Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Sacramental Protection of the Family

by Emerson Hynes


An inspiring talk on the Catholic home and rural living.

Publisher & Date

National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), 1945


The inspiring talk given by Mr. Emerson Hynes of the Department of Sociology, St. John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota, on The Christian Family on the Land at the St. Bede Rural Life School, in June, 1945, aroused such profound interest that I received many requests for copies. Mr. Hynes spoke from notes, and so I asked him to write them out for me.

I am deeply grateful to Mr. Hynes for permitting their publication in pamphlet form and consider it a privilege to sponsor the project.

+J. H. Schlarman
Bishop of Peoria
President NCRLC

Sacramental Protection of the Family
The Christian Family on the Lane

(Notes from a talk by Emerson Hynes to the Rural Life Summer School, St. Bede College, June 25, 1945.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the Catholic home and rural living. For I believe deeply that, even in this tempestuous world, where headlines dealing with military movements of millions are the order of the day, where the decisions of leaders are apparently shaping the future of all of us, where the charter of nations at San Francisco encompasses the whole world—even in such a world the most important things are still the Family and the Church.

None of us will question the position of the Church. But I wonder if we do not have a tendency to regard the family as less important than we should. Theoretically, of course, we know and preach its place. But in fact we like to talk and plan in terms of modern science, the state, of so many billions of units of this and that, of a national income of 160 billion dollars, of full employment and 60 million jobs, of international economic and social and military cooperation. Those are challenging objectives. We are aiming at a better world. And it is a world of mass production and of science. I do not mean to decry these objectives or to suggest that we do not need to be concerned with planning on a large scale. It is rather that we must always keep in mind that all this has meaning only in terms of human persons and of human families. All this size, all this science, all this production, is good only if it contributes to better living for persons. And persons live most intimately and most of their time in that little unit called the family.

The Family the Basis of the Future

We must see, first, that the family is really the basis of the future. We cannot start at the top with international organization and imagine that other things will work out all right. We must start at the bottom. That does not mean automatically that the top will work. But it is the first requisite. Hence every leader can have hope and consolation. No matter how dark the world picture is, he can do effective work. No matter how little cooperation he gets from others in the wider circle of social activities, he can always make progress with his own little group. No matter that society seems to be destroying itself, he can always be building it by building the families under his care.

G. K. Chesterton, with his flair for seeing the important in the commonplace, once made a striking analogy by comparing the family to a cabbage. A prosaic soul, he said, would think, while walking in the garden, that a cabbage was a very ordinary vegetable. But a man of vision would be struck by the grandeur, by the monstrousness of that gigantic head of cabbage growing from a tiny taproot in the soil. That something so large and bulky could come from one little root! So it is with the family, which seems small, like one of millions of roots in the fields. But it bulks large in importance as it grows and matures. In itself it is "wild and elemental." It is dwarfed by the whole field, yet it is a supreme object in itself. It is the place where the basic processes of life occur by nature: birth, growth, and death. It is able to produce the greatest love and the greatest hatred, too; the greatest joy and equally the most stinging sorrow.

So we must recognize the importance of the family in the lives of men. We must shape our thinking to better the family; and in so doing we shall be performing the most important and most revolutionary work possible. We can never be discouraged if we are improving family life. Now, there are two important places where I suggest that we can begin to improve family life. Neither will be examined exhaustively, but points for thought and discussion should be raised. These two aspects are the spiritual and the environmental. Let us think of each in turn.

I. The Sacramental Aspect of Family Life

It is but natural that priests and other Catholics should think first of the spiritual side of marriage. It is not only tremendously important. It is our unique treasure. All leaders of good will can work with us and we with them to improve the family wage, the family housing, the family health, the family recreational facilities. But our specific gift is the fact that marriage is a sacrament, instituted by Christ to be a source of grace. And how urgently that grace is needed! For it gives parents the strength to endure much. After all, material standards are relative. The necessities of life today were undreamed of only a century ago. The best house in the nation in 1850 would be substandard today. The troubles and inconveniences should be avoided; but merely avoiding them will not make healthy family life. It is the spirit that counts.

