Blessed Cardinal John Newman once said this about holiness: “To obtain the gift of holiness is the work of a life.” (Miscellanies, 313)
In pondering the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph there is a tendency to view holiness as something that happens mostly to other people. By following this way of thinking, whenever we gaze at the images of saints emblazoned upon holy cards, we presume they were destined to be holy. But given that we are also God’s children, is this not His wish for us, too?
In the Gospel of Luke (2:22-40), we are surrounded by holy people. Mary and Joseph are there with the infant Jesus so that the custom of the Law might be performed. They hand him to a righteous and devout man named Simeon who had strived for holiness his entire life. We are told that one of his fervent prayers was that he be given the opportunity to see the Savior prior to his death. With tears in his eyes and Jesus in his arms, Simeon’s wish is granted and he blesses God with these now famous words:
Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in sight of all the peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.
As Simeon held Jesus, the Evangelist informs us that Mary and Joseph were amazed at what was said about their son. About His identity. About His destiny.
We can only imagine how they must have felt. After all, God had entrusted them with the responsibility of caring for and nurturing the second person of the Most Holy Trinity. And where did they care for Jesus? In a family. In a holy family.
The reality is that each of us is from a family and commissioned to create holy families. As we grow, some of us will come to pastor families—as priests and bishops do. Others will live out their vocation as single persons within the context of a wider family. But the majority of us, myself included, will go on to form families of our own.
As children are born, our families expand! Just moments after my first daughter was born, a grinning nurse told me: “She is yours forever!” But based upon her facial expressions, I gather what she was truly thinking was: “Good luck!” With all kidding aside, like Mary and Joseph, God had blessed my wife and I with a great gift. Like other God-given gifts, children are not given to us as “add-ons” to our lives; rather, they are integral to our destiny. They are placed in our midst for a reason. Again, the reason? So that we may grow in holiness—within the family.
In contemplating this, one priest has noted that …”within the Holy Family, the father fights against anything in the world that would destroy the family whereas the mother creates the home and nurtures the family. The child is the love around which the family revolves.”
In our own culture, how have we done? I am sure that you will not be surprised to hear that there has been a marked decline in the family over the past couple of generations. As a Heritage Foundation scholar recently noted: “Since 1970, the U.S. marriage rate has fallen, while non-marital childbearing rates continue to rise. Between 1970 and 2010, marriage rates for whites, blacks, and Hispanics all fell by over 20 percent; is it any surprise then that over 40 percent of American babies are now born outside marriage?”
With a growing rejection of marriage, fewer children are being born, as well. In the United States, we have now followed western Europe and crossed below the replacement rate for a stable population. As cultural data reveals that our nation is increasingly abandoning family and children, what can we do?
One answer is to pray. Pray for families that are broken. Pray for families that need healing. Pray that men will grow up and marry the women they are living with and not be so-called “baby daddies.” Pray that men will be good husbands and fathers. Pray, pray, pray.
The second answer is to open ourselves to the awesome gifts that have been placed in our midst. Our spouses. Our children. Our family members. As Saint Mother Teresa reminds us: “Whatever you do in your family, for your children, for your husband, for your wife, you do for Jesus.”
If we do this, holiness will follow. And holy families will result.