Pope Francis’ Intention for August: Families, Schools of Human Growth – That families, through their life of prayer and love, become ever more clearly “schools of true human growth.”
When I was at school, I wondered if I could ever be a good parent. I thought I would never know enough to teach my child how to walk, talk, pray and read. I imagined that all teaching was like that done at school – teacher knew everything and had to explain it in words the student would understand.
Of course, not all teaching is like that. Small children learn by imitation, doing what they see others do. That is true also of the most important thing in life – learning how to live. We learn from the example of those we love and admire.
That is why Pope Francis calls families schools of true human growth, both for children and adults. We learn from one another’s example, are inspired by our young children’s innocence just as they are by our experience, and learn from the encouragement we receive in our experiences of success and failure, of sin and forgiveness, of experiment and reflection, of foolishness and wisdom.
In families, too, we learn to negotiate. As little children everything is about ourselves. We gradually learn that we need to persuade others if we are to get what we want. As time goes on, we find we want to please people because we love them. We gradually learn the complex grammar of relationships. We see that in order to get our way on one thing we often need to give way on another, that the greatest gift we receive comes in the gift we make of ourselves, and that if we accept gifts from others they will often be more delighted than if we had given them a gift.
Families, too, are the place where we learn the language of faith. In many Catholic families, children first learn to pray at home, come to believe in a God who loves them, and make Jesus and Mary their friends. But the deeper learning takes place not through words but through what the family does. Faith is part of living together. If we pray together as a family, go to church together, have religious art around us, and associate with God the deep, wordless experiences we have of beauty and of mystery, and if the life of Jesus becomes vivid in our childhood, our faith will be deeply rooted.
Our family experience also shapes the way we imagine God and church. Our parents provide our earliest and most enduring images of what God is like. When we first say the Our Father, the face of God that we see is likely to be that of our own father or mother. If we hear that Jesus is our brother, he will be like our own brother. The way we see the church and its liturgy will also be coloured by the ways in which we celebrate events in our own close and extended family.
No family is perfect, of course, and we all need to forget some lessons we learned in our families, just as our own children will have things to forget. Schools and families are made up of human beings from whom we will often learn what God is not like, as well as what God is like. Above all, our families introduce us to the real world in which we live and teach us how to live generously within it.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ writes for Jesuit Communications and Jesuit Social Services.