It is not easy to raise a family in the society in which we live. It is not rare that someone will ask me how to maintain a balance between the duties of work and the sacredness of the family. I think that it is necessary above all to stabilize priorities, even if they do not need to be exclusive priorities. No one should think that the true expression of his life is limited to the family, just as no one can think that it can be limited to work. Setting up an absolute priority, in matters of fact, means death. Unfortunately, it’s what happens most often. Many people make, not so much the family, as much as their feelings for others, the totalizing horizon of their experience and find themselves running from one love to another, from one search for affection to another. For others, instead, work is everything and this brings about the end of any affective relationship. Certain persons even reach the point of theorizing the idea that ties of friendship and love don’t need to be cultivated. Sometimes, the newspapers report the stories of pregnant women who lose their work thanks to the pregnancy. Their stories represent the extreme expression of the absolute priority that our society attributes to work with respect to affective life, and above all to the affections that last. In any case, even without considering the limit cases just described, it is clear that it is difficult to strike a balance.
To establish the right hierarchy of priorities, one that will not exclude any aspect of one’s humanity, it is necessary that each person ask himself what is his vocation. Such a question, which can appear oppressive, is, in reality, liberating. Every vocation, in fact, is inclusive, in as much as it embraces and valorizes all of the inclinations of man. Every true vocation carries with it all of the other vocations of a person. What is, therefore, the vocation that we want to live? For those who are married, the primary vocation is constituted by marriage and the rest of life must be judged in the light of the family. I will now try to delineate some practical indications that can help to attribute the right privilege to the familial vocation.
Above all, it seems important to me to decide together with one’s wife or one’s husband how much time to dedicate to work. The modality and the amount of effort in work cannot be decided autonomously, even if it is not necessary that one arrive to evaluating together all of its particulars. Marriage, in fact, is a communion, and the questions that regard the family must be faced within the risk of a lived communion. This goes not only for the professional fields, but for the choice of the school for children, for the educative methods to follow, the permission to give or to withhold, for the car to buy or the kitchen to remodel. The decisions that make up the tissue of the daily life of a family can be motive for greater closeness or greater distance, occasion for sharing and dialogue or for division and problems. It is necessary to learn to decide together, listening to one another, welcoming the other and comparing one’s reasons to those of the other.
When there are children, it is good that they enter into the project of the family. A husband and wife must learn to make their own decisions keeping their children in mind. For me, in these years, it has become evermore clear that parents who don’t have time for their children prepare for them a very difficult future. It is fundamental that a father find some time to play with his child. Parents must seek the occasions to discuss with their children, to stay with them, to laugh and cry together.
Another important aspect is the relationship between different families. We must take care not to isolate ourselves. The tendency to think of oneself isolated is, in the end, the flipside of the exclusion of God from one’s existence. In fact, God is kicked out of life when one fools himself into thinking that he can walk by himself, when he thinks that he has sufficient strength and capacity for reaching his realization, whether as a single person, as a couple, or as nuclear family. This is exactly the reason why one tends to cut off relationships with other families. Not isolating oneself does not mean deciding everything together with friends nor, much less, delegating to others one’s responsibility. There is, however, a path of growth that must be carried ahead as community. For this, it is necessary as well to accept to be guided by something who has a more lively awareness of the ideal to which we tend, maybe someone from one family among the others.
Deciding together does not just mean taking seriously the relationship with one’s husband or wife, but also, and much more, taking seriously the relationship with God. In our decisions, we must remember that God is with us. One of the principal causes of the fragility of the family must be sought in the fact that God was excluded, if not a theoretic way, at least from the practical point of view. We tend to think that God doesn’t have to do with our lives, or, in any event, that His presence is not effacious or doesn’t really enter into the details of the decisions of life. In the best case scenario, He is given due consideration when considering the participation in Sunday mass or the opportunity to cultivate other religious practices.
