Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Thoughts on Family Life and "Apostolic Work"

Can you devote your life to serving the Lord and your neighbor, or more precisely, to a vocational path that focuses specifically on an "apostolate," on evangelization and/or works of mercy, while also being a husband and wife raising a family? 

Yes, you can. 

It's not an easy path, nor is it for everyone as a whole external format that determines daily work and other concrete life circumstances. Everyone can participate in apostolates and organized charitable activities, of course, according to their time and availability. But there are those remarkable families that are full-time missionaries serving in difficult places. Their are others who work with refugees or the poor. 

Then there are people who develop Catholic media, publishing, music, and new forms of outreach for evangelization, catechesis, prayer and spiritual growth; and still others who dedicate their lives to the renewal of Catholic education on various levels, with a variety of methods, within long established academic venues or by founding new schools, universities, and programs. Eileen and I have done something like this, both of us being long-serving teachers dedicated to pioneering Catholic educational institutions, while also raising our own five kids. For us, the teaching vocation encompasses both the distinctive Christian apostolate of communicating the faith (teaching and writing about theological and religious subjects, and involvement in "Catechesis of the Good Shepherd") and the more general humanistic concerns associated with the overall renewal of pedagogy in our time - with classical depth, proven modern educational methods (university liberal arts and Montessori for children) and exploration of new formats for learning (a task which circumstances have forced upon us). It has been for us an enterprise involving the whole family, with our own children among the students and making their own distinctive contributions.

I'm not going to put our family out there as the stellar example of how to live this type of vocation, first of all because we're not finished raising all the kids. We're still working through it, facing new challenges and learning new lessons, praying and giving it our best, being humbled by our weaknesses and entrusting everything to Jesus, through Mary. Our kids are doing well so far (three of them are now adults), and - though we've had the perennial rough patches and awkward times and miscommunications - our family remains pretty close (thanks be to God). But we are still in the midst of "running the race." Secondly, of course, is the fact that our path has been particularly wacky and off-beat (mostly because of me), and therefore not the most regular example of how "the lay apostolate" is lived. (I can't propose myself as an example of anything. I am a wretched, incoherent mess of a human being - a sinner who, when he remembers, begs for and hopes wildly in the infinite mercy of God.)

Nevertheless, I know it can be done. I have seen inspiring examples of families who have done beautifully the tasks of this sort of life. Because I know the immensity of God's love, and because of these many other witnesses, I am willing to venture a few words about it. 

The vocation to the "full-time apostolate" and family life will only develop rightly through a profound humility that pervades both parenthood and the work. This means being rooted in a personal relationship with Jesus that is sustained by prayer - but of course we need this no matter what we do, because life is realized in this way: by abandoning ourselves in trust and love to Jesus, and living as children of the Father in union with Him, led by the gift of His Spirit. 

If a husband or wife, a mother or father (or both) devote themselves to an apostolate of evangelization, catechesis, or works of mercy, they do so because they have discerned that this is God's will. There are lots of different kinds of work (plumbing, engineering, information technology, construction, furniture sales, architecture, pig farming, scientific research, truck driving, etc) that are specified by their contribution to building up the temporal life of this world. These are all good and necessary kinds of work which can be (and God wants them to be) contexts for a vital Christian witness and love. Moreover work itself, offered in union with Christ and out of love for the Lord and our brothers and sisters, is "consecrated" as an effort that will ultimately bear fruit in the transfigured life of the Kingdom of God. The love of God is drawing all of the good in the course of human history toward a mysterious but real fulfillment in His glory.

So, let us remember, we can serve God wholeheartedly and do His will, witnessing to Christ and building up His Kingdom through love, in whatever circumstances He places us. 

Some of us, however, are called to take up more explicitly some of the many tasks specifically involved in making Christ known and loved, by serving Him in various kinds of apostolic works and in caring for the poor and needy. These tasks are the form and content of the work of the clergy and those who collaborate directly with their ministry. But, as Vatican II emphasized so strongly, any baptized Christian can take up "the apostolate" as their particular work, form associations, and take their own initiatives - always, of couse, in communion with their bishop[s] and the bishop of Rome.

So what happens when married people with families (or people who eventually get married and have families) discern a particular calling to a "full-time ministry" or even a broader kind of work that is nevertheless defined by the explicit features of evangelizing, catechesis, pedagogical formation of the integrally Christian human person, or the particular facets of the spiritual or corporal works of mercy? It begs the question to say, "they should have become priests or religious if they wanted to do that stuff." The Lord is clearly calling and equipping lay people and married people to these tasks - often, indeed, people who are not looking for or expecting such a calling.

