The family has always been considered as the first and basic expression of man’s social nature. Even today this way of looking at things remains unchanged. Nowadays, however, emphasis tends to be laid on how much the family, as the smallest and most basic human community, owes to the personal contribution of a man and a woman.

The family is in fact a community of persons whose proper way of existing and living together is communion: communio personarum. Here too, while always acknowledging the absolute transcendence of the Creator with regard to His creatures, we can see the family’s ultimate relationship to the divine ‘We’.

Only persons are capable of living ‘in communion’. The family originates in a marital communion described by the Second Vatican Council as a ‘covenant’, in which man and woman ‘give themselves to each other and accept each other’.

The Book of Genesis helps us to see this truth when it states, in reference to the establishment of the family through marriage, that ‘a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Gen 2:24).

In the Gospel, Christ, disputing with the Pharisees, quotes these same words and then adds: ‘So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Mt 19:6).

In this way, he reveals anew the binding content of a fact which exists ‘from the beginning’ (Mt 19:8) and which always preserves this content. If the Master confirms it ‘now’, he does so in order to make clear and unmistakable to all, at the dawn of the New Covenant, the indissoluble character of marriage as the basis of the common good of the family.

When, in union with the Apostle, we bow our knees before the Father from whom all fatherhood and motherhood is named (cf. Eph 3:14-15), we come to realise that parenthood is the event whereby the family, already constituted by the conjugal covenant of marriage, is brought about ‘in the full and specific sense’.

Motherhood necessarily implies fatherhood, and in turn, fatherhood necessarily implies motherhood. This is the result of the duality bestowed by the Creator upon human beings ‘from the beginning’.

I have spoken of two closely related yet not identical concepts: the concept of ‘communion’ and that of ‘community’.

  • ‘Communion’ has to do with the personal relationship between the ‘I’ and the ‘thou’.
  • ‘Community’ on the other hand transcends this framework and moves towards a ‘society’, a ‘we’.

 

The family, as a community of persons, is thus the first human ‘society’. It arises whenever there comes into being the conjugal covenant of marriage, which opens the spouses to a lasting communion of love and of life, and it is brought to completion in a full and specific way with the procreation of children: the ‘communion’ of the spouses gives rise to the ‘community’ of the family.

The ‘community’ of the family is completely pervaded by the very essence of ‘communion’. On the human level, can there be any other ‘communion’ comparable to that between a mother and a child whom she has carried in her womb and then brought to birth?

In the family thus constituted there appears a new unity, in which the relationship ‘of communion’ between the parents attains complete fulfilment. Experience teaches that this fulfilment represents both a task and
a challenge.

The task involves the spouses in living out their original covenant. The children born to them—and here is the challenge—should consolidate that covenant, enriching and deepening the conjugal communion of the father and mother. When this does not occur, we need to ask if the selfishness which lurks even in the love of man and woman as a result of the human inclination to evil is not stronger than this love.

Married couples need to be well aware of this. From the outset they need to have their hearts and thoughts turned towards the God ‘from whom every family is named’, so that their fatherhood and motherhood will draw from that source the power to be continually renewed in love.

Fatherhood and motherhood are themselves a particular proof of love; they make it possible to discover love’s extension and original depth. But this does not take place automatically. Rather, it is a task entrusted to both husband and wife. In the life of husband and wife together, fatherhood and motherhood represent such a sublime ‘novelty’ and richness as can only be approached ‘on one’s knees’.

Experience teaches that human love, which naturally tends towards fatherhood and motherhood, is sometimes affected by a profound crisis and is thus seriously threatened. In such cases, help can be sought at marriage and family counselling centres, where it is possible, among other things, to obtain the assistance of specifically trained psychologists and psychotherapists.

At the same time, however, we cannot forget the perennial validity of the words of the Apostle: ‘I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named’. Marriage, the Sacrament of Matrimony, is a covenant of persons in love. And love can be deepened and preserved only by Love, that Love which is ‘poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us’ (Rom 5:5).

The Apostle, bowing his knees before the Father, asks that the faithful ‘be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man’ (Eph 3:16). This ‘inner strength’ is necessary in all family life, especially at its critical moments, when the love which was expressed in the liturgical rite of marital consent with the words, ‘I promise to be faithful to you always… all the days of my life’, is put to a difficult test.

 

Adapted and excerpted from St Pope John Paul II letter to Families, Gratissimam Sane. Paragraph 7.

This article can be found in Mirror 0615.