One road towards letting God enter into the concreteness of our daily life is prayer. A family that doesn’t pray will have great difficulty living a real unity and an authentic communion, and will have great difficulty facing problems that arise with hope. The memory of Christ in life is fundamental. Fr. Giussani spoke many times about the tension towards the memory of Christ. His expression indicates that the memory of Christ is a reality that lives in us to the extent that we recover it continuously. Only then, and with time, it can become a permanent background of our day.
In the morning, we can recite a psalm, or at least a few verses; during our lunch break we can stop by the church for a moment; in the middle of the afternoon, or during the evening, we can read something that can favor our growth in the faith. Moments in which our memory becomes explicit are necessary. Maybe, in order to regain awareness of ourselves and of our relationship with the Lord, it would be enough to stop every now and then to look at a photo of one’s husband or wife, or to read some verses of a poem that can widen our heart towards the infinite. What’s important is that our day have some moments in which the memory of Christ is actively pursued. If we realize that we are experiencing a certain distance from God, such moments must become more frequent. Giussani said that the memory of Christ must become habitual. In order for this to happen, prayer must begin to be an action repeated with regularity. If the frequency of our prayer is highly diluted, it is almost impossible to maintain a permanent memory of Christ. It is not for nothing that the Church suggests the recitation of Morning Prayer, Afternoon prayer, Evening prayer and Night prayer, not just to priests – for whom the recitation of the breviary is obligatory – but also to lay people. With time, in fact, multiplying these explicit occasions of memory, the awareness of the presence of Christ will tend to become habitual, to the point that even in the face of a child, in the rising of the sun or in the blooming of a flower, we will learn to be reminded of Him.
The necessity of sacrifice
Another topic that enters a great deal into familial life is that of the career. I do not have any moralistic reserves and I find it completely legitimate that one seek to grow in his role and position at work. One must consider, however, that climbing the ladder, more often than not, means more serious responsibilities. In serious businesses, to those who occupy the higher positions within the organization of the society, more is rightly asked, if not in the quantity of time dedicated to work, for example with trips or the number of clients to follow, certainly in terms of responsibility. For this reason, decisions made about one’s career must be evaluated with great care, because they have many implications on family life, both in positive and negative terms.
Naturally, the procedure of the career of the husband or wife produce effects on the economic life of the family. Maybe, from this point of view, we must return to reflect upon the necessity of sacrifice. One cannot think about raising a family without sacrificing something. The birth of a new baby, for example, asks of the parents a certain revision of their lifestyle, just as the decision to send one’s children to private school or to spend a few days of vacation with the families with whom one walks. Maybe the mama with have to accept going to the hairdresser less frequently and the papa will have to settle for one sweater instead of three.
When the criterion that governs the life of a family is the aspiration to have everything that the other families have, necessarily, familial life finishes for losing intensity and profundity. Even in this case, I don’t mean to defend a moralistic vision of wealth, but instead, I want to recall that we must mature more profound judgments with respect to those things that, very often, determine us. The epoch in which we live obligates us to a certain essentiality. It is very important that we realize this, also because the capacity to live with essentiality, valuing what really counts, will become a highly important sign that Christians can show to the world.
Our children don’t belong to us
I would like to spend some time on the complex educative itinerary that parents must walk in the accompaniment of their children, day after day. It is necessary, above all, to recognize and to accept that parents are not the owners of their children. And for this reason, at a certain point, one will have to learn even to accept that the their path might be different from those that were imagined, planned for or desired. It is right that the life of our families be governed by a horizon of peace, but we cannot think that the micro-history of our family, just like the macro-history of the world, will develop exactly as we would like. We must accept that life not be determined by our schemes, by our imagination or by what we are able to comprehend.
Learning to welcome the will of God does not remain renunciation, ceding to cynicism or to laziness, but rather means opening oneself to the discovery that the design of God proceeds according modalities and initiatives that are not ours. My thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways (Is 55:8). Truly realizing and accepting this is not at all easy, above all in the relationship with persons whom we love and to whom we feel a strong tie. The profundity of our affection multiplies our uneasiness and struggle. Sometimes we are so convinced that our desires correspond to the good of the persons we love that we are speechless as to how they don’t recognize it themselves. We must enter into a new way of looking, which is healthier, and which we must recover every day, given that we tend to lose it continuously. For me, this can happen only in dialogue with God. Prayer helps me to remember that the world is not governed by me and it allows me to recognize that God permits evil in order to recall us to the good.
