domestic families. The most powerful lesson is that of reality. Happy, united, fruitful, domestic families are not a mirage. They’re not even a mere ideal. They are, because they have been, a social reality. You read the textbooks that I do, one of my penances, the most difficult penance I have to practice is to read certain, for example, newspapers like The New York Times or certain magazines like Time and Newsweek or certain books like those by Hans Kung and Schillebeeckx; real mortification. I offer my reading of their books for their conversion. Do penance. You would think that, I repeat, happy, united, and fruitful families were some kind of starry ideal. And what the unbelieving world is trying to do to your families is exactly that - to reduce your family life to a starry ideal. Over the centuries, I’m sure I’ve said to you also, over the centuries one Pope after another has declared there is only one living wage as a definition: the wage that a husband and a father earns for the support of himself, his wife, and his family. The very word employment and unemployment has been totally reversed. Every time you read about unemployment in the newspapers remind yourself that’s a lie. Most of the laboring force in America is women. My God! And He answers, “Yes, I know.” Oh, the demonic genius behind the breakdown of the human family, and no longer now just in the western world but also in Asia. However, this world we are talking about must be re-Christianized and in another word, my synonym, re-evangelized.

I’ve taught theology since 1951. I can’t believe it and this is 1993, is it? Several hundred courses. Nine courses in Protestant theology alone, but never in my, gosh, going on half a century of teaching theology had it been so clear that either those that I teach believe or the future of our society, and I use the word deliberately, is doomed. There is no future for America except through re-Christianization, which means re-evangelization. And that re-Christianization and re-evangelization has got to be done, how sadly true this is, by those who are in name and in title and by profession Christians, and more sadly still, and even professed Catholics. We’ve got to be re-evangelized. And I’ve said this even, and I know there are a lot of our priests in the audience, I keep repeating my Vatican superiors have told me, I repeat, most of your priests in the United States ordained since Vatican II should be re-educated. Amen! If it is to be restored to accept and cherish family life because there is no family, the word is meaningless, except in terms of what God became man to both teach us and put into practice He Himself. And how much there is to learn, oh how much there is to learn for children from the child Jesus from infancy being obedient to Mary and Joseph. Oh, the model the children need, again, for many Catholics today it sounds like poetry, but it’s not. As you mothers and fathers know how self-willed a child of two can be. Mothers am I right? Can children of two-years-old be, can they tell you mothers, in effect, where to get off?

The one virtue which men and women today must recover if the family is to be restored is faith. And now, having said that, there are two lessons I want to leave with you and will pick up your generous supply of questions. Lesson one: what men and women need if they are even to become husbands and wives who are bound together in a lifetime marital union is faith. They cannot even get married. I’m saying more than you realize. Can two people go through all the ceremonies of marriage; and be free to marry; not marry? Is that possible? What must they believe in order to be married? That their union is what? Lifetime. Is that ever important! They don’t even get married. They must believe that God became man as a member of a family. They must believe that He will provide the graces they need to even have a family. They must believe that the human family is the result of selfless charity such as the virtue united the Holy Family. So there are two virtues. First faith, the Holy Family needed faith in only two members; in Mary and Joseph, not in Our Lord. But all three members of the Holy Family needed and, of course, had the virtue they needed to come together and remain together as a family, namely charity. And you married people have no illusion. The price you have to pay for selfless love of your spouse and your children in the modern world to even have a family, remain as a family, and survive.

And the second lesson, the Holy Family is also the model for religious families. In the last analysis what is it that brought the Holy Family together? It was their faith in God. In God’s mysterious providence the world was to be saved by Christ indeed but by Christ working through and communicating His graces through the spiritual families of zealous members of religious families. What are the two virtues that the Holy Family especially teaches religious families? They are loving charity, loving obedience; ah, the price you have to pay to maintain a religious family, obedience and loving confidence in the providence of God. In the measure that religious families are strong in their faith in the Holy Family and obey as Jesus obeyed Mary and Joseph. Religious families will not only survive they will grow and flourish. And I reassure them no matter who they will have as superior they’re will never, never be the disproportion between you and your superior as was between Jesus on the one hand and Mary and Joseph on the other. And yet you obey. My superior at Detroit University is my own former student. He is my superior and he won’t mind my saying this even if he sees the tape. Sure, he’s my superior because I owe him obedience and before I left this morning I signed out onto obedience. I left the telephone number where I can be reached while I am away from home. But, I must say, I know more theology than he does. But the essence of obedience is not objective superiority of the person whom you obey but the subject of recognition that the one I obey has authority from God to tell me what to do. And with that let’s tackle your questions.

Institute on Religious Life
Sacrament of Matrimony Series
Ann Arbor, Michigan, Fall 1993

Copyright © 1997 Inter Mirifica

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