Pope Francis is keenly aware that the state of the family is in need of attention. One of his first major initiatives was to call a worldwide Synod of Bishops on the Family. The growing rates of divorce, separation and non-married co-habitation has set off alarm bells. Francis has said that marriage and family are in crisis.
“We now live in a culture of the temporary, in which more and more people are simply giving up on marriage as a public commitment,” he said. “This revolution in manners and morals has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.”
Pope Francis has indicated that dealing with family issues is not a choice but a responsibility.
There are many stresses and strains that afflict family life. Among them is the way secularism and individualism pervade the minds of parents and children. This has led to a lessening, and in some cases a total loss, of religious values in the home.
Let’s face it, the family unit is a shadow of what it used to be. Those raised prior to the Second Vatican Council experienced a marked stability in the ordering of family values. The household had a predictable rhythm in which everyone felt they were a contributing and important member. Obedience and parental respect, it seemed, were taken for granted. When infractions occurred they seemed less significant and manageable. Only the most serious of reasons would excuse attendance at Sunday Mass.
Family meals were regular and on time. Like homework, chores were done diligently. Bed times were routine. Many households practised the age-old wisdom that the family that prays together stays together. Though there were bumps there nonetheless existed a certain and predictable sense of continuity in family life.
And today? Do parents oversee their children’s evening activities any more? Are children still sent to bed with a snack and hot chocolate? Are stories of past family times still part of family formation? If not, what has replaced them?
Parents receive just one chance to shape their offspring. Families have never been perfect. The past has seen its share of broken families.
But today’s typical household faces serious stresses and strains. In households where both parents work, quality family time is often sacrificed. Fewer family meals contribute to the weakening of the family structure. The evening family meal, if it exists at all, is becoming a secular rather than a sacred family tradition.
Further interfering with a healthy balance in family life are the constant interruptions caused by electronics. These have led to depersonalized forms of companionship while contributing to the weakening of parent, child and sibling relationships. It is not uncommon for friends or even brothers and sisters sitting in the same room to communicate by texting one another rather than by normal conversation that might include non-texting parents or grandparents.
The fragmentation of the family unit is contributing to a spirit of individualism. Many children seem to be formed according to their own desires, which for them are often considered absolute. It’s a dynamic that interrupts the transmission of faith and values from parents to their children. This sense of independent thinking often leads to loneliness and, eventually, an estranged sense of the self.
It is unlikely that the pieces of the past can be fit back together. Nostalgia is certainly not the solution. But remaining mindful of how it used to be does no harm.
At the recently concluded Synod these and other issues occupied discussions. Those of us who wait with great anticipation to see where the bishops and Pope Francis will take us must hold them in prayer as the future unfolds.
(MacPherson, SA, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interfaith Affairs for the Archdiocese of Toronto.)