From the fact that marriage is a sacrament, several points follow:

A. Marriage is a continuous sacrament. This truth was stressed by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical on marriage. We heads of Catholic families need to be reminded of that fact repeatedly. We cannot be told too often. Marriage is not a sacrament merely on the wedding day. It is a continuous "sign instituted by Christ to give grace." How consoling it is for parents to know this! How it gives them strength! How it checks them when human weakness inclines them to quarrel! How it increases the joy of their two-in-one-ship! How it enables them to see their children as blessings! How it helps them to offer up to God their daily work: their care of children, their meals, their play, their household tasks. Who would dare to bicker and quarrel and deliberately sin in the presence of the other six sacraments? Who dares to despair, then? Even so, Catholic parents can be led to understand and then practice the same joyful spirit in their special sacrament. We stand in great need of explanation. That is a place where any servant of Christ can begin to improve family life. Tell us of the beauty and depth and grace of marriage.

B. From the first point it follows that marriage is a vocation. Truly it is a religious vocation, in the broad sense of that term. It is a way of salvation, chosen by the majority of the people. And since it is a way of salvation, it must be looked upon as such. Marriage should not be viewed simply as a proper means of perpetuating the human race. Every marriage is that, pagan (or natural) or Christian. It surely should not be viewed merely as a legitimate means of quieting concupiscence. That is a secondary aspect. The special thing about a Christian marriage is that it is truly a means of serving God, a way of salvation. And how marvelous and mysterious it is! For by choosing the way of marriage, man and woman no longer work alone for salvation, but together in a most intimate way. Their marriage is a means to sanctity, and the advance of one should be a help to the other; the defect of one will weigh down the other. In any event, we need to realize more than we do that marriage is a vocation, a chosen way of serving God. And in that realization the family will take on new and deeper meaning. How blessed the parents will see they are! They have all the joys of the natural family. But over and above, they have, in their sacrament, a religious way of life, too. How much more important the family becomes as we begin to see that, although in a different way, we are serving God as are the priest and the nun! It will not solve all difficulties, of course, just as ordination or solemn vows do not automatically make perfect men. But you know what an aid to perfection is the knowledge of one's vocation. So it should be with Catholic parents.

C. If marriage is a continuous sacrament and a true vocation, then daily family living must give evidence that it is a religious life. Both in the spirit of the members and in the externals of the home itself religion must be evidenced. Here we Catholic parents need help. We need instruction and we need confidence.

Re-establishment of Traditions

We need instruction because we Americans came to this country in a violent way. Most of the home ties were broken. We came to a strange land where there were no traditions of Catholicity. We left home and village and nation where traditions may have been strong, but in this new land all was new. Some of the nationalities, of course, settled as units and thus some of the traditions were transplanted. But often they died with the first or second generation. Thus we find our country in many ways barren of the solid religious spirit and practices that characterize the homes of our ancestors in Europe. Those traditions have to be rebuilt. We are often simply ignorant of how to make our home a place worthy of a religious vocation. We know how to wash floors and operate vacuum cleaners and electric stoves, but we do not know how to sanctify our baking, our meals, our action.

We need confidence because the traditions have been lost. We Catholics without embarrassment walk into church, attend Mass, and abstain from meat on Friday. But in the intimacy of our own homes we are often self-conscious about the countless practices, symbols, and words which are needed to make our homes fitting places for a continuous sacrament. You may know of many exceptions, but as a general rule, and increasingly as the rest of the nation becomes more secular and as the radio competes, religious life within the family itself becomes more foreign.

