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Explorations – family life

Andrew Hamilton SJ  |  08 August 2019

For better or worse, most of us first learn about relationships from the way people are treated in our family. That's why helping strengthen and support families is so important in the Catholic Church.

In the world of racing cars, each team: Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Renault, and so on, has its own team, its own distinctive way of working. Its ultimate success will depend on all these people working together, learning as they go, handing on their wisdom, bringing their distinctive gifts to an enthusiastic and united team. We can learn much from them about family life. Each family is different, and working together is the key to its happiness.

When we watch racing cars we think only of their speed and the skill of the drivers as they roar down straights, slow almost unnoticeably to take corners, pass each other by a few centimetres, all at speeds of up to 300-kph. But behind the cars and the drivers lie extraordinarily complex teams of designers, engineers, mechanics, researchers, managers, accountants, coaches, sales persons and go-to people, young and old, women and men, laid-back and driven, with their factories, offices and garages and transporters.


Racing car teams are communities where different people learn how to work together to make fast cars, to drive them and to support them. Their business does not begin nor end with a race. All the things done between races that build up the team, develop the car, and lead to better performance are part of the business. They will include learning from mistakes and working on difficult relationships.

People sometimes define what makes an ideal team: the roles they want filled, the skills needed, the personal qualities and temperament that contribute best to a perfect team. That gives managers something to aim at. But in practice, no team will be ideal. All will struggle to do the best they can with the gifts, strengths and limitations they have. The most successful team will be the one that best overcomes its limitations.


That is also true of families. In families people learn how to live good lives, develop their gifts and cooperate with one another. Life, with all the relationships it involves, is the business of families. Christians, from St Paul on, have often spoken of the ideal family. They have often imagined it as consisting of a loving Christian husband and wife who stay together for life and teach the two or more children how to live by good example and speaking about their faith. The family practises their faith together.

Although that is a good family, it does not describe most actual Christian families. Even Jesus’ family was quite different from this ideal. There Joseph raised a child who was not his own, and Jesus seems to have been an only child. But his family was a real family in which each member grew. The families we come from, too, will vary. Some will have only one parent. In others children may be adopted into a family or living with step parents and half-brothers and sisters. Some families will be based on same-sex marriages. The number of children can range from one to 15. These are all real families.

In real families, too, the business of living and learning is done in messy relationships. In many families, children will learn bad lessons from their parents’ bad example. The real world is not perfect. We all learn how to live in an imperfect world in which our family life marks out our field of growth and of struggle.


All families can tell stories of good times and bad times, of victories and losses. The Scriptural story of the first human family begins magically. But when Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit they are thrown out of the garden and have to learn ordinary living from scratch. They have no parents to teach them, and their own children don’t get on. Cain kills Abel. They had to make do in difficult circumstances.

Similarly, when a parent dies or leaves, it can be devastating for the whole family. But often grandparents lend support, older children take on some responsibility for younger children or for household duties, and the family remains a place in which people can grow. The stress of family life may seem unbearable at the time, but afterwards people may look back even on the hard times with gratitude and acceptance.


The greatest gift we can receive in families is love. One of the loveliest Scriptural stories tells us of Ruth’s devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi. Instead of returning to her own country, she went into a strange land with her. Love drove her. If we, too, are much loved as children, are encouraged to offer and receive affection, and see love shown to others beyond the family, we will have received a great gift. We learn from an early age that life is not all about us, not even all about fairness, but is about generosity. It is also a great blessing to have been encouraged to be compassionate and at home with strangers in need. It takes us out of our own little world.

Ideal people in ideal families might learn to love painlessly, and would need to be told only once how to live. Because neither we nor our families are perfect, we learn to love by experiencing the failure to love – in ourselves and in others. We act selfishly, betray trust, carelessly cause hurt and put ourselves first without thinking of others. And others in the family sometimes do the same to us. We learn that one of the most demanding and desirable faces that love wears is one of forgiveness – to let go of hurts, to say sorry and to accept an apology.


