Thank you for your kind invitation to speak today, and to all that helped put this conference together. I am extremely honored to be asked. When I was initially contacted about speaking, I asked the topic, and was told: faith. My first reaction was: that’s really broad. Anything in particular about faith that you think would fit with the program? So the suggestion was spirituality, an important component of faith. I will try to address this with what I hope is an intersection of both what I’ve recently been thinking and reading about and the many important ministries that I know every one of you is active with in your home parishes.
I am a blessed man. I tell this to anyone who asks. I’ve told it to the people at my parish many times. I have lived a very blessed life, by which I mean that I have received many unmerited benefits throughout my life. I was born in the richest nation that the world has ever known, I was born to middle-class parents who loved me and provided for all of my needs. I was given several intellectual talents, including analytical reasoning skills and the ability to break down problems to understandable pictures for people – a skill I use as an electrical engineer and also try to bring to my homilies. I met and married a wonderful woman who complements me in so many ways, and we’ve had a son, now thirteen, who is healthy and thriving. By blessed, I also mean that I’ve also avoided many burdens that cause problems in life. I’ve avoided any major health problem so far. I’ve been in the Navy but did so at a time where there was no active war. The companies I have worked for have been successful and not had to lay anyone off. You get the idea. It certainly hasn’t been completely without problems. I am truly blessed, and the first thing I think about when I sit down after communion at Mass is a thank you to the Lord for all of his blessings. It is why I became a deacon – a sense that I need to give back to my God and my neighbors in appreciation of those blessings.
A recent blessing that my family and I received is a trip that our family made to Italy last year. We joined a pilgrimage of people from our diocese to various holy sites throughout Italy, and I was able to serve Mass at many of the great churches along with Father Fabio who was with our pilgrimage – tonight’s Mass will be a reunion of a sort. The pilgrimage was originally built around going to some cities – Milan, Padua, Assisi, Florence, and Turin – but the main stop was in Rome, and the tour would be in that city while the 2022 World Meeting of Families was taking place. We were all hoping to attend the Festival of the Families, a large celebration which usually takes place at the end of the meeting in a large stadium to accommodate many people. Originally, since this meeting is held every three years, it was supposed to occur in 2021, but because of the pandemic had been postponed to 2022. And then we found out that due to lingering concerns over Covid, the meeting as well as the festival would be limited to official delegates only and not open to the public. So our pilgrimage group would only be able to participate in the final Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
But like I said, I’m a blessed man. We learned through Kathy Smudgge with the Diocese of Charleston’s Office of Family Life that there were some cancellations on the US delegation, and if we wanted, we could join the US delegation at all of the events. Well, we jumped at the chance, and it was a wonderful experience for all three of us. I say this even though my wife got Covid and missed the last two days of the meeting. Like I said, I’m blessed – my son and I had Covid only a few months prior to the trip and therefore we were not going to spread it, so we were able to continue to attend. We saw the Holy Father three times – once at his general audience open to all in St. Peter’s Square, once at the Festival of the Family on the opening night in the Papal Audience Hall, and again at the closing Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
I’m not trying to turn this into a third-grade essay on how I spent my summer vacation. I told this story as a prelude to discussing where the theme of this conference – faith – meets the theme of the meeting in Rome – the family. We had, over the four days of the meeting, many fantastic examples of how faith is indispensable to a healthy family life – the domestic church – and how our Church can nurture this. Church and faith are a chicken-and-egg phenomenon – faith leads to greater involvement in a holy life in the literal church as well as the domestic church, but then that holy life feeds back and strengthens one’s faith. Just as the theme of faith was chosen as the topic for this conference, your first after the stress and disruption caused by the pandemic, so too faith is there to help out with all sorts of problems from various couples and families. There were many presentations to the delegates – too many to list all with any justice to what they were advocating – so I’ll just mention several that I think most align with your chosen topic of faith.
Two couples, both from Africa – a Black couple from the Congo and a White couple from South Africa – shared their story of dealing with the same problem – infidelity. Now I was impressed that these couples had so much faith that they were not only to be able to reconcile and move past this issue that in most couples spells the end of the marriage, but how much more faith did it take to stand up in front of thousands of people, both there in the Papal Audience Hall, as well as those watching through streaming service, and talk about it? The couple from the Congo did so in front of the Holy Father. How amazing. Both couples discussed how the church was able to help them through the pain and eventually reconcile. Of course it is not just a matter of forgiveness – a forgiveness we must give if we are to truly be a Christian – but also a matter of support for the couple so that there is not a recurrence of the problem. The Church can be a support network for both of these essential steps. The covenant that is Christian marriage is based on mutual trust, a true trust that underlies true faith. Trust in God, trust in your spouse, trust in your family, trust in your friends. When that trust is broken, it is hard to get back but not impossible. We as people of faith must help those around us regain their faith when life gives those around us curveballs.
