The Blueprint for Heroic Family Life
Owing to the confluence of an East-coast heat wave and the failure of a home air conditioning system, my son Peter, his wife Kristina and their two daughters lived with Mom and Dad again for a few days this week. Seeing Elena (age seven) and Natalie (four) bright-eyed and cheerful at the beginning of each day was a joy. It was also a reminder of how things used to be. With the last of our six children going off to college this Fall, I sometimes need to be reminded that I’m a father. Perhaps you don’t want to hear about it? Oh, but you do.
The late Fr. John Hardon, author of our online Catholic dictionary, was fond of saying that only heroic Catholic families will survive in today’s world. But Father Hardon is no longer here to tell you what this means, so you’re stuck with father Jeff. My explanation can be divided into two categories, firmness and flexibility.
Family heroism begins with firm parents. Heroic Catholic parents are implacably firm in maintaining control of the formation and education of their children, with the goal of making them saints. At the same time, these heroic parents pray hard that God will both bless their children richly and make up for their parents’ inadequacies. Perhaps it should not need to be said that to provide children with the right environment requires significant sacrifices of time and money. Moreover, sometimes these sacrifices will be met with resistance and ridicule, not only from outsiders, but also from other family members, and perhaps at times even from one’s own children. Tough.
In early third millennium America, heroic Catholic families generally don’t send their kids to public schools if they have any conceivable alternative. Nor do they take advantage of parochial or diocesan schools if their staffs are still riddled with cafeteria Catholics (or worse). If a sound Catholic school is not available, heroic Catholic families pull up roots and move, or they found independent schools, or they home school. Even if outstanding schools are available, they may still home school. I use the word “generally” in the first sentence, because there are exceptions to every parenting rule, and it isn’t anybody’s job but yours to make the best decision for your own children.
It is axiomatic that God will always supply the most when we can do the least, but we must also expect Him to supply less when we are simply unwilling to do more. And so heroic Catholic families must do their very best to keep tight control over their children’s educational environment at least through high school, and many will do so through college as well, depending on the child and the feasibility of using an outstanding Catholic college. Moreover, in heroic Catholic families, schools are never chosen because of their outstanding secular reputations, the material value of their credentials, or their brilliant extra-curricular possibilities. Heroic parents don’t sacrifice their children’s moral and intellectual formation so that they will have the opportunity to make more money or excel at sports, drama or music.
In heroic Catholic families, mothers work outside the home as little as possible, and fathers make themselves available to their children regardless of the pressures of work or their desire for rest and relaxation. Heroic fathers are very much involved in raising their children. Parental closeness to each child is maintained throughout the teen years; it is not abandoned during the difficulties of adolescence. In this context of ongoing involvement and availability, heroic Catholic families also pray together every day, forming a habit and expectation of family prayer from early childhood, preferably including the daily Rosary—which has a proven track record.
Heroic households not only bar the door to intruders but regulate the airwaves, as well as broadband and phone connections. They restrict their children’s computer time, cell phone features, television and movie watching, and (perhaps above all) Internet use. They educate themselves concerning the moral dangers of these media, and they make a point of not allowing into their homes media that represents people acting in ways that may lead their children into sin—ways in which they would never allow real guests to act. Heroic parents are constantly vigilant. If they are ignorant about certain technological issues, they get help from those who understand them.
At the root of all these priorities is the central and indispensable fact that heroic Catholic fathers and mothers are concerned not only about their children’s virtue but about their own virtue. They don’t make exceptions for themselves, or have a double standard for children and adults, as if foul language, immodest dress, violent anger, excessive drinking, impure entertainment, or any other vice is acceptable as soon as one is old enough. Such parents strive for perfection through frequent personal prayer, reception of the sacraments, and high moral standards. They work through their own problems, keep their marriages strong, and so provide their children with the ultimate emotional stability.
