The Christian Family
by Bishop Ehrler, 1891
“Being warned in sleep, he retired into the parts of Galilee.
And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth.” (Matt. 2: 22, 23.)
Within the household of Nazareth, is a pattern for every Christian family. God, who has sanctified every state of life, places before us in Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, the highest and purest model of all Christian parents and children.
Family life in the dignity and sacredness which properly belong to it is the blessing and fruit of Christianity, one of mankind’s earliest means of sanctification. From the beginning, God established the marriage state,–and, through it, family life,–as the foundation and corner-stone of human society. But the divine designs having been frustrated or destroyed by man’s wickedness and impiety, the only begotten Son of God descended from heaven and made himself a member of a human family in order to purify all the families of earth from sin, and restore them to their pristine dignity. Yes, by becoming man, Christ gave to the family a higher dignity, making it, through His grace, a type of His Church. The more an anti-Christian spirit prevails, the greater and more baneful will be its effects upon family-life. What wonder, then, that, at the present day, unbelief is sapping the very foundations of the Christian household, until we behold it tottering and crumbling before our very eyes! But, in order to consider this subject more in detail, allow me to answer for you the following questions:
I. What is a Christian family?
II. What blessings proceed from Christian families?
I. At the time of Christ’s advent, among Jews and Gentiles, alike, the father of the family possessed absolute authority over his dependents. Not only were the servants of the household completely at the mercy of his ill-humor and caprice, but wife and children were also the helpless victims of his brutality and violence. Even the traditions of patriarchal family-life were almost extinct among the Jews. Man and woman were joined together by the parents; or the man chose the woman for pleasure; and she, as the head-subject or slave superintended and ruled his house, while he was absent in the pursuit of amusement, or engaged, in public or private affairs. God’s image, and the dignity of the wife and children completely obliterated, the very lives of the latter were in the hands of the husband and father. No earthly power or law could withhold him from putting any member of his family to death. Of what would not a man be capable in such circumstances, unrestrained by the fear of hell or the hope of heaven?
1. Our Redeemer restored the dignity of the human race by teaching that all men are made to the image and likeness of God. It was necessary that the life of the Christian family should assume an entirely different character from that which it bore among the Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, he raised the union of man and woman to the dignity of a Sacrament, and made it a glorious type of His union with His divine spouse, the Church.
2. Woman, at once, assumes her high and holy position in the Christian family; but at the same time man loses nothing of his sublime prerogative as the representative of God therein. He is the ruler and head of his household; and wife, children, and servants owe him obedience. It is hardly possible to emphasize his authority in stronger terms than those which the Lord God addresses to Eve immediately after the Fall: “Thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee.” (Gen. 3: 16.) And St. Paul says: “Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: for the husband is the head of the wife; as Christ is the head of the Church. Therefore, as the Church is subject to Christ; so also let wives be to their husbands in all things.” (Ephes. 5 : 22-24.)
3. But the authority rightfully awarded the Christian father and husband, should never degenerate into anything approaching tyranny or cruelty. He should see and respect God’s image in his wife, children, and servants, and remember that before heaven he is no more than the humblest member of his own family. Furthermore, he must never forget that he will have to render a strict account of the use he has made of his marital power and parental authority. He is the pilot of the ship, it is true, but he must steer its course according to the orders of its supreme Master, and not according to his own caprice. His highest and holiest duty is to teach his dependents to become perfect followers of Christ by precept, but more particularly, by example. His government should resemble that of the heavenly Father who governs all His creatures with wisdom and love, in sweetness and longsuffering patience.
4. In the Christian family, next to the father and with equal rights, comes the mother,–not, as of old, given by her parents to her husband without her consent, but permitted freely to choose her spouse. Before the days of Christ, all legislation ignored the rights of woman, and treated her with contempt. Christianity, alone, elevated her to her true sphere. She is, and remains, subject to her husband, for such is the will of God. But her human and Christian dignity is as high and as sacred as that of her spouse. As mother of the family, she resembles the Church, which is subject to Christ, but is, at the same time, loved by him with all the warmth and affection of a divine Heart. The most intimate communion of hearts and union of souls should exist between husbands and wives, since both are coheirs of Christ.