So we need much instruction and much bolstering. The instruction cannot be merely by sermon and handing out pamphlets. The priest must enter the very homes themselves and instruct. The mothers, in their guilds or societies, must be instructed and encouraged to start a few of the practices. The children in school must come to accept it as ordinary practice of the Catholic family. Blessings by the father before meals and thanksgiving afterwards, the family rosary, the crucifix on the wall and a picture of the Sacred Heart: these are starting points, but they are not enough. There is a wealth of possibilities over and beyond. I should like to recommend two fine pamphlets that show some of the possibilities. Both of them written by Mrs. Franz Mueller. One is Family Life in Christ, published by the Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. The other is Our Children's Year of Grace, published by the Pio Decimo Press. {Editor's Note: Therese Mueller's pamphlets, published in 1943 and 1949, are out of print, but you can find the text online on this web site.). The latter is especially useful, since it follows the liturgical year, and is filled with dozens of suggestions of how the family, without too much altering its present daily life, can give religious significance to it. Then there are the blessings for the home: for the house, the barn, the parental bedroom, and others. The priest, for example, might perform these blessings as he is taking the census.

It is scarcely necessary to add what advantage the rural pastor has in building family life. For the rural family still has the unity and the privacy and the authority. The chief need is instruction. The urban pastor has far greater obstacles. He is dealing with families where the whole family is rarely together, once the children start to school, and where the father is away from home much of the day. He is dealing with family life that goes on under ceaseless environmental difficulties and distractions, and where the competition of the secular attractions is almost insurmountable. We can place his work in the power of the Holy Spirit and practice the supernatural virtue of hope.

Parish Life

D. Family life in Christ is a noble aim and one to which we cannot devote too much energy. Yet we know that the "true and indispensable" source of Christian life is Holy Mass, because obviously the family is not self-sufficient either economically or socially or spiritually. We have not the time to explore all the possibilities, all the opportunities for leadership in helping families to work with other families in community life. Economic and social cooperation of families is a topic in itself. But a few words about the cooperation of families in religious life will be useful. Holy Mother Church has built her structure wisely. The normal relationship of families is a part of that community called a parish. The parish is in many respects a "little Church," a cell of the whole Church. Composed of families, usually in a geographic area, it is admirably suited to promote the spiritual growth of the members of those families. The offering of the parish Mass is the central act of this community; and the priest, the father of the parish family, has the honor, right, and duty of offering that Mass, dispensing the sacraments, and instructing. Thus family life reaches its flowering in parish life. How important that parish life is! How great the opportunity and how great the responsibility of the priest!

And it is a good thing for priests to know that the laity thank God for the great system of parishes that we have in the United States, where few families are so far removed that they cannot be active members of parishes; and that the laity appreciate their blessings in having priests, who serve them faithfully in this first and necessary function of the parish. For a number of reasons, it is true that we Catholics do not make the best use of the means of worshipping and of growing spiritually. But can anyone in this whole nation complain that the means are not there at his disposal?

But no Catholic can ever be complacent. There is always the opportunity of intensifying the religious life of the families of the parish, of making them realize more fully the privilege of being a part of this cell of the Church. We are all so human; and so the practices that have been traditional in the history of the Church are needed today as in the past. All of you undoubtedly have them. I need but mention a few. There are, especially on Rogation days and Corpus Christi, processions in which the members of the parish join as a body to worship and petition. There is the meaningful custom of visiting the cemetery, where the deceased members of the mystical body (but just as truly part of the living body) rest. There is the restoration of the true meaning and prayers of Halloween. There is the beautiful practice of making each baptism of a new member of the Church and of the parish a real parish function. We lay people make a great fuss aver baby showers and have all kinds of secular excitement over the birth of a baby. Could we not be helped to achieve even more enthusiasm for the birth (baptism) of a new member into the Church? To make baptism a parish affair is to teach the unity of members of the mystical body. Not only the parents, but also the parish should rejoice.

