In preparation for the Synod on the Family, Pope Francis made it clear that the Synod Fathers do not have to “fix” the family. Rather, he is concerned that the family, rather than being an object for concern and study, be the subject of evangelization.
It took me awhile to get to the meaning of the phrase “subject of evangelization.” My memories of diagramming English sentences in school helped me. A subject, Sister taught us, is who or what is doing the acting and an object is who or what is being acted upon. A simple example would be “Mary Lou makes cookies.” Mary Lou—the doer, the one acting—is the subject of the baking. Cookies are the object—the result of the doer’s work.
In looking at families as the subject of evangelization, Pope Francis is bringing us back to the beginnings of our Faith. Husbands and wives were baptized by the first disciples of Jesus. In turn their children were baptized. The original Christian families were not passive inert believers. The grace of baptism lit a flame in their minds and hearts. They loved Jesus. They talked about him despite the threat of persecution. Others caught the fire and Christianity spread.
Before the Apostles Peter and Paul reached the capitol of the Roman Empire, others had already laid the ground for evangelization before them. When St. Paul arrived at the port of Puteoli—now called Pozzuoli—he was met by a group of Christians with whom he spent a full week. As he traveled the remaining 170 miles to Rome along the Appian Way he met other believers. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that “more believers came from Rome to accompany him” as he approached the city of Rome. Seeds of the faith had been sown, taken root, and grown before the Apostles Peter and Paul arrived!
Who evangelized those people? No doubt merchants and tradesmen and women from Jerusalem and Antioch in Syria had preceded St. Paul’s arrival. As they traveled to Rome on business they made sure to tell their Roman neighbors the Good News of Jesus Christ. The Acts of the Apostles tells us about Prisca and her husband Aquila, Jewish converts to Christianity and tent makers, were trusted co-workers of St. Paul. Those two were first evangelizers and then tent makers.
There are many different ways to go about evangelizing, or sharing the good news of Jesus’ love with others. As I reflect on how Pope Francis is inviting families today to reclaim their place as the subject of evangelization, I believe he is inviting families to “oikos” evangelization. In Greek, oikos means house or home. This kind of spreading the Gospel message started in homes. The family fireplace symbolized the flame of the love of Christ and belief in the resurrected Christ learned at home.
Even a New Year’s toast can be a form of oikos evangelization! Some years ago, I met a Monsignor from New York serving in Florida. He reminisced about how one New Year’s Eve his parents had invited the couple from the next door apartment over for a New Year’s toast. The priest’s parents talked about how they were going to Mass on New Year’s Day. The other couple seemed a bit embarrassed. They had not been to Mass in several years. As good friends, the host couple asked why the absence from Mass. The guest couple said they had not been married “in the Church.” Rather than dismiss the whole thing, the church-going couple made it easy for their friends to approach a priest. Soon the marriage was blessed in the Church.
Several years ago in San Antonio a lady recounted the story about her grandfather, a genuine cowboy. Along with several cowhands, every week he rode horseback from the Rio Grande Valley up to the stock yards of San Antonio, Texas. After handing over the cattle herds on Saturday, the men would sleep in on Sunday, then head back to the Valley. Every Sunday, however, the man who was to be our story-teller’s grandfather would be awakened from his sleep by a fellow cowhand who got up very early. One Sunday, determined to discover the reason for this early rising, he followed the cowboy. To his surprise, the early-riser made his way to the closest Catholic Church. He never missed a Sunday Mass. That silent cowboy’s example drew his co-worker into the faith. Now his descendants tell the Good News of the early-rising cattle wrangler. The cowboy did not speak with words about his faith. Probably each man had a portion of the long horns to herd. The noise of the cattle and the dust they kicked up must have made for sparse conversation on the trail. The Mass-attending cowboy evangelized by his public witness.
Yet there are times when it is well that we speak. Pope Francis is very direct. In his document, The Joy of the Gospel he says, “Saint Paul, after his encounter with Jesus Christ, ‘immediately proclaimed Jesus’ (Acts 9:20; cf. 22:6-21). So what are we waiting for?” (no. 120)
Just yesterday I had a phone call from friends whom I met in the 1990’s in North Carolina. The couple had been married for fifty years, blessed with children and 11 grandchildren. The husband was from the deep South. A non-Catholic Christian, he had kept his promise to raise his children Catholic. He hesitated, however, to embrace Catholicism even though he went to Mass with his wife every Sunday. Of course his wife was praying that he would make the step to enter the Church. Their long-time pastor, Father Karl gave him books to read and tapes to hear. But the husband was a busy physician. His wife kept nudging. After their golden wedding anniversary, the husband made a serious decision to embrace the Catholic Faith. Sometimes evangelization has to be sowed over and over, with lots of patience and above all with persistent love.
In my own family I witnessed the reward of patience a few years ago. A niece had been estranged from her Dad, my younger brother. For years my brother tried to reach out to her with no success. I only had memories of her as a four year old. Now she had matured into a hard-working wife and Mom.
Even though I never heard from her or received any cards or notes, every Christmas and Easter I would send a greeting card and a little newsletter about my life as a Pauline Sister. Often I included family news too. The only glimpse of hope was that the letters were never returned to me by the post office.
One day the Sister who takes care of our general email account forwarded an email to me: It was from my niece. “I have an aunt in your order. She used to be stationed in…. Would you be able to contact her for me?” At first I was very cautious, since I did not want to trigger any hurt feelings or other negativity. With a lot of prayer and thought I answered her. It took more emails, phone calls, and photos exchanged over time. Finally the time was right and father and daughter spoke, forgave whatever needed to be forgiven and are back “in the family.” My “Grandpa brother” loves his daughter and his grandsons. Evangelization took place through the patient work toward loving reconciliation among my family members. “Where there is love, there is God.”
As the Synod on the Family continues, let us join in prayer that families today may be truly “transformed in love” so that they may become active evangelizers in their homes, their work places and in their cities and towns.
Join us in praying the Prayer to the Holy Family for the Synod:
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
in you we contemplate the
splendor of true love,
to you we turn with trust.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
grant that our families too
may be places of communion and prayer,
authentic schools of the Gospel
and small domestic Churches.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
may families never again
experience violence, rejection and division:
may all who have been hurt or scandalized
find ready comfort and healing.
Holy Family of Nazareth,
may the Synod of Bishops
make us once more mindful
of the sacredness and inviolability of the family,
and its beauty in God’s plan.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph,
graciously hear our prayer.
Sister Mary Peter Martin