ojeda familyThe Ojeda extended family of Spain, 2007. Flickr / Ojedamd via Wikimedia


In a lecture given in Nairobi earlier this year, Catholic priest and theologian Cormac Burke questioned the heritage parents today are handing on to their children. Despite their good intentions, he suggested, many couples are transmitting the anti-values of consumerism, instant gratification and a proud assertion of autonomy that are dominant in society.

But, he argued, “there is no real future for a society of self-absorbed individuals. Without any true and shared values held in common, there is less collective glue to hold it together. It ends in disintegration.” This begs the question: how can things change, in and through the family? Here are his suggestions.


The challenge of rebuilding the home

The change has to begin among young people in their approach to marriage. The thrust of modern life is to put self first, and others second. Yet, the more you live for yourself, the more alone you will find yourself. It is not good for man or woman to be alone, or to seek company in shared selfishness. Man needs to build for others, for others whom he can love. He needs to build a home.

The married couple who don’t come out of themselves and live both for each other and for their children, will sink back into themselves, back into their more and more separate selves; and the few children they may have will be even more self-centered, and even more alone. That is why few ambitions are more noble – for the present and the future – than that of creating authentic families, authentic homes, that can be the model and seed of a more generous and happier future.

The basis for a home that can create and transmit positive values

A true home can only be based on love. And love itself is true only if it has ideals and is generous. A young couple about to marry are truly in love if they share ideals: to make each other happy and to pass on their shared love to their children – the family that should be born of their generous love.

Husband and wife are the first who need to learn generous love: the love that refuses to dwell on the defects of the other, that learns rather to understand, to forgive, to ask forgiveness. That is the only way spousal love can last and grow. The spouses’ own learning experience will help them become good and patient teachers of the same love to their children.

The first need of very young children is to be given love gratuitously. If they are given that, later on they will begin to realize that this gratuitous love took an effort; and that they too need to make similar effort, to overcome their natural self-centeredness, so as to learn to love their parents in return, and not only their parents, but also their siblings, each one of them in a special way.

Marriage and the family are a first, natural school. And the first subject taught there is love. The parents have to learn it first, and then be the main teachers of their children. Learning to love, to grow gradually in mutual understanding, to forgive and forget, to discover that one cannot always have one’s own way…

If the home is a demanding school of love, the children will learn many other things too. A specially important point today is to learn the uses of freedom. Our age is one where few things are more highly prized than freedom; yet few people are taught the first truth about freedom: that it can be exercised well or badly, that it can grow or be lost, that one does not truly love freedom if one loves only one’s own freedom and has no regard for the freedom of others.

Again, the family offers the first natural introduction to the mystery of sexuality. There brothers and sisters, in an atmosphere undisturbed by physical attraction, gradually begin to sense some of the deeper and truly human differences and complementarities between the sexes – and so to appreciate and respect the different way of being a man or a woman.

Still again: only in the family is it possible to learn that authority can come from love, and that obedience to authority can be an act of love.

The treasure of family memories

Life is not just living in the present. It is working for the future – for a future that can last. One needs hope; and hope is buttressed by good memories from the past.

Dostoyevsky’s famous novel, The Karamazov Brothers, closes with the remarks of one of the three brothers. He addresses them to a group of young friends, after the death of one of their companions:

There is nothing more powerful, nor more healthy nor more useful later on in life than some good memory, and particularly one that has been borne from childhood, from one’s parents’ home. Much is said to you about your education, but a beautiful, sacred memory like that, one preserved from childhood, is possibly the very best education of all. If he gather many such memories in his life, a man is saved for all of it. And even if only one good memory remains within our heart, then even it may serve some day for our salvation. (Epilogue).

Getting back home

“Once there was a way to get back home”; so goes a line from the Beatles’ song, “Golden Slumbers”. But today, even if one knows the way, there is less and less urge to go back home, because it simply is not there; a place may be left but there never was a home. Few, if any, cherished memories remain of one’s childhood and upbringing; fewer supports for one’s hope and salvation.

The real inheritance handed on by a good family are the memories it creates: memories of Mom’s and Dad’s goodness, of a place where one could take refuge, where one felt understood and learned to understand others, of quarrelling with one’s siblings and making up, of forgiving and being forgiven. That is a school for life.

Those already married, as well as those intending to marry, could ask themselves no more important question than this: are our children – will our children be – really grateful for what they receive from us, their parents? Do I, do we, give them of our best? And the best is not comfort nor money nor job prospects, but love. Love in the constant little things that build true family life and, later on, make up the family memories that keep us going.

There is a large family, precisely in the West, that I have known for a long time. A family rich in children and very rich in love. A few years ago the mother died; all were present at the funeral. After her burial the father and children gathered at the family home, and reminisced together about the memories each one had of her. The father told me later that no stranger coming in could have imagined what a loss they had just suffered. On the contrary, the whole atmosphere was one of joy – though mixed with tears. Joy and tears of gratitude. That is richness; that is an inheritance!

The sorrow and the tears pass; the joy remains. And if, with the passage of the years, the memories still bring some tears, they will be tears of not-forgotten joy.

There lies the root and promise of happiness. Perhaps we still have to learn from one of Christ’s most fundamental teachings: “It is happier to give than to receive”. Further, in giving, one receives: that is how true happiness begins here, and reaches its fullness afterwards.

Cormac Burke is a priest and theologian living in Nairobi, Kenya. His latest book, The Theology of Marriage: Personalism, Doctrine and Canon Law, is being published Fall 2014 by the Catholic University of America Press. The above article is an excerpt from “The Home – Principal Heritage of Humanity”, a lecture given at Strathmore University, Nairobi, in May 2014. The full lecture can be accessed on his website.