This month marks the 30th anniversary of John Paul II's apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World. Nick Chui and Grace Tan suggest how this document can serve as a blueprint for the renewal of Singapore society.
Many Singaporeans would have watched Jack Neo's hit movie "I Not Stupid 2". I will always remember the scene where Xiang Yun's character confessed that she always thought that by providing her son with material comforts, by scolding him and telling him that he is not good enough, she and her husband were loving him and spurring him on to do better. She realised that this had the opposite effect of driving her son to resentment and hurt. The turning point in convincing their son that they truly loved him was the boy's father's willingness to go to jail on his behalf. Having found out that his son had just returned a gold necklace to an old lady whom he had earlier robbed, and with the police fast approaching, the father (played by Jack Neo) pleaded with the old lady on his knees to tell the police that he was the robber so that his son would be spared. This was in contrast to his previous attempt at "bailing" his son out of public caning in school by offering to donate money to his son's school.
It is not by coincidence that the characters reacted the way they did. For whether they were conscious or not, "Love is man's origin, love is his constant calling, love is his fulfillment in heaven... and the love of man and woman... made holy in the sacrament of marriage becomes the mirror of God's everlasting love" (Preface for the Liturgy of the Sacrament of Matrimony). When one chooses love, one may well be implicitly choosing Christ.
Indeed, for Catholics who profess to explicitly know and love Christ, Familaris Consortio (FC) points to them (and also to the world) that marriage and family has an eternal destiny in the plan of God. When a family discovers its identity and mission, it discovers not only a sense of purpose, but also deep joy (FC no. 38).
As such, Familaris Consortio identifies four tasks essential for a family to discover its true identity, namely forming a community of persons, serving life, participation in the development of society and sharing in the life and mission of the Church (FC no.18-64).
The first task, forming a community of persons, serves as the foundation of the other three tasks. A community is different from a crowd. A crowd is in reality a mass of human beings who happened to be thrown together in a particular location. They have no common purpose and are isolated from each other without a sense of solidarity, much less love. A community on the other hand has a sense of purpose and solidarity with the other. And the first natural community, in which a person is born into, is the family where the child can experience the faithful love between mum and dad for him and for God and so discover his own calling to love and be loved. When lived properly, this forms a basis for all relationships in society and the world.
As such, it is not by accident that Familaris Consortio describes the family as a vital cell of society (FC no.42). Notice that it avoids the phrase we Singaporeans are familiar with, i.e. that the family is the "basic unit" or "building block" of society. The difference is not merely one of semantics. Doctors will tell us that the cell in our body is really a microcosm of the entire organism. A building block on the other hand is in the final analysis an instrument. It is useful in building something else (i.e. a higher GDP), a part of the whole, but in itself it does not provide the blueprint for the whole.
If that is true, then attempts to promote family values as a bulwark against a dog-eat-dog working environment are bound to fail if one does not recognise that society, were it to flourish, is to possess familial traits, i.e to be a community of love and solidarity. There are not two laws for society to flourish, one for the family and another for the economic jungle. There is only one law, a familial one. The home is a microcosm of society. Homelessness is when we begin to think and act as if the bonds of love and solidarity do not extend to society or that the law of the jungle should characterise our family relationships.
The other three tasks identified by Familaris Consortio flow from this familial foundation. The task of transmitting life is where a couple become partners not only in God's creative power in bringing forth new life but also God's Paternal (and maternal) care by nurturing and educating their children to discover love and self giving as their vocation.
The renewal of society happens when people begin to recognise the family as a model for the wider organism. The Christian family secure in its identity becomes an oasis. Looking at the Christian family, others can discover, as Christians pray in the Eucharistic prayers, "a prophetic sign of unity and concord" being able to "comfort those who labor and are burdened." With the cell healthy, the wider organism, being inspired by the cell, will soon be healthy.
Finally, the family is called to share the life and mission of the Church. St Jerome once cheekily declared that he loved marriage because married people are able to produce priests and nuns for the Church! Indeed, families dedicated to God and neighbor are natural settings for potential religious vocations to flourish. A healthy family life helps those who are in religious vocations recognise that they do not cease to remain familial once they become priests or religious. We call our priest Father, because that is who he is once he has received the sacrament of Holy Orders. And we are his children, unruly though we sometimes might be. We do not call him "Parish CEO". It is never, to paraphrase Donald Trump, "nothing personal, just business".
Hard truths? Perhaps. But surely not too hard if we seek strength from the One who has promised to give us rest if we come to Him with our heavy burdens.
Family Life Society