St Joseph is the father and lord of the Holy Family. Is this because he is more important than the other members of the family? Clearly not. His spouse was the sinless ever-virgin Mary; his “son” Jesus, was “true God and true man.” Nonetheless, in accord with an authentic human anthropology, and as husband, his role is properly to guide, protect, to provide for, and administer the workings of the family.
The husband and father models virtues especially vital to his sons: fortitude, fidelity, temperance, especially purity. To his daughters he teaches the importance of finding - in a man – an unconditional and other-centered love. He expresses the masculinity of faith, hope, and love. He shows how strength is tempered with mercy. Indeed, “The divine Fatherhood, [of God the Father], is the source of human fatherhood.” (Eph 3: 14 - Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2214).
Mary’s role, in accord with her feminine nature, becomes the very icon of the mother. She trusts and ponders; she gives birth, nurtures and feeds; she prepares the home – the “nest.” Like the Father, the wife and mother is entrusted with the teaching and modeling of certain virtues. She is a ready receiver. She listens and welcomes. It is said, “Behind every good man is a woman.” The wife and mother supports and encourages what is good, first in her husband. She helps to shape her husband’s aspirations and to assist him in reaching his worthy goals. Because she sees both his strengths and limitations, she can help him make adjustments without crushing his spirit. These are things mothers likewise do to support and encourage their children.
The Christ Child was the center and heart of the Holy Family, just as children are the center and heart of the family. Many of the energies of the family cell are directed to the formation of the children as complete and integral persons: body, mind, and soul - all in a unity and focused toward an eternal destiny. The child must entrust him or herself, in obedience, to the authority of the parents. The wonder of the child captivates the family, and is a sign of God’s greatness. Not every couple will bring children into the world, but an essential element of authentic marriage is “to be open to children.”
The work of man, woman, and child in loving and life-giving interaction is a mystery beyond measure. It requires at least two things more: 1) that each member carries out his or her proper function; and 2) that the family operates as an organic unity.
First: Each must carry out that duty or work that is proper to their role. If the Father fails to live his responsibility as model and protector, the family will experience a lack of stability and direction. If the Mother refuses to nurture and support the members, there will be less peace and security. If either dominates in a disproportionate way, or if the child is allowed to, or is expected to act as the parent, setting the goals and being the peace broker, the family is in dysfunction.
Second: The family must beat with one heart; it must operate as one body. The natures and work of husband and wife are designed to be complementary – to coalesce as one. St Paul provided a model and analogy for the Church as the body. “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ.” (I Cor 12:12) Just as St Paul saw the integral functioning of the human body as an analogy for the “Body of Christ,’ which is the Church – so also, in an analogous way, we may see the body as a model for the family.
An example: The kidney is not the sole determiner of healthy bodily function, but if it stops doing it proper work, the body will fail. Dialysis might be used – for a time – to compensate, but the body’s functioning is not what it should be. It is seriously compromised.
The family must work together, each member taking their proper part. In a family without a father, or a mother, the remaining parent will have to do their best to supply for the loss. They may be helped at times by relying on a trustworthy male or female advisor or role model for assistance in some elements of the formation of their sons and daughters. They themselves may need the support of close friends to encourage and advise them in the arduous work of caring for the family.
Another necessary ingredient in the organic unity of the family is prayer, the exercise of the spiritual life, and a living relationship with Almighty God. Neglecting this dimension of our life deprives the family of an element necessary to its full development.
Each member must be helped to grow in their individual life of prayer, the Sacraments, meaningful Catholic devotions, and the forming of a right conscience. The family has a unique mission to assist each of its members to reach heaven.
Boys may, at some moment in their lives, think prayer is not appropriate for men; that it is a sign of weakness. They can be deeply inspired by the faith and prayer modeled by their fathers. So also, girls may be instructed by the way their mothers incorporate holiness into all instances of their lives and work: in the most common tasks and/or in professional duties.
The simplicity and innocence of the prayers of children may move their parents’ hearts. Often when parents experience the birth of their children, and realize how God has entrusted to them a precious human life, they may attain a new maturity in their faith, and become more resolute in practicing their religion.
Individual holiness must be completed by a common and shared goal to be a “holy family.” This goal is real and attainable – with God’s grace. Venerable Father Patrick Peyton, (1909-1992) promoter of the Family Rosary Crusade, inspired and encouraged many families with the simple reminder, “The family that prays together, stays together.”
Prayer to the Holy Family
Dear Lord, Bless our family.
Be so kind as to give us the unity, peace, and
mutual love that You found in Your own family
in the little town of Nazareth.
Saint Joseph, pray for the father, the head of our family.
Obtain for him the strength, the wisdom,
and the prudence he needs to support and direct those under his care.
Mother Mary, pray for the mother of our family.
Help her to be pure and kind, gentle and self-sacrificing.
For the more she resembles you, the better will our family be.
Lord Jesus, bless the children of our family.
Help them to be obedient and devoted to their parents.
Make them more and more like You.
Let them grow, as You did,
in wisdom and strength and grace before God and man.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
by your intercession, love, and holy example,
make our family and home more and more like Yours,
until we are all one family, happy and at peace
in our true home with You.
Excerpt from an Address by Blessed Pope Paul VI, in Nazareth, January 5, 1964
How I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth! How wonderful to be close to Mary, learning again the lesson of the true meaning of life, learning again God’s truths. But here we are only on pilgrimage. Time presses and I must set aside my desire to stay and carry on my education in the Gospel, for that education is never finished. But I cannot leave without recalling, briefly and in passing, some thoughts I take with me from Nazareth.
First, we learn from its silence. If only we could once again appreciate its great value. We need this wonderful state of mind, beset as we are by the cacophony of strident protests and conflicting claims so characteristic of these turbulent times. The silence of Nazareth should teach us how to meditate in peace and quiet, to reflect on the deeply spiritual, and to be open to the voice of God’s inner wisdom and the counsel of his true teachers. Nazareth can teach us the value of study and preparation, of meditation, of a well-ordered personal spiritual life, and of silent prayer that is known only to God.
Second, we learn about family life. May Nazareth serve as a model of what the family should be. May it show us the family’s holy and enduring character and exemplifying its basic function in society: a community of love and sharing, beautiful for the problems it poses and the rewards it brings; in sum, the perfect setting for rearing children—and for this there is no substitute.
Finally, in Nazareth, the home of a craftsman’s son, we learn about work and the discipline it entails. I would especially like to recognize its value—demanding yet redeeming—and to give it proper respect. I would remind everyone that work has its own dignity. On the other hand, it is not an end in itself. Its value and free character, however, derive not only from its place in the economic system, as they say, but rather from the purpose it serves.