Our Lady: the family context

Our Lady: the family context

Bishop George Pell

Mary had no easy run through life because of her unique position in salvation history. From giving birth in a stable at Bethlehem, through her time as a refugee in exile in Egypt, to her stand at the foot of the cross where her son was dying, the Mother of God knew "obedience through suffering", far beyond what most of us are called to suffer.

Mary lived out her life as Mother of God, while achieving her unique status, not through a public career, but through her largely hidden life as wife and mother.

We know this, we understand its consequences, but it needs to be restated for those outside the Christian family and especially for the young people of today who are smothered by neo-pagan propaganda against children, against motherhood, and against the irreplaceable importance of family life and women in the family.

Christianity is not just for a spiritual élite. Our Lord told us that he came to call sinners. What is important is how we cope with our situations, however imperfect we might be; how we struggle with difficulty and expand upon our opportunities so that the love of God can flourish in our families.

Family love must be seen in the context of the new covenant between God and his people; as a beautiful and vital love, the basic constituent of our society, a domestic church; but a love nonetheless which is subordinate to the highest love, the obligation to love the one great God, that powerful invisible presence of love whose Son came to Eve among us through the unique mediation of his mother Mary.

From the time of the Annunciation Mary knew that God came first. She was troubled, "deeply disturbed" by the message of the angel. How could she conceive as she had no husband? But she consented to God's will: "I am the handmaid of the Lord, let what you have said be done to me."

She might have been hurt later in Our Lord's public life, when she and her cousins wanted to speak with him. Who are my mother, brother, sisters? "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice" (Lk 8:21).

What does this mean? What consequences follow from this perspective?

Love begins at home but should not stay there.

Natural loves, like family love, might be compared to a garden, which in a suitable environment will teem with God-given life. But a garden will not fence, weed or prune itself, and these activities need to be done properly for growth to occur.

Natural loves can be rivals to the required wider human loves (to the Christian ideal of universal love) and rivals to the required human love of God.

This perspective is not surprising in the Catholic tradition which still requires its priests, at least in the Latin rite, to be celibate; not as an expression of hostility to family life, but as a reminder that family love, however beautiful, is not the ultimate love. Our Lord himself expressed this (and more) with brutal and provocative simplicity: "If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple" (Lk 14:26).

In some ways Hebrew was a primitive language and the word "hate" here means to reject or set to one side, rather than an active and continuing malevolence. Our Lord is asking us, "What comes first?" He is telling us we cannot serve two masters; there are times when we have to choose, even though most of us spend most of our lives hedging our bets!

When God comes first, our "need-loves" will be transformed into "gift-loves". The possessive parent will allow the child to grow up and become independent, the selfish marriage partner will become more sensitive to the needs of the other partner, good parents will sacrifice themselves, without fuss or hesitation, for the good of their children.

We should not be surprised that the statistics on family life in Australia demonstrate the practical consequences of godliness in the home, of regular prayer, practical love and forgiveness, moral standards, the ideal of service; of struggling to live out the gospel message that the grain of wheat must die to produce a rich harvest.

In those much-quoted words of Father Peyton, the 1950s Rosary crusader from the U.S., "the family that prays together stays together."

In Australia today, both major political parties are nibbling at the prospect of some forms of financial support for married women who are forced to work for economic reasons, but would prefer to be at home. We have here an interesting possibility of freedom of choice. It is an idea whose time is coming and coming soon. One way of achieving this is through income-splitting for taxation purposes and The Australian (19.3.94) canvassed both sides of the argument.

One politician spelt out the case against income-splitting and I read it with considerable interest - and even more considerable disappointment! He wrote that "a person's occupation makes up a large part of his or her identity."

Home-makers don't seem to fit this category. The author's heart went out to those who are "only a housewife"; he knows "what she is going through." Home-makers for him, were not "part of the economic cycle", not "a member of the fraternity of workers."

Such instincts are unfortunately widespread, but they should not become general Christian convictions. Society in the future (as today) will continue to pay heavily for such a materialist and economic tunnel-vision, with unemployment, family break-down and neglected children.

Despite this sad trend, we know the pride that many good Christian parents still have in their children and the hard work, unselfish love, hurt and persistence (together with luck and the grace of God) which they know is necessary for a happy outcome for their families.

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