Catholics today grow up in the age of the broken family. Whether it was substance abuse, mental illness, or infidelity which caused family stress, many of us have to work through our own personal family issues, especially those related to our fathers or mothers.
Pope Francis’ audience last week touched on the importance of the parent and the child, and it is balm for a broken age. In reinforcing the family, Pope Francis also reinforces the spiritual fatherhood of our priests, of course, and he does it by underlining the interplay that is the mutual love of a parent and a child.
Key to last week’s Wednesday audience, therefore, is not “couples who choose not to have kids are selfish.” What is key to this Wednesday audience is this little phrase: “the reunion of parents and children.” This reunion of parents and children is the cause of familial love, and it means both parties continuously revisit their mutual love and affection.
Very simply, consider that at the most basic level; there is no father without a child, and no child without a father. This is a reciprocal relationship. Parents and children are meant to be united in love, and this love is as reciprocal as their relationship, and this love is an image of divine love.
The parent’s love comes first, just as God’s love comes first. Just so, there is no human person who is not a child of God and who was loved first by God. Just so, there is no priest who in his spiritual fatherhood does not console and love his people first, before they even love him. (That is, there /should/ be no priest who waits for his people to love him. All priests should love first before receiving love.)
How bizarre this seems! Loving someone who does not love you first is not the way of the world. What if you do not like that person, or think that person something of a cad, or a liar, or a racist? What if you know for a fact he is a skinhead, or a convicted rapist, or a tobacco user?
Pope Francis makes clear that the love of a parent, modeling all love, means this: Love for any person is not because that person is useful, or attractive, or meaningful, or likeable. Love for a person is because that person is, because that person has been loved by God and has “a dignity that nothing and no one can destroy.” This is the model of a father’s love or a mother’s love, and anyone who is a priest must follow that example.
Yet there is another half of the love between parent and child, and that is the child’s response. In loving our priests who have loved us first, “we mature in the sharing of their sacrifices.” In loving our parents who loved us first, we “learn to take charge” of a family. In loving our God who loved us first, we “grow in the appreciation of their gifts.”
All of these effects come from responding to a parent’s love with the love of a child. This interplay between parent and child, this “reunion,” is like a dynamo of love, ever growing and expanding.
Things are not so rosy, though, for children recovering from a broken or abusive home. How can a child respond in love to a parent who does not love? After all, a parent who does not love his child robs his child of childhood. This is not always intentional — consider parents who are mentally ill — but it happens nonetheless.
That child, without proper care, does not love his parents, and so that child begins to love himself, in that poisonous, killing way of pride. While the reciprocal love of a child ought to cause a family to grow in holiness and virtue, the grudge of a child who was not loved stunts and deforms his failed parent as well as himself.
I implore you, therefore: If you have been hated by your priest, or abused by a parent, or ignored or despised or missed — if you have not been given that love which was your birthright, if you have not been loved first — there is still hope for love to begin. Yes, it was the responsibility of the parent or priest to love you first, but in this fallen world, sometimes we cannot be children of our parents. Instead, we must be the parent, the one who reaches forth to someone and stirs up love as a response. If we do not, there is no reunion of love, only the dead, sterile, and selfish self-love of a dying society.