A flourishing Christian family does not have to be one with no trials or serious difficulties. In fact, many trials—such as financial failure, personal tragedies, accidents, sickness, physical or mental disabilities, and so on—are not only compatible with a flourishing Christian family, they often cause the supernatural character of a flourishing Christian family to shine forth. Certain Christian virtues simply cannot grow to perfection without being tested through trials and obstacles.
Even the Holy Family experienced hardship through misunderstandings that were unavoidable, such as when St. Joseph did not understand how his wife was with child (Matt. 1:19) or when Jesus’ parents did not understand why he had left without telling them (Luke 2:48).
These misunderstandings became the occasion of great trust and the love that “believes all things” (1 Cor. 13:7.) St. James says simply: “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you meet various trials” (Jas. 1:2).
Having set aside that misconception, what are some marks of a flourishing Christian family?
First Mark: Integrity
A flourishing Christian family is marked, first, by all its members—father, mother and children—being present and active. The family is not divided by divorce, or by strife between the parents or among the children. The family is often present together as a whole on a daily basis. The father or mother do not go off frequently on their own away from the family. The children spend most of their time together, not out with their friends or at functions apart from the rest of the family.
One of the most difficult challenges young people face in the modern world is the expectation that both parents must work to maintain an adequate standard of living. The powers behind these expectations are largely cultural. Against these cultural influences it is often heard that in a traditional Catholic family, dad works while mom stays home. But the truth is that in a traditional Catholic family both parents were usually home with their children. For most of human history, life was agrarian in nature and the family lived and worked together on their farm or in some sort of trade that could be done from home.
It was only with the industrial revolution that fathers left home to work, essentially leaving their wives to be single mothers for most of the waking hours of the day. It’s no surprise that women, finding this kind of life excessively burdensome, began to look for relief outside the home as well. This led to the “daycare” system, in which children from a very young age are cared for and educated—both morally and academically—outside the home by persons other than their parents.
In many cases, perhaps, this situation is practically unavoidable. Most people can’t simply choose to go back to the culture that existed before the industrial revolution. But this should not prevent us from recognizing that it is not best for children to be cared for by persons other than their parents. No one know or loves children, and naturally seeks their good more, than their parents. Not only that, but it is easy to see that the natural bonds of affection that children bear toward their parents are weakened when their parents are only part-time caregivers. So despite the challenges our culture poses, the principle still stands: parents should order our lives toward family integrity, maximizing the time they spend together with our spouse raising their own children.
So what are some ways to promote and preserve integrity in the modern, post-industrial-revolution family? First of all, it is important to examine honestly what you really need to live on and raise your children. Many of the amenities and comforts that have become expectations in the modern world (especially in wealthy countries like the United States) are not really necessities. They are only cultural expectations. You don’t have to keep up with the Joneses; you have to care for your children. You are raising them for heaven, not Harvard. Cutting unnecessary expenses can make it possible to be a better-integrated family.
One of the blessings of the information revolution—accelerated by the recent pandemic—is an increase in opportunities to earn a living wherever you have a phone and a computer. Many companies are becoming comfortable with remote employment, allowing parents to work from home. It may take some extra discipline to work well and productively while under the same roof as your spouse and young children, but more and more families are showing that this is a viable option that strengthens their integrity.
Another step you might take is to cut back on social activities that take you away from your spouse and children. Of course there may be circumstances in which it’s impractical to include your family in such activities, but the general principle holds: if you are married, most of your social interactions should be together with your family. It may seem like an impingement upon your freedom, but freedom is really about the ability to do what is best for you and your true happiness. And it serves your vocation, and thus your happiness in this world and the next, to incorporate your family into most of your social activities.
Second Mark: Communion
Communion is when members within the family share one life. Each person knows, loves, is known by, and is loved by all the others. Typically united by ties of blood and generation, in family communion there is a mutual containment of each in each, or of all in all, by love and knowledge. The partaking together of daily activities, such as common meals, exemplifies this unity.
Within a family, the life of the father is in some sense lived by every other member, since the wife and children know and love and enjoy it with him (or sorrow with him). So too the life of the mother is in some sense lived by every other member, and so on. So the family is not only a community, but also a communion of persons, since all the members in some sense live the life of the others.
Communion between spouses is also reflected in marital intercourse that is open to the generation of new life. Self-possession and the capacity to take initiative make communion possible, since nothing gives what it does not possess, and communion at its highest level involves giving oneself. For spouses to reflect and signify the mystery of trinitarian communion, their mutual giving must be a giving of the totality of self: “The total physical self-giving [of intercourse&91; would be a lie if it were not the sign and fruit of total personal self-giving, in which the whole person, including the temporal dimension, is present” (Familiaris Consortio 11).
Last of all, communion implies openness and honesty among the members of a family. Spouses should have no secrets from each other—in imitation of Jesus, who said that he called his disciples friends and not servants “for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15). Likewise, parents should be proactive in letting children know that they want to know about their struggles and difficulties, and should make them feel confident in their parent’s help. But think twice about preemptively striking with information your child is not yet seeking. Better to make a habit of checking with your children and of asking them questions about what’s on their mind. This is especially true in matters pertaining to sexual morality, since the proper forum to learn about bringing new life into the world is within one’s own family.
Children on their part should be open with their parents, especially when they find themselves confronted with temptations to sin. In my experience, children want their parents to talk to them about sexual morality when they are ready. In fact, those times when children do show some embarrassment when parents speak to them about sexual morality are often a sign that the children have already heard something from outside the home about these things. If this is the case, you should be sure to console them and assure them that they should always come to you in the future to talk about these matters.
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