Another woman, this time from Canada, told a heart-breaking story about her abandonment by her husband, a man whom she still loved. She discussed her terrible struggle with her loss. During the meeting, all presentations were given by both spouses sharing turns speaking, but in this case, the woman's pastor, a priest from her native Quebec, Canada, helped her to speak about the road she took in dealing with this issue and then branching out and building a support group for families that have experienced divorce. This not only keeps the families within the Church but returns a feeling of joy to the families because of a sense of healing and renewal. I know that at our parish a grief support group that was tried as a short-term trial of several month, but has continued now for several years, with the people within the group wanting to continue it. This group is not just for divorcees, but those grieving for any reason, but it proves that there seems to be a great need for this kind of thing out there.
I’ll share one more couple’s story. I wish they had given what news organizations have started doing and warned us that something very emotionally heavy was coming. It was a gut-wrenching tale of true faith in a moment of aversity. On the first of February 2020, a family from Sydney, Australia, much like any here in South Carolina – thirtyish parents with six children – let their kids walk down the block to get some ice cream at a store near their home. [ https://www.dow.org.au/australian-familys-story-of-loss-and-radical-forg... ] A drunk driver drove his car off the road and over the sidewalk, killing three of their children and their niece. The Abdulla family told us that despite the pain they went through, they still had faith in God, enough to forgive the killer of their family members. In the words of the father Daniel, “I chose to forgive myself for telling my kids to go for a walk. I chose to forgive the offender in obedience to my Father in heaven. If my children were here today, they would say, 'Dad, forgive him.’” [ https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2022-06/wmof-daniel-laila-holi... ] The mother Leila said something similar: “My message would be everyone has a cross to carry. We can't choose what will happen to us in life, but we can choose how to respond. Respond with a smile! Offer it up to Jesus! Trust in God's will” [ibid]. What was remarkable is that they didn't come around to this attitude over time. The wife told the TV news reporters right after the incident that she had to forgive whoever did this, even before knowing who that was. The delegates gave them a standing ovation at the end of their talk, because I think we all recognize the kind of faith in the Abdullas that Christ talks about in the Gospels and recognize it as an all-too-rare thing, even in ourselves.
These are just a sampling of the problems facing families and some of the possible solutions that were discussed during the four days of the meeting. There were many others, some of which are real problems facing our Church writ large but fortunately are not facing us here, at least most of us, such as a family from Ukraine facing daily dangers of missile strikes as well as men from the immediate and extended families fighting in a brutal and unnecessary war, or one woman whose husband, a journalist, was killed by extremists that didn’t agree with his reporting. But most of us do not face these horrific threats, but instead have less dramatic but no less real issues that we face in our families every day, and the five conferences with their ten panel discussions covered many of these issues, such as addictions, social media threats, adoptions, family planning, and the like. And you can guess that many of the solutions for these problems fall under the general heading of spirituality, the topic under the general faith theme I was given to speak on today.
Before I discuss this topic, I’d like first to define what spirituality is. I think if I asked ten random people here today what it is, I’d get ten different, and sometimes very different, answers. I will use a simple definition: it is the way that one approaches God. For a Christian, we must add to that definition: spirituality is the way that one approaches God and how one lives out the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is a large subject, one that we spent a semester discussing in our diaconate formation, and only then scratched the surface. In the Catholic Church, there are both a public and a private component to this. The Mass and the sacraments are the most visible of the public forms, with fairly rigid rules on how they are to be performed – as a deacon, I cannot pick-and-choose what I want to say at a baptism but should follow the rite as written. Private prayer and contemplation, on the other hand, has a wide variety of forms and we are fortunate to have a Church that has a great many rich traditions that appeal to people of all personalities, whether introvert or extrovert, structured or free-wheeling, intellectual or simple, boisterous or quietly reverent, or whatever style you might prefer.
So too, the solutions involving spirituality that will work to help families in different situations will vary quite substantially between families and even within a family between various members and different generations of that family. But there was a general consensus at the World Meeting of Families around the idea that the Church can and should play an important role in supporting families. And supporting their spirituality will help them to frame and deal with those messy times that come up in the life of everyone. Families can be holy. The Church should be lived within the family – hence the name we give the family: the domestic church. Here are some of the ways that various speakers suggested to the Church members present. I should mention too that almost none of the speakers were clergy. They were mostly married couples that were speaking from the heart about what they themselves practiced within their own family, and often they started programs within their diocese to share these things with others.
One group suggested that a way to live out the Church in one’s family is to think about there being liturgies within the domestic church. The end goal of our worship, both in the physical church and in the domestic church, is to share in the trinitarian love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is no better place than the family to demonstrate this love, and all aspects of family life are part of this. We should set aside time as a family for work, play, talk, and prayer. The Mass liturgy or the Holy Hour liturgy is how we worship as a faith community; one can look on how a family does its various activities – not just prayer – as a liturgy with basic norms and forms that the members know and honor. This liturgy will be different for every family.