5. Consider, also, the children and domestics of the Christian family. I have already portrayed to you their sad condition before the coming of Christ, when, (God’s image not being recognized in them,) children and servants were completely in the power and at the mercy of their father and master. Christianity changed all this. Children became priceless treasures, truest blessings from God. In the little ones reposing on their breasts, the Christian fathers and mothers learned to reverence God’s holy image; and the end of all their efforts and most earnest endeavors was directed to train and educate them for heaven. Belonging no longer solely to the father, as was the case before Christ, children were recognized as the property of God, to whom both father and mother must render a strict account of their temporal and spiritual training.
6. Under the pagan dispensation, servants were degraded to the rank of slaves, were treated as soulless, irrational creatures, bought and sold, and even put to death at their master’s pleasure; but Christianity, by breaking the fetters of the slave, has given to servants the place which is rightfully theirs in the family. In Catholic households, the faithful servant is regarded as one of the family, and is treated and cared for with loving kindness and consideration. In return, the good domestic never fails to remember the advice of the Apostle: “Servants, obey your carnal masters with fear and trembling, in the simplicity of your heart as Christ. Not serving to the eye, as it were, pleasing men, but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with a good will, doing service as to the Lord, and not to men.” (Ephes. 6: 5-7.)
7. Before Christ, the main purpose of God in the institution of the marriage state, that is, the propagation of the human race–that heaven might be filled with Saints–was completely lost sight of. The pagans knew no higher aim than the maintenance or increase of temporal prosperity. It is true, that in Jewish families, because of the promise that the Messiah would be born of a daughter of Abraham, there remained a somewhat nobler aim; yet, even here, they were far removed from the beautiful life of a Christian family. The latter, (thanks be to God !) is a church in miniature, the continuation and completion of the work of the Redemption. The father is the head, as Christ is the head of the Church, and provides for all belonging to him. He resembles Christ who sanctifies all the members of his mystical body, and carries them in the strong arms of his grace. The mother, standing by his side, labors with him, equally solicitous that all belonging to her may be saved. The children recognize in their parents the representatives of God; the domestics, like the children, lovingly obey the voice of God in the commands of their master and mistress. If every household would fulfil its exalted mission, the earth would be peopled with Saints, and all would recognize
II. The innumerable blessings that flow to the world from the Christian family.
1. The Christian family secures the temporal and eternal happiness of each individual member. Who is more to be pitied than he who has never known the blessed influence of Christian family-life? Does not every one commiserate the homeless and friendless little ones who grow up,–like wild plants of the desert–neglected and uncared for? Without the saving influence of the Christian home, there is no solid foundation for education or happiness. Consider these points, and you will not fail to recognize the fact that the happiness of the individual man depends upon family life.
a. Only in the family circle is Christian education possible. The education of a man is a work which requires much industry and many hands. All fruit-bearing trees require cultivation. Only the trees of the forest are allowed to grow up without training and pruning. The passions with their corrupt tendencies must be extirpated, and the seed of the fear of God must be planted and fostered, in the soul of a child. To the words of the parents, must be united persevering good example, and a careful exclusion of all evil influences. If fathers and mothers are not careful, by word and example, to implant early the seeds of virtue in the souls of their children; if they do not begin at an early age, gently but firmly, to curb their rising passions, and root out their bad dispositions, they must expect to see them grow up lawless, unruly, vicious members of society.
b. Where will a man find true happiness if not in the bosom of his own family. An animal is satisfied with food and drink, and when its appetite is satisfied, it lies down and sleeps. But man requires other and higher joys. He longs for a heart to beat in unison with his own; for companions solicitous for his comfort and welfare. He longs for sympathy. He likes to be surrounded with those, who are interested in him, who feel kindly and amiably towards him, and with whom he may share all his joys and sorrows. A soul, to whom God is all in all, and who turns to Him as entirely and as faithfully as the needle to the pole, may easily forego the sympathy and communion of her kind, but the majority of people require for their happiness the love and sympathy of creatures.
2. The welfare of human society depends upon well-ordered family life, and the state or government that undermines or encroaches upon the latter works its own ruin and digs its own grave. Peace and order can be maintained only by family-life. A generation of tramps will inaugurate an era of restless rebellion or lawless anarchy. They can only be held together by the iron rod of power,–and, at any moment, are liable to burst the bonds of legal subjection or moral restraints. A man without a home is by nature a revolutionist, an anarchist. By the subversion of order and peace, he has nothing to lose, but everything to gain. The better-ordered the family-life, the greater the public peace. Is it not an alarming and repulsive feature of our modern social misery, that family ties are so easily loosened? Everything is to be feared from those who belong to no one. They are fit tools for every kind of disorder. The vast multitude of idle, irreligious men let loose upon society, it can not be denied, is one of the crying misfortunes of our time. The earth has room enough for all, and there is bread enough for all. But homeless people are an affliction, a misfortune, a calamity. We do not fear the children,–no matter how numerous they may be–born and brought up in the home of Christian parents. But we tremble for those who, untrained, and uncared for, grow up wild, like the trees of the forest, or the beasts of the field. These, alas! form the malignant cancer which is eating into the very heart of modern society.
