Embassies of the Church. That, according to William Newton, is what Catholic families are called to be in the current culture. It’s also how they can engage in the New Evangelization, helping call the West back to Christ and his Church.
Newton, who is a professor of marriage and family studies at the International Theological Institute in Trumau, Austria, and the author of “Civilization of Love: The Catholic Vision for Human Society” (Gracewing Publishing, $22.50) recently spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about the role families can play in the new evangelization, the challenges they face in today’s world and how they can begin to overcome those challenges.
Our Sunday Visitor: What is the role of the Christian family in the new evangelization?
William Newton: More and more, I think it’s simply showing people what a happy way of life looks like. In the previous generations, people received that vision from their parents and grandparents. Now, the vision people have of what life should be isn’t so clear, and they’re drifting. When the Christian family, however, has a clear vision of their mission and live that out, they show people what a happy life looks like. And that’s attractive.
OSV: How does a family give people that vision?
Newton: In Familiaris Consortio [Pope John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family], we’re told that the first and primary task of the family is to build a communion of persons. Why? Because God is a communion of persons. He is the model. Human beings are created in the image and likeness of God. That implies we are created for communion. The normal way to do that is through family life. Then, when the Christian family goes out, they bring that communion into society. In a sense, families should think of themselves as an embassy of the Church in the culture. You make an effort to build communion, you reflect that communion when you go out, and then you invite people into that communion through hospitality. When you see people who are on the cusp of faith or who need encouragement, invite them to do something with your family. That can make such a difference. It can give them hope and courage when they need it the most.
OSV: So often, when we talk about new evangelization, we talk about activities, but when it comes to families, it seems like the most important thing is being; being who and what God made them to be. Is that an accurate assessment?
Newton: Yes. I totally agree. I would add, however, that in that being there is also doing. There are choices you have to make. Communion doesn’t just come about. You have to struggle and fight for it. To start with, you have to spend time together. The idea of quality time is utterly false. There is no quality without quantity. You also have to do things that make children want to spend time together as a family. In Pope John Paul’s “Letter to Families,” he talks about how it’s often the case that children want to be in a place other than with the family because they don’t experience life in the family. Accordingly, parents’ great task is to make the family a place where children want to be. But again, this requires choices — choices such as spending meal times together, not having each child be in three different clubs, limiting the time spent watching television and playing video games, which tend to be individualistic and above all setting aside time where you’re together as a family. Little things like that are quite important.
OSV: To some families, limiting children’s activities or shutting off the television can sound pretty radical. Are those choices really necessary?
Newton: Well, this kind of radical life doesn’t appear radical when your goal as a parent is to do everything you can to ensure that your children will always have a relationship with God. Once you see that is the more important thing, the choices don’t seem radical. They seem normal. Many people in the generation before me were very good parents who were deeply Christian and wanted the same for their children. Yet, for many of their children, faith has become something peripheral. In the end, only God can put the fire of faith in somebody’s heart, but he asks us, as far as we are able, to prepare the heart for that fire. I’m worried if I only do what parents did a generation ago, I will end up in the same situation or worse since the culture is even less of a help today than it was then.
OSV: Don’t we run the risk, however, of isolating ourselves from the culture? After all, we’re called to transform the culture, not hide from it.
Newton: Of course, we have to be careful that we don’t develop a ghetto mentality. But at the same time we have to be clear-sighted. There isn’t much left in the culture that actively promotes faith, and there’s much that draws people away. The culture is not supposed to be a hindrance to faith. It’s not even supposed to be neutral. It’s supposed to be so impregnated with Christianity that it actually promotes the faith. We should be striving to make it that way, but we can’t use our children as agents to accomplish that. Perhaps a good way to think about this is to look back at Europe in 1940, on the eve of the Battle of Britain. At that point Britain was the only country in western Europe not dominated by the Nazis. When the Battle of Britain began, the goal was to keep England free from Nazism. But it wasn’t just that. It wasn’t that England didn’t [care] about the rest of Europe. But, there comes a time when you have to protect what you have. Then there’s another moment where you go on the offensive. There’s the Battle of Britain, and there’s Normandy. The reason I bring up my children with care is because I think it’s good for their salvation. But it’s also because good formation will make them more effective in the culture. If they’re run over by the culture now, they’re not going to have any power to evangelize in the future.
OSV: In Familiaris Consortio, John Paul II calls parents to form children in chastity and poverty. Why those virtues?
Newton: When it comes to chastity, that virtue is stressed because it touches so deeply on what it means to be human. To be human is to make a gift of oneself for the sake of communion. This is what sexuality is for. If there’s a misunderstanding about this, then there’s a misunderstanding about what it means to be human. In the case of poverty, the Church is saying something similar. The modern culture tells us the goal of life is to maximize material blessings. But material things aren’t the ultimate thing. You train a child to see that by making some radical decisions in regard to material things — having them share bedrooms and limiting their possessions, for example. Also, if circumstances permit, by having more children, which can teach them that being is more important than having because you’re making material sacrifices to have another being among you.
OSV: To lead the kind of family life that can transform an entire culture seems like an incredibly daunting task. Where do families even begin?
Newton: The Church asks us to live extraordinary lives, and we cannot compromise on that goal. But reaching that goal is a process. The most important thing is simply to start, and you start by recognizing the goal of human life is something different from what the culture says: the goal is to be with God. Once you do that, you take the little steps that are possible for you now. I’m fortunate because I’m married to a woman who totally shares my understanding of the universe. I know, however, that many couples out there don’t have that shared understanding, so some of the things I’ve mentioned may not be possible for all families. But God only asks us to do what we can, not what we can’t. So be clear about the goal, do all that’s possible and trust God with the rest.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.