Another group started their presentation by quoting Pope Francis, when he encouraged all parents to be more available to their children, to make sure that they could “waste time with them,” by which he meant spending unstructured time without a set objective other than to just be with each other. Work, both occupational as well as all the tasks necessary to maintain the home, should be at the service of the family, and not come before the family. By spending time with each other, we witness to them the Gospel and the values that we believe in, and we also witness this to other families that we encounter. Another group, for similar reasons, discussed the need to spend time with the older family members, who also need social interaction that they no longer experience after retirement and infirmities keep them increasingly homebound. Both children and the elderly long for a connectedness that those who live out a Christian life are compelled to provide. Service to others, and spending time just being with others is a great service to them, is a part of anyone’s spirituality, and – going back to my definition – how one approaches God is mirrored in how one approaches others, and particularly those that are most vulnerable.
Several presenters talked about marriage preparation. You know, for one of the most important decisions we make in our lives, and one of the most important roles we play as both spouse and parent, we get almost no training on how to do this by our society. It is easier to get a driver’s license than it is a marriage license. Would we turn over a major surgery to one that did not get extensive training and experience as well as testing to ensure that it was mastered? Would we enter a building designed by someone not trained in engineering? How about a vacation trip on a plane where the pilot has never flown but is pretty good at operating bulldozers? Of course not, but yet how often do young couples enter marriage without guidance? Our Church rightfully requires a pre-marriage preparation, but how good is that at preparing for this most difficult role?
Now this is a complicated topic, so let me restrict myself to the spiritual dimension. I think that marriage preparation, like the preparation we do for RCIA candidates and for religious education of our younger members, has an important spiritual component to it. We should prepare our soon-to-be married couples for this sacrament with the same goal in mind that we prepare a preteen for First Communion or Confirmation. That is to say, all these sacraments devolve to some sort of magic act or religious symbology unless the people receiving the sacrament, receiving the graces that God wants to bestow on us, cooperate with those graces. They are all a means of growing closer to God, closer to our neighbor, and ultimately closer to our own God-given soul, but only if we accept it with intent. To do so, we must understand it, and it is the duty of all mature Christians to continue to develop a more full and complete understanding, and then to do our part to communicate it to the next generation. We do this mostly and primarily through our actions in our day-to-day lives, but we must also do so through actively participating in the activities of our Church.
This is just a sample of the various topics that were discussed, pulled from my notes. EWTN broadcast all of the presentations, and they are available online if any of these topics interest you or a ministry that you are involved with. Let me add one bit of final advice: find what works for your family. Last weekend, at our retreat for deacons across the Diocese of Charleston, many of the questions that came up in our discussion session with Bishop Jacque were not about what the bishop was going to do in the diocese but what could we do to help the young people, including the children and grandchildren of deacons who have left the Church, return to God and the Church. This of course is a vexing problem with no easy answers, and the problem is affecting all religions, Christian and non-Christian. One of the ways that the bishop mentioned was to talk about what faith means to you and how it brings joy into your life, and not just talk about that joy but demonstrate by your life that it is real. You cannot not push faith or spirituality on other people. But people will gravitate towards activities that they see are worthwhile, that brings them value, and you can demonstrate this to them. This is where the wide variety of spiritual practices within the Catholic Church is a blessing. I don’t mean to offend anyone here, but I’m going to say it anyway: some people do not personally get closer to God by saying rosaries. Many people do, and for reasons that aren’t just Catholic. Prayer beads are used by many religions, including Buddhists, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and others. The repetition of prayers, chants, and mantras brings some people closer to God, which is a good thing. But for some it does not – they would prefer other ways to getting closer to God – for instance, quiet contemplation, reading Scripture, listening to podcasts, or singing. If we know of someone that does not have a deep spiritual life, may I suggest that we could encourage them to explore avenues that they would be open to, and further suggest that sometimes a daily rosary may not be the best suggestion? Some that have left the Church remember it just as rosaries and boring Masses. Let me and our priests and other deacons work at the boring Mass problem, but please be open to finding what works in the lives of others, and of course being a joyful example of what it means to be closer to God.
Finally, let me speak on synodality. As you know, the Church is conducting a synod that started last year, where she is soliciting input from all levels of the Church, from the laity to the bishops. The first three levels are complete: the parish level, the diocese level, and the national conference level. You can go onto the Diocese of Charleston’s and the US Conference of Catholic Bishop’s websites to read the report of what input they received and have forwarded to the Vatican. Pope Francis has made it clear that he wants to hear from everyone in the Church, and while any final determinations of this synod, like all synods, will come down to the bishops acting as a collective body, it must be informed by the needs expressed by all. The family, like the Church, has a hierarchy, but those in charge of the family, like those in charge of our Church, must also cultivate a culture of listening, of synodality to use that new phrase that we are all learning. It is always up to the parents, at the end of the day, to make the important decisions, but those decisions are always informed by the needs and the desires of the whole family.
I said that I am blessed, and I am. I’m equally sure that many of you are blessed. I suspect that is why you are here today, why you are active in your church. Most of you have great faith in many things, including in the role that our Church plays in the life of our world. I thank you for your willingness to be disciples in the truest sense of the word. You are not passive consumers of religious services, coming only to get something from church and dropping a few dollars in the basket as payment for services rendered. No, you are active producers of the joy of the Church, enriching people’s lives by your service to it. May God bless you all a thousand-fold over for all that you do.