Families – and little ones – as the People of God

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Jesuit novices, from left: Paolo Beltrame, Thiranjala Weerasinghe, Desmond Gibney, Dunstan Rodrigues, John Bosco Noronha, Paul Prior, Ian Jackson.

 Jesuit novice Dunstan Rodrigues reflects on the World Meeting of Families. In the photo from left to right the Jesuit novices: Paolo Beltrame, Thiranjala Weerasinghe, Desmond Gibney, Dunstan Rodrigues, John Bosco Noronha, Paul Prior, Ian Jackson. Matthew Tumulty, the eighth novice, is not in the photo because he was preparing for his own personal meeting with Pope Francis!

The novices of Britain, Ireland and the Low Countries had the privilege to join in the World Meeting of Families in Dublin. Young adult faith sharing, Guinness drinking, reading about the life of St. Ignatius, coastline walking – the trip had activities to cater for all. It was a wonderful experience, culminating in the World Festival of Families on Saturday, and Sunday Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, both with Pope Francis.

Looking back on the trip, here are three things which will stay with me.

‘May the Lord preserve and increase this sense of shame and repentance’

First, there was the way Pope Francis begged for forgiveness for the abuse of power in the institutional Church. At the Mass in Phoenix Park, Francis’ penitential act started with the lines: ‘We ask forgiveness for the cases of abuse in Ireland, the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse on the part of representatives of the Church.’ At the end, he uttered the prayer - ‘May the Lord preserve and increase this sense of shame and repentance, and grant us the strength to ensure that it never happens again and that justice is done.’

Rather than treat the abuse as a page in history to be turned or moved on from, this request to ‘preserve and increase a sense of shame and repentance’ struck me. I realised that, if we are all one body of Christ, we must all take responsibility for crimes committed.  I must weep and beg forgiveness for the wounds experienced by victims of abuse, rather than - as I tend to now - defensively say that I am not responsible. It also left me reflecting on the importance of our formation in the novitiate: helping us to build healthy, generative and intimate relationships and to avoid abusive, secretive and objectifying ones. More than a pleasant means of growing and being happy, this process has the lives and welfare of others at stake.

Families – and little ones – as the People of God

Second, what also struck me was the central role that lay people and families played in the celebration - perhaps a glimpse of the shape the Church is taking? There was a nice sense in which Pope Francis was not the focus of attention, unlike other papal events I have seen. Like the rest of the crowd, he faced the front of the stadium and was part of the audience. We heard testimonies from eight families across the world on various themes - including welcoming migrants, honouring generations and reconciliation. Francis exhorted: ‘You, dear families, are the vast majority of the People of God. What would the Church look like without you?’

So, one really had the sense that families constitute the Church as the People of God, and not least among these are the children. Dancing around, laughing and often performing, they clearly had a ball. During one of the performances, entitled ‘From Way Up Here’, an aerialist descended from the top of the stage, with a projection of planet earth behind him on the screen - as if he was dancing on the moon. And then singing began - composed and heavenly. Faces twisted and turned, trying to find out where the voice was coming from. And then we realized: it was from a young boy at the top corner of the whole stadium - singing, gesturing very lightly and surveying all…Looking down on planet earth and the crowd, he was closest to God’s perspective - a beautiful and imaginative illustration that the kingdom of God belongs to the little ones.

Hearing Jesus’ challenging words

Third, what struck me was that the audience was encouraged to hear Jesus’ challenging words. Perhaps a temptation in such an event as the World Meeting of Families is for it to become a self-satisfied feel-good affair: the joy of love made into an empty circus. Can talk about families be comfortable and affirming to those who have one, but rather saddening and alienating for those whose family is broken or separated, with seemingly little chance of repair?  How do we express the message of Jesus Christ - who comforts the afflicted and agitates the comfortable - when talking about the family?

I think Pope Francis did something of this – both encouraging and challenging the audience in different ways. He emphasised in extremely strong terms the importance of valuing the elderly, exclaiming at one point: ‘A society that does not value grandparents is a society that has no future!’ He encouraged us all to take seriously the important gestures, acts and behaviours that sustain family life - “reconcile and make peace before the end of the day”; “regularly say “please”, “thank you” and “sorry”” ... And, finally, reflecting in Sunday’s homily on the disciples’ desertion of Jesus after their teacher’s challenging words (John 6: 60-68), Francis outlined the life-giving challenges for the family in our own time:

‘But let us also humbly acknowledge that, if we are honest with ourselves, we too can find the teachings of Jesus hard.  How difficult it is always to forgive those who hurt us; how challenging always to welcome the migrant and the stranger; how painful joyfully to bear disappointment, rejection, betrayal; how inconvenient to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, the unborn or the elderly, who seem to impinge upon our own sense of freedom.’

So, through radical fidelity to Christ and the Gospel, the family becomes a place of hospitality, reconciliation, justice and tenderness – something (whether in a marriage, religious order or parish), despite its difficulty, we can all pray and strive for.