Not merely does our civil welfare demand a well-ordered government, but the flourishing growth of social virtues, as well, since they are the strong pillars upon which society rests. What would the world come to if we made no sacrifices for one another, if we forgot the practice of fraternal charity, of justice, of fidelity? These are the bonds which unite men as brethren,–the solid foundation upon which the structure of human society rests. But these virtues must be cultivated; they do not spring forth spontaneously from the naturally sinful and selfish heart of man. Like exotics, they require careful training, and are cultivated most successfully in Christian families. The heart of a child under the influence of family-life and the grace of God, is excited to a spirit of self-sacrifice, is taught to appreciate the pleasure of relieving the distressed, of practising charity in its manifold forms; it learns, at the same time, the value of the beautiful virtues of truth and fidelity.
3. But what shall I say of those blessings that flow from Christian families to the Church. They are her strength and support, and at the same time, her root and offspring. The Church has grown out of the family; and without it, the kingdom of God would be incomplete. When Christianity first entered the world, it changed the pagan into the Christian household, and from the union of Christian families, thus begotten, the Church came forth as a community. The Christian state also sprang from the Christian family. When first the young Christians of Rome and Greece received and profited by the holy Sacrament of Matrimony,–when young men and women, converted from Paganism and Judaism, entered into Christian wedlock, and became the parents of Christian children,–the kingdom of God advanced with great strides.
Those were glorious and happy times when Christian thought and principle were the foundation of all the institutions of public life, of all law and morals. The Christian family gave worthy and pious priests to the Church, and conscientious, faithful, civil officers to the state. Christian princes governed the state and the people in peaceful prosperity. Christian families furnished those noble men and women, who consecrated themselves to God in the religious state, devoting their lives and their fortunes unreservedly to the relief and comfort of suffering humanity. And though those times had their defects, mistakes, and abuses, much to be deplored, yet were the latter trifling, indeed, compared to the evils which shall overwhelm us when the spirit of modern Paganism saps (as it seems about to do) the very foundations of Christian family-life. Vices and calamities of all kinds–war, revolutions, and anarchy will inevitably follow.
Our only hope for a better future,–if it were possible for the Christian family to become extinct, the faith of Christ would infallibly disappear from the earth. The enemies of the Church recognize this fact as well as we; hence, they strive with all their power through the introduction of civil marriage and godless schools, to deprive the family of religion. When public life has become unchristian, the refuge of Christianity must be, as in the first centuries, in the bosom of the family. Woe to the world, if it find no shelter there!
O Christian parents, you are the salt of the earth, you are the tapers of God, placed, as a light in the candlestick, for the enlightenment of many! You must preserve the seed of the Gospel and furnish it a rich and fertile soil in the garden of your homes. Every Christian family, at present, should resemble the Macchabees of old, who, in hard and perilous times, so nobly and courageously defended the faith of their fathers. Therefore, O fathers and mothers, make your homes Christian homes, in the fullest sense of the word! First of all, be yourselves pious, practical Catholics, loyally devoted to the Church, and faithful in the practice of your exalted duties. Each of your houses must be a church in miniature, where, as God’s representatives, you exercise the powers of your royal priesthood. In the care of your household, imitate the vigilance and care of the Church for the salvation of her children. Assemble your family for prayers, morning and evening. Celebrate in your houses, in your lives, the various seasons of the ecclesiastical year, entering into the spirit of its beautiful lessons,–its joys, and its sorrows.
“I and my house will serve the Lord,” said Josue in his farewell discourse to the people. (Josue 24: 15.) And such must be your resolution, today. “I and my wife, my children and my servants will serve the Lord.” Behold, Christian parents, this majestic temple of God. Outside the winds blow, the storm rages, illicit pleasures and vices run riot in the world. But here, all is peace and tranquillity. So must your households be. When the storms of infidelity distract human society, when vice roams the streets, and corruption is abroad, then must your houses be the abodes of peace and the beautiful temples of virtue. Amen. Bishop Ehrler.