Complexity of Family Life in All Its Variations

29 December 2019 | General Interest



Mt 2.13-23 Ecc 3.2-14 Col 3.12-21


As 2019 disappears into the smoke and mist! It has hardly been a good year in many ways, with the darkness, alienation, self-centredness and suffering in our world. Yet one of our challenges is to counter that negativity with the spirit of faithful disciples who take the Christmas spirit to heart and continue to live it in a troubled world, as people of peace, good will and love, starting at home.

Today’s feast is overshadowed by Christmas celebrations preceding and New Year proceeding, but it’s worth spending a moment reflecting on just what family means for each of us. Holy Family is a bit too unreal and impractical if we consider the literal scene presented, with Mary and Joseph as ideal parents, yet hardly a normal couple, starting off in uncertainty and confusion, then wonder and joy, gifted with the perfect child in Baby Jesus, who then grows to maturity with them in the background, Joseph fading out rather early on, it might be intuited, and Mary ever present as loving support for her son, whose mission must have been something she both worried and wondered about. As Luke says, she pondered these things in her heart from the start.  And so we really can’t take them as normal role models for ourselves, except in terms of admiration for faith, love, perseverance and acceptance in moving forward into the unknown, understanding God’s Will as requiring them to make responsible decisions for themselves along their life journey, as for you and me too.

The UN designated 1994 (now 25 years back!) as the International Year of the Family, but only after debates about just what constituted family in the diversity of our world, ending up with the theme: “Family: resources and responsibilities in a changing world.” It was declared: “Instead of confusion and hesitation, there is now consensus about the role of the family in human society. Today, a new realism prevails. It is accepted that the family is a fundamental institution of human society. Indeed, it is established that society is a structure made up of families and individuals related to society, in the first instance, through families.”

Margaret Thatcher (ex-British PM of 1980’s) is quoted, having said: “There is no such thing as society”, emphasising the importance of families and personal responsibility of individuals. To my mind, this is taking things too far, as society is essential for health care, education and welfare, as well as providing the infrastructure for our local environment and ensuring fair, just and socially responsible management of the world in which we live, love and work.

Family life is complicated, as we all know, and a time like Christmas can highlight this fact, with differences in outlooks, personalities, diverse partners and cultures thrown into the mix, faith perspectives and lifestyles. It’s all very well to define family as mum and dad and 2 or so children, perhaps still the norm these days, in terms of averages, but ideals are one thing and reality another, whatever we might like to think. And it doesn’t always work out.

Since my involvement in literally thousands of marriage annulment cases and judgements over the last 33 years or so, my understanding has broadened considerably, as the fact is that 40% of marriages in our society, and broader western world, end in divorce, so blended families are relatively common and to be commended, where there is an effort to provide love, stability and security for children growing up in an affirming and affective environment. (And it’s 50 years since the first Roman Rotal Tribunal decision was given on psychological grounds of immaturity, to put it briefly!).  A fortunate consequence is that so many people have been given the opportunity to have another chance and get on with their lives and relationships, with Church support and inclusion.

As I’ve said before, divorce is a good thing, not a necessary evil, traumatic as the experience may be, where there are unresolvable problems in a relationship. There is nothing sacred about an abusive or dysfunctional relationship within or without marriage. People need to be free to find happiness and love, when it has been absent, or disappeared as time has evolved, and the initial glow worn off, and capacity to grow together just not there, whatever good intentions there might have been. It is necessary to provide the opportunity for a right to a loving and supportive partnership, beyond one that has ended, for whatever reason. No-one should be bound to the impossible or to misery and unhappiness for life.

The worst scenarios are where parents who have once loved each other and made a lifetime commitment, understandably sometimes cannot sustain it, but involve their children in their acrimony towards each other, rather than rationally and maturely worked out a means of lovingly supporting their children together, though apart. This seems to me to have got worse in time, to the extent I was in recent years subpoenaed to Court over a dispute at First Communion as to distance between estranged and hostile parents in church (after I had innocently asked if a father wished to have a photo taken with his daughter)! And there have been a number of other situations where, to my mind, sacramental celebrations have been abused by warring parents as ex-partners, whose behaviour hardly reflects having their children’s interests at heart, which surely should be the absolute priority. Sadly, sometimes it is not.

The first reading today from Ecclesiasticus is distilled wisdom and common sense about respect in families, obedience to parents (I always say, within reason, and there’s no harm in asking why, in fact a good thing to do when confused or frustrated!) and care, support and understanding in old age. But it is presuming that everything is lovely in family life, and we know it’s not that simple, is it?

And today, Paul writes to Colossians, in a reading I regularly use at Baptisms, affirming family life and with some practical advice, for which his credibility could be questioned, given that, like me, he was unmarried and childless, and perhaps fearful of women, so what would he know? There’s no harm in being an observer with an opinion, however, and what one must question is his warning to wives to give way to their husbands (remembering too, that he was a man of his time). I recall once having a female reader add: “And husbands, give way to your wives too!” It’s all about maturity and so, a determination to grow together in loving partnership as equals, prepared to communicate openly and compromise.

“Take time to laugh, to hug, to cry. Take time to wish, to dream, to hope. Take time to wonder, to reflect, to remember. Take time to talk, to listen, to share. Time is a gift. Take time for love this Christmas.” (Judith A Lindberg) And beyond, I say!  

With this in mind, let’s acknowledge, appreciate and celebrate our families and relationships, in all of their configurations and diversity.


john hannon                                            29th  December 2019


To read more of John's homilies click here