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Everybody, it seems, is arguing about the family: academics and lawyers, judges and politicians, gays and straights; even the bishops of the Catholic Church could not entirely agree on the subject last October when they met at the Vatican to prepare for the coming Synod on the Family in October this year.
Debate rages, but who is communicating the living reality of family life at its best, so that we may see what is at stake in the various trends sweeping through society?
Pope Francis is. In his message for World Communications Day – Communicating the Family: A Privileged Place of Encounter With the Gift of Love – he takes hold of the overworked and often platitudinous subject of communication and uses it to turn our gaze from the family as “a problem” to the family as a “rich human resource” for the individual and society.
The family, he says, “is not a subject of debate or a terrain for ideological skirmishes. Rather it is an environment in which we learn to communicate in an experience of closeness … a ‘communicating community’,” one which provides help, which celebrates life and is fruitful.”
In other words, let’s take a break from the crisis of the family (which is real enough) and think about the beauty and richness of the relationships that constitute the family. Since we never fully realise the potential of these relationships the family is a task that is always before us, and not just a structure we are trying to defend.
The womb, the first “school” of communication
Even before we are born, the Pope points out, we are in relationship to others, primarily our mother, through a bodily language — like John the Baptist in the Gospel narrative about the visit of Mary to Elizabeth:
This episode first shows us how communication is a dialogue intertwined with the language of the body. The first response to Mary’s greeting is given by the child, who leaps for joy in the womb of Elizabeth. Joy at meeting others, which is something we learn even before being born, is, in one sense, the archetype and symbol of every other form of communication. The womb which hosts us is the first “school” of communication, a place of listening and physical contact where we begin to familiarize ourselves with the outside world within a protected environment, with the reassuring sound of the mother’s heartbeat. This encounter between two persons, so intimately related while still distinct from each other, an encounter so full of promise, is our first experience of communication. It is an experience which we all share, since each of us was born of a mother.
The family itself is like a womb, he continues, surrounding us with interrelated people who, despite differences of “gender and age … accept one another because there is a bond between them.” This bond is at the root of language, and in turn strengthens the bond. The dynamic is expressed in the term “mother tongue”: language, like life itself, is something we receive from others, not something we create. It is a gift that comes to us through the generativity of the family, which includes those who have gone before us:
In the family we realize that others have preceded us, they made it possible for us to exist and in our turn to generate life and to do something good and beautiful. We can give because we have received. This virtuous circle is at the heart of the family’s ability to communicate among its members and with others. More generally, it is the model for all communication.
Prayer, the most basic form of communication
Here the Pope says something at first sight surprising – that the prayers handed down from mother (and father) to child are the “most basic” form of communication. Not the “mama” and “papa” that parents coach their infants to repeat, but the little rhymes and lullabies by which they entrust the child to God. Later they teach the children simple prayers interwoven with affectionate thoughts of others – grandparents, relatives, the sick …
It was in our families that the majority of us learned the religious dimension of communication, which in the case of Christianity is permeated with love, the love that God bestows upon us and which we then offer to others.
Other forms of communication; recognising and creating closeness
It is not only a matter of words:
In the family, we learn to embrace and support one another, to discern the meaning of facial expressions and moments of silence, to laugh and cry together with people who did not choose one other yet are so important to each other. This greatly helps us to understand the meaning of communication as recognizing and creating closeness.
The Pope evokes again the scene of the Visitation to point out that the gratitude and joy experienced in a close, loving family makes us open to others:
“To ‘visit’ is to open doors, not remaining closed in our little world, but rather going out to others. So too the family comes alive as it reaches beyond itself; families who do so communicate their message of life and communion, giving comfort and hope to more fragile families, and thus build up the Church herself, which is the family of families.”
Learning to deal with our limitations
It is in the family, too, that we learn our limitations and how to deal constructively with weakness and conflict. “The family, where we keep loving one another despite our limits and sins, thus becomes a school of forgiveness.” This involves a two-way process:
When contrition is expressed and accepted, it becomes possible to restore and rebuild the communication which broke down. A child who has learned in the family to listen to others, to speak respectfully and to express his or her view without negating that of others, will be a force for dialogue and reconciliation in society.
Physical or other disabilities present challenges to communication and can turn people in on themselves, says Pope Francis; but, thanks to the love of parents, siblings and friends, disability can also become “an incentive to openness, sharing and ready communication with all.” Families dealing with disability have a lot to teach the rest of us.
Again, in environments where speech is abused, or where people are divided by prejudice and resentment (certain parts of Europe spring to mind at present) families that understand the blessing of communication can make a difference:
“it is only by blessing rather than cursing, by visiting rather than repelling, and by accepting rather than fighting, that we can break the spiral of evil, show that goodness is always possible, and educate our children to fellowship.”
Modern media vs listening, silence and encounter
Running through the Pope’s message is the theme of personal encounter as the basis of communication. He notes how technology can hinder communication within and between families, and destroy rest and silence – without which “words rich in content cannot exist” (a quote from Benedict XVI). On the other hand it can help friendship and open the door to new encounters. Parents are the primary educators here, but they need the help of the community “in teaching children how to live in a media environment in a way consonant with the dignity of the human person and service of the common good.”
What matters is a genuine encounter and conversation with the other, leading to a more unified vision of reality:
The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information. The latter is a tendency which our important and influential modern communications media can encourage. Information is important, but it is not enough. All too often things get simplified, different positions and viewpoints are pitted against one another, and people are invited to take sides, rather than to see things as a whole.
This is crucial when the subject under discussion is the family itself, which the Pope challenges us to show is “a setting where we can all learn what it means to communicate in a love received and returned.” He concludes:
Families should be seen as a resource rather than as a problem for society. Families at their best actively communicate by their witness the beauty and the richness of the relationship between man and woman, and between parents and children. We are not fighting to defend the past. Rather, with patience and trust, we are working to build a better future for the world in which we live.
It is worth pointing out that there is nothing in all of this that marriage or family revisionists can take comfort from. Pope Francis is clearly talking about the family as a community of a man and a woman and the children they have generated, ideally in close contact with grandparents and other relatives. He takes for granted that the child’s life begins life in the womb, not in a laboratory, and in the womb of its own mother, not a surrogate.
Those requirements of human dignity have to be defended, but Francis wants us to give more air time to what we experience in the family at its best. To address that task we could do no better than take up the themes he has set out in his message.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.