The parish also has secondary purposes: to serve as a social and cultural center for the people who are united in this basic religious society. This, too, is a broad topic, and one from which we could all profit by exchanging ideas. Complaints go to the two extremes: that the parish is "dead" and without any activities of this secondary nature; and the opposite, that there are so many societies and activities that the family which joined all they were exhorted to join would never have any time at home. I suggest merely that on this point we keep one thing in mind. The parish should not simply be duplicating secular activities that are already well organized. Of course, that is the easiest procedure. The people like card parties, bowling, athletics, bingo, and what-not. I am not condemning them. But in most places secular agencies provide enough outlet for such recreational and social urges. There is so little time, and the parish is so important that the busy pastor and his willing people should use the opportunity to higher ends. I mean that social, fraternal, and recreational devices should not be ends in themselves, nor should they be merely money making devices. They should be used as a means to build a rural culture, a Christian rural culture. Thus they should lead to higher things. Endless playing of cards will not build any culture. Endless bowling is not going to develop the human personality. Cards may be used as a bait, but creative recreation (plays, recitations, music, folk dances, the ancient crafts and arts) should be our aim. The secondary parish activities should be building personality and building culture, not merely providing parasitic and passive ways of spending time. Let Hollywood have the reputation for that.

I might add in passing that this is important, for unless a genuine rural culture is built in this country, rural America is doomed. Unless rural people have spiritual and cultural values, they will use their improved economic condition as a stepping stone to urban life. Unless rural children are trained to know and appreciate the special cultural values of the open country, they will not stay on the land. I grant that most rural people think they must relax and be entertained. That is the job of leadership, to show them how more re-creating and more entertaining creative activity is. And incidentally it will build better parish unity and keep the parish numerically strong.

II. The Environmental Aspect

The second general topic we should consider in regard to the family is the environmental aspect. The population statistics have been quoted so many times that it is unnecessary to go over them again. It is a simple fact that populations do not replace themselves in the city, and that rural families provide the population increase. Nothing more need be added to show us that the environment is important. For it is a law of nature that a species will reproduce itself in a healthy environment and that it will die in an unhealthy one. The human family is no exception.

Why, then, do we not apply ourselves with utmost vigor to righting that environment? Why do we spend our money and energy, and even our prayers, on applying politics to a sick and unhealthy environment, without going to the root of the problem?

We cannot complain of lack of leadership. Pope Pius XI and now Pope Pius XII have both drawn attention again and again to the evil of the "flight from the land" where "families are uprooted" and "strong traditions broken."

It is worth while re-reading that significant passage from Pope Pius XII's commentary on the fiftieth anniversary of Rerum Novarum, where he stated:

Of all the goods that can be the object of private property, none is more conformable to nature . . . than the land, the holding in which the family lives and from the products of which it draws all or part of its subsistence."(Emphasis added)

And it is in the spirit of Rerum Novarum to state that, as a rule, only that stability which is rooted in one's own holding makes of the family the vital and most perfect and fruitful cell of society. . . . If today the concept and the creation of living spaces is as the center of social and political aims, should not one, before all else, think of the living space of the family and free it of the fetters or conditions which do not permit even to formulate the idea of a homestead of one's own?

What are we to answer? Do we put "living space" of the family before all else? The Holy Father elaborated on the same idea in his Christmas message of 1942:

He who would have the star of peace shine out and stand guard over society . . . should give to the family, that unique cell of the people, space, light, and air so that it may attend to its missions of perpetuating new life and of educating children in a spirit corresponding to its own true religious convictions, and that it may preserve, fortify, and reconstitute, according to its powers, its proper economic, spiritual, moral, and juridic unity. . . . He should strive to secure for every family a dwelling where a materially and morally healthy family life may be seen in all its vigor and worth; he should take care that the place of work be not so separated from the home as to make the head of the family and educator of the children a virtual stranger to his own household.

Let us reflect on the basic requirements which the Holy Father has set down: space, light, and air . . .a homestead of one's own . . . the land . . . from which it draws all or part of its subsistence . . .only that stability which is rooted in one's own holding . . . a dwelling where a materially and morally healthy family life may be seen before all else . . .

Must we take this seriously? We must. And the advantage is that we can begin to do so without waiting for world conferences and vast government projects to initiate it. Each of us can do his part in restoring a proper environment to the family.

