Dear people of Arundel & Brighton,
A family in one of our parishes in Surrey had two girls from Africa staying with them recently, and the mother was telling me about some of the questions that arose as they had to begin to get used to another culture. One evening she prepared a meal and sat the two girls down with her own two daughters. After a while they noticed that the two African girls weren’t eating, and asked them why. The girls were very polite and probably shy and didn’t say much, but still didn’t eat. It took a little while to realise that the problem was that they simply didn’t know how to use a knife and fork. We take it for granted that people all over the world use a knife and fork, until we go to a Chinese restaurant, that is.
But it’s a chance to reflect on just how much we learn in the family and in the home, if we are lucky enough to have those two things. Babies are born with a few basic instincts; they can breathe, swallow, suck and grip. Most of the rest of what they need to do has to be taught, and the lessons can be difficult. With the so-called ‘potty-training’ for instance, is this a good or bad place to put things?
The family really is an indispensible part of human growth, and if we do dispense with it, then we pay the costs at some stage. The family can be a single parent, it can be grandparents, it can be foster parents, but a child needs to have the support of someone to be able to grow in what today’s gospel calls “wisdom, in stature and in favour with God and men.” The first reading is from one of the books of the Old Testament we call ‘wisdom literature’ and there are nearly forty chapters of sound, practical teaching, much of it very relevant for today – “Do not beggar yourself by banqueting on credit, when there is nothing in your pocket.”
But going back to today’s gospel, the two parts of ‘growing in favour with God and with men’ are equally important and, we would say, inseparable. The home is the place where we first learn to believe in God. My own family was and is no more devout than any other, but I remember kneeling down together before we went to bed and all praying together. On Sunday there was no question about what the day held; we went to Mass and never questioned it. There was no coercion or pressure, there was no need for it. I know that things have changed now for young people and, therefore, their parents, in terms of other things happening on Sundays, but the principle remains. In the same way that we learn respect for people, for other people’s property, for our own possessions and for ourselves, so the home is the place we should first learn respect for God.
How do we do this? How do we do anything to teach children? We don’t simply tell them to keep their rooms tidy if the rest of the house is a mess. We can’t tell them not to be greedy if we indulge ourselves as adults. As the writer of Ecclesiasticus says, “My son, be gentle in carrying out your business, and you will be better loved than a lavish giver.” Treat a child with gentleness and the child will grow up gentle; if a child grows up in a household of conflict and anger, the child will assume that this is how people normally live. I think that is a lesson that the writer of Ecclesiasticus hadn’t quite grasped: he opens chapter 30 with the words, “A man who love his son will beat him frequently.” He lets himself down a bit there, but different times, different values.
The Feast of the Holy Family today is an opportunity to reflect on how we pass on faith to our children along with all the other things we feel are important for them. It’s a time for us all to think about what explicit lessons we give young people about how faith is lived. If, for instance, Mass is seen to be just one of the many options available on Sunday, then how important will it seem? If adults are unwilling or unable to answer basic questions that children have about God and faith, then why should the children consider the question to have value? How can we talk about faith if we don’t show it, and how can we assume to pass the responsibility on to the school, any more than we would pass on to the school the responsibility to clothe or feed the child?
I know that it is a very difficult time for many parents today. For many the difficulties are financial, and that can create great problems when young people experience inequality and feel the need to conform and be like their peers. For many, there are difficulties created by all the other influences working on their children, particularly through their phones and computers, giving them access to things that are really not proper for young people, or indeed for adults.
The two little girls from Africa probably weren’t familiar with computers either, but I imagine that they knew they were loved within a family, and if we are to talk about ‘privilege’ and ‘affluence’, who is the better off? The family is just such an important school of humanity and faith that we must be quite firm to resist any proposed government legislation that threatens to undermine or compromise it. Where did Jesus learn compassion? When his parents do finally find him in Jerusalem after three days, their words are a gentle reproof, “See how worried your father and I have been, looking for you.”
I wish you happiness and peace in the year that lies ahead. It may not be any easier than the year that is ending, but let us pray for the wisdom to see things for what they are and join with the words of the opening prayer of today’s Mass of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph: “Grant that we imitate them in practising the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity.”
With my best wishes and prayers.
Bishop of Arundel & Brighton