Indeed, in the context of today's radically secularized society, the lay apostolate can be crucial in extending the witness to Christ into realms not generally accessible to ecclesiastical ministry. It can bring the announcement of the Gospel out onto the roads of the world. Springing from the charisms given by the Holy Spirit to all the Church's members, lay apostolates can take shape with a freedom and flexibility that enable them to generate environments in which Jesus can be encountered on the margins of society, beyond the reach (and even beyond the knowledge) of the more "official" Church ministries.

But can you do these kinds of things and raise a family too? That is the challenge, the complexity of which cannot be denied. It remains possible inasmuch as God wills it and gives the grace to achieve it. The life requires ongoing discernment, and it may not be possible or appropriate for certain periods of time in a family's history. In many instances, the calling might only be temporary. At the right time, for a year or two, some mission could be taken up, after which it might be necessary to return to the stable, rooted lifestyle that is more naturally congenial to the human dimensions of family life in general, with more economic security and less demands on the work-life balance. 

Apostolic work is work. It is hard work, which involves an intensive commitment, but usually brings a smaller material recompense than a "regular job" or career. On the other hand, the sense of purpose and creative personal participation inherent in apostolic work often motivate people to invest themselves very deeply in it for minimal financial compensation. It is important work! But the family also needs to eat, and they very much need the mother and father to be invested personally in the life of the home. These difficulties can be engaged in creative and fruitful ways, when the protagonists really allow Jesus the "space" to be at the center of all their endeavors. And it is true that "God provides" - sometimes in dramatic ways - what we need. 

Insofar as we forget about Christ and stray off in the pursuit of our own ideas, however, we will have troubles. Our devotion to the apostolate can easily degenerate into emotional overinvolvement, controversies, partisanship, and infighting. We too easily drift into bad patterns of taking our spouse and children for granted, and neglecting our place in the family. We also cannot allow our generous and highly interested work-commitment to devolve into a timidness about making our basic financial needs known and making sure the institution takes their responsibility toward us seriously. Sometimes "God provides" by giving us the courage to insist on being paid what we need; in such circumstances an apostolate may discover that they have more resources than they realized.

Always pray and seek to do the will of God. This is all that matters.

A full-time apostolate requires making many sacrifices so as to prioritize family and service together, according to a proper order (because serving one another in the family takes precedence) but also with a loving openness to the demands this work can make on life, a capacity for a kind of "sacrificial flexibility," and a readiness to forgive one another again and again. It is necessary to discern and judge what serves the children and the family as a whole in their vocation to grow in love, and not simply what will maximize the "effectiveness" of the apostolate.

This means, emphatically, having different ambitions than the mainstream secular culture with its idolatry of external activism and material success. In this way of life, you must be doubly on guard against the vanities of celebrity for yourself or for your apostolate. You will have less of the big money but there will be other precious "riches" (in grace and in human things too). You also have to be willing to be a bit "idiosyncratic" (crazy?) for Christ. And above all you must pray pray pray pray and follow the Holy Spirit - because there is no "program" for how to do this. 

There are tips, advice, and suggestions, yes, but every family has its unique qualities and needs, must respond to unique and ever changing circumstances, and receives the graces from God attuned to them as unique persons in that original, irreplaceable communion of love they constitute together. 

It is necessary to walk with Jesus and rely on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, while also remaining obedient to the Church's shepherds and close to the sacraments. 

Here there is so much that applies to every vocation to family life. Jesus in the Eucharist is central to every Christian life and vocation. Spouses, remember too that the sacrament of marriage in Christ has awesome power - we need much more confidence in what He can do through His enduring presence with us at the heart of this sacred bond. Then there is the sacramental grace of confession. We need this because we will fail fail fail again and again and again but we must never give up. God heals us according to His plan, which often doesn't "look" the way we expect it to, or unfold in the way we think it should.

Even in the most varied circumstances and places, we must live our vocation in community. Families need families, trusting in the Lord to weave together from our unity in Him the many threads that make over time the "organic," deeply human connections of friendship. And we must rely on our brothers and sisters in Christ to help support us, encourage us, and sustain us in prayer. 

This is hardly and exhaustive reflection on any of these points. It's just a blog post. But let me end with one final observation: in an adventure such as this, we will discover in ourselves a great, generous sense of humor (and we will need it๐Ÿ˜‰). Humor is the little sister of Wonder, and they are never far from one another.