Proper Family Environment

This does not mean that every family must go to the farm. Far from it. The normal city—up to 50,000 population or so—represents the flowering of culture. We need them as much as they need the farm for preserving life. But these cities must be thought of as collections of families; they must preserve the requirements for family life, not break and twist and force families to suit the railroad and factory. These requirements may be briefly stated under three headings.

A. Privacy of dwelling. This is the best guarantee of "space, light, and air." Moreover, the family must be able to work, play, sing, pray, and even quarrel, in privacy. Every person and every family needs privacy and solitude if it is to mature properly, even as grains of corn must each have their little space. Corn will sprout if a peck is dumped on one place of the ground—a few stalks may grow and mature—but corn will not reproduce itself that way. So with persons and families. If there are many today who do not seem to desire a home, is it perhaps because they "do not dare even formulate" the idea?

B. Ownership of dwelling. The holding of one's own is a guarantee of many things; of security; of responsibility; of freedom; of a proper incentive to work; of stability (which is so important for children and parishes). It is a guarantee of political conservatism; of tradition and the re-establishment of the pride of family and homestead; of stewardship and respect of the gifts of God—the obligation to pass on as better that which one has received.

C. Productive homestead. The home should be the source of at least part of the family's subsistence. This is necessary, first of all, to give the family security and "freedom from fear and want." But even where the family income is sufficient to provide a steady supply of food, a productive homestead is essential, because it is the normal means for rearing children. If the homestead is productive—it may only be a 100x100 lot, but it will provide place for garden, for rabbits, for bees, for a shop in the basement, or whatever other way one can make and build—then parents have the best guarantee against delinquency. For God made us to work and pray, and allows us to play only that we may work and pray the better. But in our highly urbanized society there is no place for children to work at home under the watchful eve of parents. Too often there is no place for them to work at all; consequently they arrive at maturity without the experience, without the joy of creative work. Is it any wonder that their youthful energy, plentifully supplied so that they may enter with enthusiasm into training (work) which will serve them for life, is frustrated and turns to destructive paths?

If the Holy Father is right in the criteria he has set up for family environment—and he is—then there is sufficient work for all of us for our generation, whether we are in rural or urban areas. The great cities and commercial farming have been a century in building. We must be realistic enough to recognize that they will be that long in "humanizing" in terms of the family.

Cooperation of Pastors

But the following ideas suggest themselves starting points:

1. For the rural pastor. Buoy up farm families. They have always been and will always be at a disadvantage with city people as far as luxury items and conveniences are concerned. But rural people have the basic requirements, and they do not appreciate them. They must be told. It must be explained to them. Do all that can be done to improve the material standards of housing; but make the people aware of the greater advantage of space, light, and air.

Then, rural families themselves need to think in terms of family living and not simply in terms of making money. One-crop farming is destructive of the productive home. Highly commercial farming, which aims at the fewest possible families on the land and the largest possible profit, is contrary to a Christian concept of the land, which aims at the largest possible number of families that can maintain a good living on the land.

2. For the urban pastor. Let us achieve wider vision and see the narrow immediate problems of broken families and delinquency (both parental and juvenile) in terms of an unhealthy home environment. Then, whatever is done will be measured in terms of its effect on the family. The location of new industries, municipal legislation, the building of churches and schools all will be evaluated, among other things, in terms of living space for the family. I know from personal interviews, and many of you must likewise know, there are numerous families that would be receptive to the idea of Catholic communities, "one foot on the land and one in industry," families willing and eager to move out of the center of cities to the edge, where each family can have living space; yet not so far but that work, church, and school can be reached. What is needed is leadership. How glorious if that leadership comes from spiritual leaders, working democratically and cooperatively, instead of relying on government projects alone which may fail for want of spiritual leadership! Cities will be the flowering of culture only when family life is normal and healthy. If all our leaders, religious and civic, were convinced of this, the cities of tomorrow would be objects of genuine beauty and pride instead of the "graveyards" of civilization, which they are today.

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