The reasons for a “yes” and for a “no”
Many parents ask me about the difference, in view of a good education of one’s children, between a right condescendence and the necessary correction: up to what point is it right to support our children when they make requests with which we don’t agree, and when it is necessary to oppose them? I think that it is impossible to trace a confine in an abstract way, thinking to individuate rules that can be applied in any situation. It would be absurd, for example, to decree that, at seventeen, a child must return home no later than eleven o’clock, while at eighteen, he must be allowed to stay out until midnight. We cannot set up a system a priori, because we have persons in front of us, persons who are also our children. More than prefixed rules, what’s important is dialogue and the affective referent that we build with them in time. Gestures and signs are important. A mother and a father who remain outside of the house from the morning to the evening, seven days a week, telling their child to stay in front of the television, should not be surprised if that child, when he becomes a teenager, demands to go out every night with his friends and struggles to participate constructively in the life of the family.
The crisis of marriage that we see all around us every day influences inevitably on the growth of children and on the relationship between parents and children. For this reason, when we speak of the education of young people, we must ask, above all, what affective experience are they living: by who do they feel loved and by who do they feel betrayed, what fights and discussions are they witnessing, what delusions are they encountering? Often, the cynicism shown by kids derives from the unease that they live in their family or, in other words, from the shallowness, coldness and inhumanity that characterizes the relationship between their parents.
Our life is not something mechanical. And this means that it is not automatic that a child will become a vandal, or apathetic and privy of ideals, if one of his parents leaves the house. It is, however, evident that, within families, an emptiness has been forming that is expanding day after day. We must keep this in mind when we reflect on the effects of practices such as surrogate motherhood and the other possibilities offered by genetic engineering: what will happen to the children born thanks to these methods? Can we really believe that this destruction of genitorial line will go without consequences?
The difficulties of our children must become a question about our being husbands and wives. The problems mustn’t knock us over, but challenge us. In any case, even when a situation seems compromised, we must not lose hope: even that which seems irredeemably lost, is in reality just put into discussion, put in parentheses in order to be taken up again farther along. From this point of view, the courage of patience is essential. Even a refusal that in a certain moment can produce a terrible reaction, some months later can instead be accepted, digested and maybe even embraced.
In any case, the anger of children must not become blackmail for their parents. Certain “no”s must be said, with full awareness of the risk being run. The resentment of children must not push the father and the mother to turn back, but must become a provocation for them to explain as much as possible, to clarify the reasons for their “yes” and for their “no”.
The difficulties with dialogue that are sometimes created in our families are a good occasion to remember that a father and a mother cannot and should not be the only educator of their children. As parents, in fact, we must seek to understand who are the friends of our children and we must pray a great deal for their friendships. You cannot reduce the adventure of life to statistics, but one probably wouldn’t be wrong in affirming that a true friendship is already fifty or sixty percent of the path of a man. A friend-group has an enormous influence on young people, as does social media, the television, and, more than these other things, the internet. Many of the ways of thinking of our children are taken from a world that is external to the family and that is always growing stronger. This helps us to see how important it is to stay close to other families. In order to be good educators, it is necessary to have someone to counsel us, someone to ask and to question, someone to sustain us. As Pope Francis has quoted, “It takes a whole village to raise a child.”
On a final note, I feel that I must invite you all to think in the long term. We must not just pay attention to the incomprehensions or the rebellions of one evening or of a certain period in the life of our children, and we have to insist on creating a dialogue with them that can and must continue to months and for years. We must seek the collaboration of other figures, of those the same age as our kids, or, even better, of adults, who emerge with time and who can become important for them. We must, in the end, seek the paths that can enthuse and move our children, the passions that can win them over.
Corridonia, 18 marzo 2017.
(Pictured, parishioners of Nuestra Señora de Las Aguas, Bogotá – Colombia)