By Jessie Tappel, M.S.
Is the family ready to hear the message of Pope Francis? Pope Francis has not ceased making splashes in the headlines, his emphasis on family life being no exception.
Throughout the last two years of his pontificate, he has offered a lived witness to what it means to know and care for the needs of those around him. How often have we seen him smiling, touching, holding, teaching and caring for the poor? Through the example of his simple actions, he speaks a larger message. At the heart of every human is a capacity to love and to be loved. And where does that begin? Christ was born into the heart of a family to bring love into the world that will only be seen by his suffering, death and resurrection. Where does the love begin? The family.
Pope Francis’ message has been focused outward, accompanying those families around him. This encourages a reorientation of our own posture toward the restoration of a culture that promotes the family. It is from the family that we first learn the meaning of sacrifice, overcoming obstacles and loving unconditionally. It is the family that must be strengthened and in order to be strengthened we must be convicted of the importance of the family.
Taking our cue from the Holy Father’s words and example, how can we strengthen the family?
- Be other-centered: A strong family must be oriented toward the other. This becomes obvious in the task of raising children and the self-sacrifice inherent in parenthood! Where does this orientation begin? It begins in the commitment of a husband and wife in the vocation of marriage. How can this attitude be cultivated? Prayer is a natural orientation to the other because at the heart of prayer is a relationship with another: God. Accessing the deepest desires of your heart in prayer can help you to discover your identity as a child of God and cultivate an other-centered relationship within your family. The traditional saying still rings true, “The family that prays together, stays together!”
- Embrace the cross: Suffering can bring us closer to what is good and can draw us away from obstacles to achieving happiness. Pain can prompt a new posture, a turning from evil to embrace stronger relationships with others and with God (Salvifici Doloris, 12). It is impossible to live the Christian life without suffering, but embracing a given cross can give a new perspective to fruitful, family life with all of the difficulties that come. As Pope Francis reflects, “Life is a journey full of challenges, difficult at times, and also with its conflicts, but that is life.”
- Accompany: Walking alongside, sharing in your day-to-day experiences, encountering each other in the normal routine, this is when the fruit of the family can truly grow. Pope Francis reflects that the family must be accompanied “and this also means wasting time. The greatest master of wasting time is Jesus. He wasted time accompanying, to help consciences mature, to heal the wounds, to teach,” the pope said. The family should imitate Jesus and ‘waste time’ together. Sitting around the dinner table, putting down your phones, turning off the television and being present to those around you can create an atmosphere of accompaniment.
- Express Gratitude: By listening and sharing with one another, the verbal expression of gratitude should flow from the gift of the person in front of us. Saying thank you often. Sharing in the positive attributes of the other. John Gottman, a renowned marriage therapist, speaks of the importance of Positive vs. Negative Sentiment Override in a relationship, as this is one key to a successful relationship. How often have you laughed together? Throwing yourself into the adventure of life is humorous at times. Be grateful. By showing mutual care and respect for the other serves as graciousness in the service of the family.
- Forgive: Flowing from the foundation of openness and honesty of the marriage, forgiveness is essential. Recognizing when you have done wrong and asking for forgiveness must be a pillar of family life. Teaching forgiveness to children when they are young can help them to receive and give to another person. Pope Francis says he always gives this advice to a newly married couple: “Argue as much as you want. If the plates fly, let them. But never end the day without making peace. Never!”
As Pope Francis has said, the family faces a crisis “because it is being bludgeoned by all sides, leaving it very wounded.” There is no other choice than to go to the family’s aid and give them personal help. Forgiveness, prayer and dedication with the intention to strive for a healthy family are the ingredients to strengthening family life.
Jessie Tappel, M.S., graduated from the Institute for the Psychological Sciences and now serves as a clinician for Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Arlington as well as the Director for Communications for IPS, a Catholic graduate school for psychology. She is passionate about educating on issues related to Catholicism and Mental Health.