The family, too, is a place where we learn to encourage one another. In a good racing team, managers and drivers stop by to thank the mechanics and designers for their good work. In families, parents help children develop their gifts and grow in confidence by attending their games or concerts, praising them when things go well, and consoling them when they fail. Brothers and sisters who are encouraging and who delight in one another’s success are also a great blessing.

Our family, too, can help us to learn from our failures. We often see the pressure that parents put on their children to succeed in studies or sport, and many of us remember being jealous of our siblings’ success and of talking it down. That has always been the case. We can see in in the Bible stories of spectacular sibling rivalry. Jacob, for example, cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance. His own sons were then jealous of Joseph, their youngest son, and decided to kill him. They spared him only because they thought they could make more money out of him by selling him to slavers.

The story shows that rivalry is common in family, but also that there is a better way. After explosions of anger and hurt we can recognise that we have acted badly, apologise, and discover how much happier we all are when we help each other to develop our gifts and praise one another.


In families, too, we learn to negotiate. As little children it is all about ourselves. We gradually learn that we need to persuade others if we are to get what we want. We need to please them or wear them down. As time goes on, we find we want to please people because we love them. We gradually learn the complex grammar of relationships. We see that in order to get our way on one thing we often need also to give way on another, that the greatest gift we receive comes in the gift we make of ourselves, and that if we accept another person’s gift they will often be more delighted than if we had given them a gift.

In the family we also learn to negotiate the balance between work and play. At first our lives are all play. Then gradually we wash the dishes, understand the value of education, mow the lawn, buy the milk, cook and sew. Our pocket money may be tied to our work around the house. We learn that work is a necessary curse, and that through it we grow and make connections. Gradually, too, we come to see the link between work and play and the way in which they feed each other. All this learning comes from example and experiment.


Family is the place where we learn the language of faith. In many Catholic families children first learn to pray at home, come to believe in a God who loves them and Jesus and Mary who are their friends. But the deeper learning takes place not through words but through what the family does. Faith is part of living together. If we pray together as a family, go to church together, are in the presence of religious art, and if we associate with God and our religious symbols the deep, wordless experiences we have of beauty and of mystery, and if the life of Jesus becomes vivid in our childhood, our faith will be deeply rooted.

At the end of childhood we shall still need to decide personally whether we shall express our faith within the Church or will leave it aside as part of our childhood. It is very helpful if this involves family discussion. Such conversation can be difficult because faith is so personal a thing, but through it the whole family grows into a deeper understanding of what matters. Faith in the broader sense of the word grows through living together.

Our family experience also shapes the way we imagine God and Church. Our parents provide our earliest and most enduring images of what God is like. When we first say the Our Father the face of God which we see is likely to be that of our own father or mother. If we hear that Jesus is our brother, he will be like our own brother. The way we see the Church and its liturgy will also be coloured by the ways in which we celebrate events in our own close and extended family.

If our experience of family is dysfunctional, however, that will also be reflected in the way we see God and our faith. We shall struggle to see faith positively. Families are the building blocks of the Church, for good and for ill.


Families are the building blocks of society. The qualities we would like to see in a healthy society are nurtured in strong families. The trust we need to place in our fellow citizens and in government is built on healthy relationships to our parents, siblings and strangers. We are more likely to be convinced that society thrives only when we respect others, and are prepared to put aside our own interests for the good of people who are less advantaged, if we have made this discovery in our family life. If it is dominated by selfishness and self-seeking that is likely to be reflected in a disrespectful and untrusting public life.

As research teams are to racing cars, families are our laboratory of life. They are also the school where we learn to live and the training ground where we put into practice what we learn. Families are the building blocks of Church and of society.


  1. What shape does your own family take? What other family shapes are found among your friends?
  2. Where do you find love expressed in your own family?
  3. How have your attitudes to your family changed as you grow older?
  4. Why is forgiveness important in family life?
  5. Where do you find encouragement from your family?
  6. How is your own faith linked to your family?


Topic tags: healthycommunitylife, familylife, valuesandmoraldecision-making

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