Teaching the Faith in the Family: Guidelines from St. Josemaria Escriva
By Dr. Michele Dolz
Romana – Bulletin of the Prelature of the Holy Cross and Opus Dei
Issue 32, January-June 2011
“The parents’ mission to educate their children in the faith stems from the sacraments. When they teach the faith at home, it is the Church that is teaching. Their home is the domestic Church. Besides being a duty, it is a right…”
Parents have the primary responsibility for the education of their own children. This is a recurrent teaching in the Church’s magisterium from Divini Illius Magistri of Pope Pius XI in 1929 to the documents of Pope John Paul II. The Second Vatican Council summarizes this teaching: “As it is the parents who have given life to their children, on them lies the gravest obligation of educating their family. They must therefore be recognized as being primarily and principally responsible for their education. The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute. It is therefore the duty of parents to create a family atmosphere inspired by love and devotion to God and their fellow-men which will promote an integrated, personal and social education of their children.”
I would like to consider here some of St. Josemaria Escriva’s insights into this truth, which he placed in the context of the baptismal call to holiness and apostolate. Hopefully this brief consideration of a few key texts will serve to show the richness of his teaching on this topic and give rise to further studies.
The Family in God’s Plans
Among the ancient people of Israel, the family was the firm foundation stone of society. For the Semitic peoples families took precedence over the individual, and were united in turn into clans and tribes, which accentuated the role of tradition and contributed towards stability and continuity in society. The patriarchal family was further reinforced among the chosen people by their determination to be faithful to Yahweh: “Fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life…These words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”
A Jewish father under the Old Covenant felt a moral duty to transmit to his children the deposit of faith that God had entrusted to him. This obligation gave meaning to his mission as head of the family and was essential for the family’s prosperity and happiness. Hence the intimate link between its members: “we are your bone and flesh.” This close union led at times to paradoxical results, such as the punishment of an entire family for the fault of the father.
The Hebrew family is “the father’s house” and God is “the God of our fathers.” The mission of the father has religious features. The father carries out an almost priestly role. The family is not only a social unit but also a religious group. Festivals and holy days are celebrated within the household with a truly liturgical spirit. Thus the religion of Yahweh, from a social point of view, is centered not on preachers and charismatic figures, nor even specifically on a priestly caste, but rather on the family unit. And although Israel never lacked prophets and leaders of the people, religion was transmitted through the family.
The New Testament shows us how this ancient model was initially replaced by the new faith in Jesus Christ. Entire families were converted through the father’s conversion. After the cure of his son, the official from Capharnaum “believed, and all his household.” The jailer of Paul and Silas, and the head of the synagogue at Corinth, Crispus, are other examples.
With the expansion of Christianity throughout the empire, the patriarchal Hebrew family soon ceased to be the only model. But the sense of responsibility of parents to transmit the faith in the family did not disappear. The literature on this topic is very abundant. St. Josemaria always had a great interest in reading about the first Christians, not only because of the immediacy and freshness of the narratives, but also because of the high aspirations to holiness found there.
“There is perhaps no better model for a Christian couple than that of the Christian families of apostolic times: the centurion Cornelius, who obeyed the will of God and in whose home the Church was made accessible to the gentiles; Aquila and Priscilla, who spread Christianity in Corinth and Ephesus, and who cooperated in the apostolate of Saint Paul; Tabitha, who out of charity attended to the needs of the Christians in Joppa. And so many other homes and families of Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Romans in which the preaching of our Lord’s first disciples began to bear fruit.
“Families who lived in union with Christ and who made him known to others. Small Christian communities which were centers for the spreading of the Gospel and its message. Families no different from other families of those times, but living with a new spirit, which spread to all those who were in contact with them. This is what the first Christians were, and this is what we have to be.”
St. Josemaria’s admiration for the first Christians and his tireless reference to their example does not, of course, detract in any way from recognizing all the fruits of sanctity that the Church has produced throughout the two thousand years of her history, a sanctity often “cultivated” within Christian families. But the first Christian generations give very clear witness to three important truths:
a) the goal to which they aspired was holiness, understood as a full identification with Christ;
b) the mission of Christianizing society and culture (which means bringing people one by one to Christ) was the task of each Christian in his or her own environment, beginning with the family;
c) all of this has its origin in baptism, that is to say, in the very fact of being a Christian, and not in particular mandates from the hierarchy or added acts of consecration.
St. Josemaria always taught, not without some initial incomprehension, that marriage is a divine vocation and that its greatness, its obligations, and its efficacy are rooted in the sacrament itself.
“The purpose of marriage is to help married people sanctify themselves and others. For this they receive a special grace in the sacrament which Jesus Christ instituted. Those called to the married state will, with the grace of God, find within their state everything they need to be holy, to identify themselves each day more with Jesus Christ, and to lead those with whom they live to God.
“We must strive so that these cells of Christianity may be born and may develop with a desire for holiness, conscious of the fact that the Sacrament of Initiation—Baptism—confers on all Christians a divine mission that each must fulfill in his own walk of life. Christian couples should be aware that they are called to sanctify themselves and to sanctify others, that they are called to be apostles and that their first apostolate is in the home. They should understand that founding a family, educating their children, and exercising a Christian influence in society are supernatural tasks. The effectiveness and the success of their life—their happiness—depends to a great extent on their awareness of their specific mission.”
The parents’ mission to educate their children in the faith stems from the sacraments. When they teach the faith at home, it is the Church that is teaching. Their home is the domestic Church. Besides being a duty, it is a right, as the Code of Canon Law clearly recognizes.
“Experience shows in all Christian environments what good effects come from this natural and supernatural introduction to the life of piety given in the warmth of the home. Children learn to place God first and foremost in their affections. They learn to see God as their Father and Mary as their Mother and they learn to pray following their parents’ example. In this way one can easily see what a wonderful apostolate parents have and how it is their duty to live a fully Christian life of prayer, so they can communicate their love of God to their children, which is something more than just teaching them.”
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