Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In these days of joyful celebration at the birth of our Saviour, the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, calls us to support and witness to the importance and the sanctity of sacramental marriage and family life.
But this is something we are being called to do in unprecedented times, when everything to do with marriage and family seems to be questioned and challenged, so why does the Church believe that these are so important?
We believe that the Family is God-given, and that even in its most primitive form, the Family is clearly something which has been present in the world from the very beginning.
The Family is a sacred unit, it is God’s way of providing stability for the human race and this is reflected in the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, having been conceived in the womb of his mother, the virgin Mary, is born into a family, and in that family he experiences the love of both his mother and his foster-father, Joseph.
Jesus was nurtured and supported by Mary and Joseph, and as he matured into a young man he was surrounded by examples of their love and commitment.
We also believe that the family is the best setting for our children to grow up in.
Our faith tells us that marriage is a life-long relationship of love and commitment between a man and a woman which is open to new life. Out of their love for each other, children are born and are welcomed with unconditional love, and so begins the life of the family.
That complimentary love of a father and mother provides the best place in which children may grow and develop into people who likewise know how to love one another.
In the family, children learn not only to value and respect their own life as gift from God, but also the lives of others, all others, irrespective of who the other may be.
The Church’s teaching gives us the perfect picture of marriage and family life, but we know that life is not always that straight-forward, and nor was it so straight-forward for the Holy Family either.
Today’s Gospel reminds us of the arduous journey that Mary and Joseph had to make to Bethlehem at the time of her pregnancy; of how at the very moment of the birth of Jesus, the family could find no accommodation and had been made homeless; of how they became refugees, fleeing from the danger and violence of Herod’s soldiers, before finally returning to the peace and safety of Nazareth some years later.
Our own families may not have gone through such major challenges, but nevertheless the challenges we do face are very real as we deal with the complexities of today’s society.
We know that there are many today who fall short of the ideal and struggle with marriage and family life and all that these entail, but nevertheless Christ extends his love and compassion towards them all.
And we as the Church, the Body of Christ here on earth, are called upon to do the same, to show love and compassion to all in any difficulty whatsoever.
Pope Francis calls on us to recognise the fact that no-one is perfect and that, as sinners, we are all called to repentance and forgiveness.
He also calls upon us to walk with one another in all the complex situations of family life, in its successes and failures, without fear of condemnation.
How can we walk with one another?
First of all, every Catholic family themselves can support and encourage each other, especially during those times when things are seemingly going so wrong.
We must also try to make sure that God is at the heart of our family life; our worship at Mass as a family each week is a unique and privileged time together, but we have to reinforce such moments when we are at home, perhaps by spending a short time of prayer with each other in the evening.
This we could do by reading out a few words from one of the Gospels, or praying for our family and for our needs and the need of others, or praying a decade of the rosary, asking Mary to surround our home and our family with her maternal prayers, or even saying grace before the family meal.
And if things have gone wrong that day, then we are provided with a perfect opportunity to admit our faults, to forgive each other and to be reconciled with one another, each of which help to strengthen the essential ties which unite our families together.
Secondly, our Diocesan Marriage and Family Life Commission is seeking ways in which, as a Diocese, we can strengthen and support family life, and I hope this will be put in place during the course of this year.
Our Marriage Course is already bearing much fruit in helping our young people to prepare for their marriage more deeply and realistically, and I am most grateful to all those from our Diocese who give of their time so generously to encourage our engaged couples and our families in these ways.
May the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph pray for us all.
I wish you and your families the continued joys of Christmas and every blessing for the New Year!
Yours devotedly in Christ,
+Alan S Hopes
Bishop of East Anglia