Family: The Prophetic Vision of John Paul II. Part 1

Dr David M. Thomas. Bethany Family Institute


This year is the twentieth anniversary of the most detailed, most challenging church document ever written on Christian family life. It contains many pro-found even prophetic insights. I am saddened by the fact that this document is not known very well even within the Catholic Church. 

On December 15, 1981, the Vatican released Familiaris Consortio dealing with the role of the Christian family in the modern world. In that sense it echoes the great document from Vatican II, The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). Formally called an apostolic exhortation, it contains Pope John Paul II's personal response to the five weeks of official church conversations held at the Vatican the previous year.

This gathering, officially called a Synod, involved more than 200 bishops from around the world. Two were from England, Cardinal Hume and Archbishop Derek Warlock. Also invited to the meeting were a small group of Catholic couples from around the world who were officially called auditores (listeners). Mother Teresa of Calcutta was also invited and attended the sessions.

My own role at this Synod was that of a peritus (theological consultant) to the United States Bishops' delegation. I had the distinct privilege of assisting the bishops in formulating their oral presentations delivered in the presence of the Pope, and in writing written interventions, which were parts of the Synod process. I was the first layman ever invited to serve in this role.

The need for promoting a deeply spiritual, fully Christian understanding of family life cannot be de­nied. Twenty years ago, the families throughout the world were experiencing great difficulties. Today we observe a continuing disintegration of the family,

Scholars argue whether this severing of family ties comes more because of changing social and eco­nomic realities in the world or if there is simply a diminishment of valuing family relationships coming from within the family itself. It is probably both. And this further underscores the importance of the family having compelling reasons to continually work on family relationships. Otherwise families will simply succumb to those forces outside bent on undermining their survival.

So what can the Catholic Church do to assist families? Give to them vision. Offer them reasons for attending to each other in a consistent and loving way. Show to them how important family life is in their church life. Help them to find God in the ordinary and often messy life of the family. Help them see more clearly the presence of God's love in those with whom they share life.

In this two-part article I want to bring forth important implications of the ideas and ideals presented in Familiaris Consortio. The approach of the document is pastoral and begs to be connected with and applied to the particular circumstances of today's families. Comforted by the affirmation of their sacred dignity, families are also challenged to be active in constructing a Christian family life that responds to the Spirit of God present in the midst of that life. Assisting them is the first ever portrayal of how the family itself is an exceedingly important part of the church, and that the vitality of the family as the smallest unit or cell of the church, contributes directly to the vitality of the whole. Understanding this expanded ecclesiology, this more nuanced theology of the Church, contributes to the creation of a young yet vibrant theological and spiritual vision of family life that few Catholics seem aware of.

The document itself has four parts. I will discuss the first two parts in this writing and the second two in the next edition of Just between Us.

Part one invites families to live with open-eyed sensitivity to the actualities of their family experience. It is only within this very real world that they will find God's lurking behind every genuine family moment. A family spirituality must be rooted in the concrete, not in some idealized notion of family.

Today's culture is a mix of good and evil, light and darkness, truth and illusion, love and fear. The pope encourages the embracing of what's positive in contemporary life, while rejecting evil, especially in its many expressions of dehumanization and destruction of life.

Among the greatest of the positive trends is how we are coming to a greater and greater awareness of each person's radical equality in the mind and heart of God. And since this equality exists in God, so too must it be affirmed here on earth. In families, this principle of equality breaks the back of all notions of hierarchy between women and men, children and parents, the elderly and the young, or any other divisions between people that reduce their stature as full persons created and loved by God.

We are reminded of the pope's passionate insistence concerning the dignity of the human person and based on this, the capacity of the human person to form loving healthy relationships with others. Certainly a primary setting where this comes into being is within the family. For the pope, the family is the fundamental human community of survival and love.

Further, in a community where equality and full personhood is achieved, there follows the possibility of an explosion of grace and divine intervention. Where genuine love prevails, there God can be found.

This moves the pope to reaffirm a special capacity of the laity to discern the presence and activity of God's Spirit in the midst of their worldly experience of family. This is a proper charism of family people. It is both their right and duty based on the gifts they have been given to make known, first to themselves, and then to the rest of the church, the greatness of God's active presence within their ordinary family experience. Through the dark glass of messy and even murky family moments, with God's grace, family members can come to see God. The Christian family is a graced community whose esteemed role and purpose is described in part two of Familiaris Consortio, "The Plan of God for Marriage and Family Life."

To put it succinctly, family is intended by God to be a community of persons, bound together for life, loving each other into life. We are created through love, God's love and the love within marriage. And we are created to love. That is our destiny in the plan of God.

Love of this kind is like a flowing river. Or to think more broadly, love is like that flow of energy that emanated from God 's initial act of creating the Universe. Love flows from God directly through the person of Jesus Christ who has given his all for us. His act of loving redemption sets the pattern for life here on earth.

A primary embodiment of that love occurs in Christian marriage, as the pattern of self-giving love is made real by the couple's free and complete cooperation with God's intent for them. Their love flows into creating with God the life of a new person. This intimate community of love and life, the Christian family, is then drawn into the centre of the life of the church, which is called by the pope, God's "great family."

Clearly, the vision of the pope is quite idealistic and demanding. He has set the bar high because his view of human dignity and the importance of love between us is something very exalted. In a world that is filled with cynicism and even despair about the possibility of deep and abiding love, the pope preaches possibility. Is this unrealistic? Foolhardy?

Only if one thinks that we can only achieve goals by ourselves. But that's not his vision. We stand in God's love and we are supported by that love with every breath we take. With humans, this task may seem impossible. But with God, as we have heard over and over again, all things are possible. This applies especially when we know that Christian family life is at the centre of God's loving plan for our personal finality and happiness. We were created by love and for love.

In the next issue of “Just between Us…", we will discuss the wonderful details of how God's plan is to be realized in our frail, frazzled and faith-filled families.

Back to Bethany Home Page                                David's resume
Back to Just between Us...