Bishop Hopes, The Family

Bishop Alan Hope’s Homily at the Mass for the Family
(Taken from Mass in the Cite St Pierre on 25 July 2010)

When I was a priest, if I wasn’t celebrating that particular Mass, I used to enjoy standing by the main door welcoming everyone as they arrived.

There I would meet God’s people, the family of the Church – some elderly, some young, the confident and the shy, whole families and single people, those who were clearly very happy and those burdened. As the Mass began I would begin to walk down the road to the presbytery. Each time I did so, I would see a particular family turning the corner, literally running towards the church; one daughter being carried in her father’s arms and one daughter being pushed in the buggy by her mother. What they said on the first Sunday when I met them became the standard joke ‘Father, you always seem to catch us when we are late!’ But what actually gladdened my heart was that this family had got there, in spite of everything. Goodness knows what efforts and energy they had made to get the children ready, but they came together as a family to the church, to be part of God’s family and to celebrate their faith.

And I know that this struggle is replicated in many committed Catholic families each week. Getting everybody out of bed, or getting them back from football, getting everybody washed and dressed and getting to the church for Mass can be a weekly miracle. Families are, more often than not, places of organised chaos – trying to fit everyone’s different routine into one unit!

When we speak of the family being God’s chosen way of providing stability for the human race and the place where the seeds of holiness are planted and seen to grow, we are not talking about every family being perfect. Holiness is not the same as perfection. A family where there are perfect children with great achievements and where the parents never argue and everything always seems to go right, is not necessarily a place of holiness, of love and of prayer.

Bernadette was a member of a large family. Her family was not a perfect family – far from it. In fact the family faced many struggles, hardships and failure. At the time when Our Lady appeared to Bernadette, the family had hit their lowest point. They had left the Boly Mill, where their father had worked for some time. He was no business man and he could no longer pay the rent. They had had to move to the Cachot – the (disused) local prison of Lourdes. Their accommodation was dark and dank; they lived cramped together in a tiny space which admitted little privacy or dignity. No wonder those in authority found it hard to believe that a girl from a problem family, living with such deprivation, had been blessed by encounters with the Mother of Jesus Christ.

We can take encouragement from Bernadette and her family as we reflect on our own family life. The perfect family is only to be found in the pages of fiction. I am sure that we have all experienced great love and affection in our families. I am sure too that we have all experienced heartache and struggle – sudden unemployment, the illness of those close to us, the difficulties of teenage years both for teenagers and parents, arguments that need to be resolved and wounds, both physical and emotional that need to be addressed. But we must never lose sight of the fact that this is how God intended human beings to find both stability and holiness, that in the context of our families we should grow into his sons and daughters.

In the Gospel reading in today’s Mass (John 2:11-11), we hear of the first sign that Jesus displayed which caused his disciples to believe in him. This took place at a wedding celebration. Marriage was then, and should be today, the bedrock of society. Wedding celebrations in the time of Jesus were long and noisy events involving the whole community, day after day, precisely because marriage was about the bedrock of life – love, commitment and the gift of children. Disaster was about to overcome these celebrations – the wine was all finished! Jesus answers the request of his Mother to help those who were responsible for the wedding celebrations. Turning the water into wine, Jesus enriches all that family life is about. He brings the divine into the very heart of our human life – human life with all its joys and with all its struggles.

Every Catholic home should have the sign of the Cross in it – the Crucifix. It reminds us that it is Jesus who brings God and his love into the very heart of our human living, into the very heart of our family life, into the very heart of our homes. It is a reminder that God is there with us in the midst of everything we share together as a family – shedding his love into it all. It is a reminder that we should recall God’s presence in our families by praying together as a family, even just for a few moments.

God does not look for success or perfection at the heart of family life. He would certainly not have found it in Bernadette’s family. I doubt whether he would find it amongst any of our families. What he does look for in families is a reflection of his own love – a love which we see at its highest when we look at the Crucifix – it is a self-giving and life-giving love. Every time we come to Mass and celebrate with God’s family, we are opening our lives to the possibility of being filled with that self-giving and life-giving love, and the seeds of holiness are sown.

May Our Lady of Lourdes, St Joseph (St Joseph is part of the Holy Family and should, I think be included) and St Bernadette pray for our families and all family life. May they pray for the Church – the family of God in which we are all united as one family of faith. May they pray for the Church and for us that we might witness to God’s self-giving and life-giving love in our society today.

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