“And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them.”
In the night office today, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux points out that Jesus was subject not only to Mary, but “to them,” meaning both Joseph and Mary. “That God should obey a woman is lowliness without parallel, that woman should rule over God, an elevation beyond comparison.” And Joseph, of course was not even Jesus’ biological father—yet Jesus chose obedience to both of them. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are proposed to us—for our imitation—as the ideal model of a family.
I think it is safe to say that even growing up in happy family surroundings always entails some difficulty. With three or more people there will be three or more personalities—with the possibility of arguments over how things are to be done. There may be clashes over how resources are shared, about the friends each member may have, how to dress, what hours to keep, what to eat—and an untold number of other things.
According to the saintly Pope Leo XIII, devotion to Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as “the Holy Family” is said to have originated in Europe by the seventeenth century. Pope Leo urged that everyone living in a family—the rich and the poor, those of high estate or low, every father, mother, son and daughter—could learn from and be comforted by the lives of the Holy Family. After all, they lived very normal lives, and faced the same difficulties as normal people and normal families. We don’t read of any miracles worked by God to make their life any easier—there were real‑life chores for all of them. Jesus was a full grown man of thirty before He worked His first domestic miracle—changing water into wine, not for His family, but for His mother’s friends.
Pope Leo wrote at a time when the industrial revolution was in full swing. Industry can be a wonderful thing—it made food and medicine more available for everyone, warm clothing for the poor, and leisure time for art and education. But for many families it came at a high price. It meant that they could not live in extended families on the hereditary farm, but instead, they had a great incentive to move to a city to obtain factory work. Quarters were cramped, and mothers and children were often induced to take factory jobs which disrupted quality family time, and may even have been dangerous.
On the family farm a large family lived a better quality of life than a small one, and it was relatively easy to shelter and feed each additional member. City life could easily lead artificial birth prevention and marital infidelity. Quite likely, this was on the Pope’s mind when he wrote his Apostolic Letter—and on the mind of Benedict XV, when he extended this feast day to the entire Church.
Technology has continued to improve since the 1890s—and it continues to have a mixture of good and bad effects. Again, basic necessities have become even more available—we have made great strides in medicine, and food and clothing from around the world have become affordable. Yet sellers and financers of these products have made a concerted effort (largely through the media and public education) to convince modern people that they have the right to make use of our abundance, even in sinful ways.
Modern medicine (often in conjunction with modern law) has made it much more convenient to prevent or even eliminate one’s children and to eliminate one’s elderly relatives—indeed, in many places, you can even eliminate yourself. The Internet can be used for wonderful good things, but it can also be the vehicle of sinful entertainment, and an opportunity for children and spouses to meet the wrong people.
I am a reasonably technology‑savvy person, but some of the recent developments sound to me like science fiction gone wrong. Regularly, we hear that there are male and female robots out there—with the implication that you can own a perfectly obedient spouse—a spouse with an “off switch”! There was even a recent article about a Japanese fellow (a school administrator) who married a hologram—a rather small 3D laser projection that this poor man now thinks of as his “wife.”
As a priest, I am of course concerned with the moral aspects of these things. But even the atheist should be concerned with the practical aspects. Disrupted families bring high societal costs. Professor Walter Williams tells us that:
According to the 1938 Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, that year only 11 percent of black children were born to unwed mothers. As late as 1950, female-headed households constituted only 18 percent of the black population. Today it’s close to 70 percent. In much earlier times, during the late 1800s, there were only slight differences between the black family structure and those of other ethnic groups. In New York City in 1925, 85 percent of kin-related black households were two-parent households. Welfare has encouraged young women to have children out of wedlock.
Boys and girls both suffer from the fatherless home. Education is inhibited and crime soars.
People are not replacing themselves. Recent statistics hold that “the nationwide [fertility] rate was 16 percent lower than what is considered the level for a population to replace itself.” We are having less than two children per family!
Clearly, things are far worse than when Pope Leo wrote his apostolic letter. Whether for God or for society, whether we are children or well past the child bearing years, the only answer is that we must conduct our lives in imitation of the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
Recently, I have been adding the Collects of the Holy Family to most of our Masses. Please consider attending additional Masses to pray for the return of Christian principles to our society!