by Breda Theakston

Following the 1980 Synod on the Family Pope John Paul II affirmed the importance of the family and urged pastoral support of the family in the Church as 'a matter of urgency'. David Thomas, theologian and father, responded generously and creatively to that call by setting a course in Family Ministry in his hometown of Denver. David is an inspirational speaker who has gained an international reputation for his work on Church and family and I was delighted when Sr Anne Conway invited me to attend one of his recent seminars at Hinsley Hall.

The seminars were spread over three days with a slightly different focus for each day. Day 1 (which I attended) was for those presenting marriage preparation or enrichment courses. Day 2 was a day of reflection for married people and Day 3 was an opportunity for young people to explore the meaning and value of marriage and family life. Day 1 started very well indeed with a clear pro­gramme designed to include consideration of the theology of marriage, the prevailing cultural context within which marriage takes place and finally a look at some of the practical pastoral implications arising from these. Coffee, lunch and tea breaks were built into the day at regular intervals and it speaks volumes for the quality of David's delivery that no-one, except Sr Anne who had a responsibility to make sure we were all fed and watered, seemed to care very much about breaking off to eat and drink. However, eat and drink we did thanks to Anne's skilful interventions.

Charismatic speakers are not exactly new but what did surprise me was how many people who had already done David's MA in Family Ministry made the effort to come from far and wide (I met people from Wales, Manchester and Newcastle) to hear him speak. Before the first coffee break I understood why they had made the effort.

As a theologian David's delivery of the Scriptural roots of Church thinking on marriage and family life was masterly. From Genesis through Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to the post Vatican 11 Church, he showed how Scripture had been interpreted. (He also dis­cussed recent archaeological discoveries in the Holy Land, which raise interesting questions about how we understand Jesus' own cultural background and that of His disciples who now begin to appear as skilled international traders in fish rather than simple domestic fishermen.)

Within the Scriptural context David explained how the 'Church' had gone from an understanding of marriage as primarily a function of the body, through an understanding of its more cerebral intimacy, to eventually recognising the powerful and creative role of marriage in spiritual growth. Here at last was someone who made sense of the oft repeated, but little believed, mantra of our clergy these days that we (the laity) are not necessarily second rate Christians. The way David Thomas explains it puts the married couple (with or without children) at the very heart of God's energising, flowing, creating love in the world. Sin, he went on in an aside, can be best understood as anything that blocks that flow of love.

There were warnings too for people who are involved in family ministry in their parishes:

·        Value the uniqueness of every relationship and avoid implying that yours (however good and happy it might be) is a model to be copied. As each of us is created anew and unique in the sight of God, so each relationship between two people must itself also be completely unique.

·        Where there is love, there is God, whether or not this is recognised or accepted by the couple (in other words you don't have to be catholic to love and be loved!)

After a splendid lunch we returned to the question of the cultural context within which marriages are lived. This session began with a brainstorming exercise to elicit all that was supportive of marriage in our world today. This proved to be surprise number two of the day for me, as we had no difficulty filling up the flip charts and whiteboard with all the positives from equality between the sexes through to higher expectations of personal satisfaction. Surprise number three followed quickly as we realised that every single positive was also a potential negative. Of course it works the other way around too.  Any negative you can come up with can be seen to have positive possibilities in it as well. So by the end of this session not only had we been exposed to a God whose love energises all our relationships, but also to a people with a tremendous potential for hope.

David's unique gift to us that day was not just the intellectual   excitement, coherence    and vision of his words (although they were all there). Rather, it was his personal sharing with us of some aspects of his own journey in family life. With several children and many, many foster children he bore witness to the practical everyday (and even more tragic) difficulties of family life experienced even by theologians of the family. In this the day was rounded off with a sense of the power of the family in family life and so, perhaps unwittingly, he managed to speak of faith, hope and love and to show how family life is the great crucible through which these gifts of the Spirit are most needed, most visible and most refined.

The day ended before we had managed to get to the pastoral implications of all this. However, people went away energised and it seemed fitting somehow that this section was left out. The pastoral implications are, almost by definition, for us to wrestle with within our own parish communities. Just as each individual and each couple is unique, so must each Christian community be. We are, though, all parts of one body and if there is one thing David Thomas left me with that day it was a sense of the abundance of God's love in the world. A love that is not confined to hierarchies, but is rooted in our everyday relations with each other and is expressed and nourished in the Eucharist.

This article first appeared in the Leeds Diocese Catholic Post. Breda Theakston is Diocesan Co-ordinator for Marriage and Family Life. We are grateful for permission to reprint this article.

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