19 March 2012

The original cell of social life

Solemnity of St. Joseph
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

If you ask a Catholic pastor how many members he has in his parish, he will say something like, “Oh, about 800 families.” Or 1,000 families, or 2,000 families. The number isn't as important here as the unit of measurement: families. Not individuals but families. Even if a household consists of one individual, it's counted as a family. This may seem odd until you read what the Catechism says about the family, “The family is the original cell of social life”(no. 2207). The most basic unit of our lives together as Christians is not the individual Christian but the Christian embedded in his/her family life. Given this, we can say that the parish then is a family of local families. The diocese is the family of all parochial families, and the Universal Church is the family of all the diocesan families. What is the Universal Church? The Church is the heir to God's promise made to “Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, [not through the law] but through the righteousness that comes from faith.” When we believe on the name of Jesus, we are adopted into the family of God, becoming brothers and sisters to Christ, and co-heirs to the Kingdom. This means that Joseph, husband to Mary and adopted father of Jesus, is the our father in the Church. He is the Pillar of the Family, the Christian model for honoring God as our heavenly Father.

What little we know about Joseph comes from the gospel accounts of his betrothal to the virgin, Mary. Matthew tells us that he was “a righteous man,” a man consistent in his duties to God, following the Law, and keeping closely to the covenant. His personal integrity is demonstrated by the fact that he was unwilling to expose his wife to shame when she became pregnant before their period of betrothal had ended. Having decided to divorce her quietly, an angel came to him in a dream and told him that Mary's child was a gift from the Holy Spirit and that he (Joseph) should take them in and name the child, Emmanuel, “God is with us.” Matthew reports, “. . .[Joseph] did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him. . .” It is precisely Joseph's obedience to the Lord, his unwavering faith in the promises of God that forms the foundation of the Christian family, the original living cell of the Church. Had Joseph stubbornly followed the letter of the Law, Mary might have been a single mother raising a son without a father in the home.*

A recent study in England revealed that 2/3 of failed families there were fatherless. Most households below the poverty line in the U.S. are headed by single mothers and most of the young men serving prison terms in the U.S. were raised w/o a father in their lives. Now, there's nothing magical about having a man living with the family. Fathers can be abusive; a drain on the family finances rather than a help; and a bad example of fidelity to the vows of marriage. But a father who is faithful to God, faithful to his vows, and faithful to his children is a blessing beyond measure. The Catechism notes that “authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society” (no. 2207). If the original cell of social life, the family, is infected with selfishness, infidelity, uncontrolled addictions, and violence, then society at large is in danger of dying. The cure for these infections is to be found in the holy example of St. Joseph. A selfless life lived with sacrificial love in the service of one's family motivated by an unwavering faith in God. Joseph obeyed the Lord and his family flourishes still 2,000 years later!

* It has become expedient in recent years for Catholics of a particular political bent to claim that Mary was an "unwed mother."  This is patently false.  Mary was betrothed to Joseph.  If this were not so, how could he consider divorcing her?  Another politically expedient myth about Joseph and Mary is that the members of the Holy Family were "illegal immigrants."  This is also patently false.  If they were "illegals," why were they traveling to Jerusalem to participate in the Roman census? 

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  1. Not that I consider myself to be aligned with the "political bent" to which you allude, but I beleive the illegal alien thread of thought is applied not to their trip to Jerusalem, but to the Holy Family's flight to Egypt.

  2. Pam, indeed, but even then there would need to be some concept of citizenship or legal immigration before anyone could be considered "illegal."

  3. I think that it would be accurate to describe the Holy Family as being _refugees_ in Egypt.