Heroic Catholic parents strive to be outstanding spiritual and moral examples to their children. It goes without saying that they never undermine the Church’s authority by making exceptions about which Church teachings they will believe and follow. Nor do they let a spirit of criticism undermine their children’s respect for the Church. They must certainly discuss difficulties and abuses frankly, but they will not constantly complain and find fault.
After reading all of this, you may think heroic Catholic parents must be pretty tough and inflexible. Tough, yes; inflexible, no. Let’s suppose for a moment that there are two kinds of Catholics who may become heroic Catholic parents: (1) Those who are reflexively broad-minded, open and liberal, and who find it difficult to steel themselves to true Catholic spiritual and moral discipline; (2) Those who are reflexively hard-nosed and dogmatic, and who find it difficult to be open or tolerant about differences of any kind, whether or not they have anything significant to do with the Faith. The preceding section should be a sufficient caution to the former group, but what of the latter?
All heroic Catholic parents must combine these two dispositions into one, by following the famous maxim: In essential things, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, charity. This maxim is often attributed to St. Augustine, though I have been unable to find the source. Thomas à Kempis definitely wrote it in his influential Imitation of Christ around the year 1418, and it is in any case excellent advice.
Thus, heroic Catholic parents do not insist on having everything their own way. They do not regard their every preference as a rule of God, insisting on a conformity from their children which goes beyond what sound spirituality and the mind of the Church require. Do they love particular devotions? Their children are not evil if they do not share this passion. Do they prefer a particular form of the liturgy? They need not insulate their children against every other form, implying that an alternative preference is a sign of weakness or heresy.
Nor are heroic Catholic parents “control freaks”. They understand that their children need psychological space in which to grow and develop, and that there is room for give-and-take in many family matters. They avoid Jansenism, scrupulosity or any other excessively negative or repressive understanding of human nature. They are willing to reconsider their own priorities and preferences when a parenting pattern consistently leads to conflicts or has undesired results. They work hard to separate the essential from the doubtful, so that they do not “bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders” (Mt 23:4)—nor on the shoulders of their spouses or their children. They encourage questions and explorations of important matters. They seek to foster understanding and maturity, not pettiness or mere conformity. Truly, a profound personal humility must possess the heart of every heroic Catholic parent.
Such parents realize that they must be consistent and fair with all their children, but they also know that each child is different, possessing strengths and weaknesses, gifts and needs all his own. They adapt to these needs, finding creative ways to acknowledge differences while remaining fair. In striving for consistency, they still remember that one size does not fit all, and that sometimes love is shown more in the exception than in the rule. They also know that their children cannot be “just like” somebody else’s children. They recognize each child’s uniqueness, and do not hold a child to the impossible standard of having to be “just like” somebody else.
In exactly the same way, heroic Catholic spouses know that their husbands and wives cannot be “just like” somebody else’s husband or wife. Heroic Catholic husbands and wives remain sensitive to the strengths, weaknesses, gifts and needs of their spouses, dealing with them on their own terms, not measuring them against impossible (and inevitably mythical) patterns. Nor do they demand of either their spouses or their children that they become clones of themselves.
When Fr. Hardon warned that only heroic Catholic families will survive, he meant that only families who make deep and continuous sacrifices for God and the Good will be able to raise children who remain close and retain their Faith. He was referring to that same heroic virtue which is required for canonization, that is, the determination to practice virtue and follow God’s will consistently over time even when it is inconvenient or unpopular. That is what heroic virtue is. That is really all it is; it is within reach, and it is quite enough.
Even with heroic virtue, however, immediate success is not guaranteed. Children are their own persons. They might, even with the best of upbringing, make bad choices, stray from the Church, reject God. So might their parents. This brings us to the final and most important characteristic of heroic Catholic families: They keep praying for each other until they die, and even after they die. Heroic Catholic parents—and heroic Catholic children—are always deeply committed to prayer. They live lives of prayer. They pray constantly, both now and forever.
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