How to Adapt a Dysfunctional Family into a Community

James Tonkowich | Columnist | Wednesday, November 26, 2014

How to Adapt a Dysfunctional Family into a Community

At the beginning of the new holiday movie, “Merry Friggin’ Christmas,” Boyd Mitchler’s wife tells him, “You can’t keep pretending your family doesn’t exist.” He smiles confidently. “Pretty sure I can.”

Of course, as in every other dysfunctional-family Christmas movie, circumstances force Boyd home for the holidays where hilarity, tears, poignant dialogue, and reconciliation ensue. It’s a familiar plot and we love it. 

Most of the time we can (and many do) pretend our families don’t exist. With parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins scattered across at least the lower forty-eight, interaction is a choice. To Skype, or not to Skype—that is the question. 

Then along come “the holidays.” Pretending gets harder and, at least every few years, we go home for the holidays with no guaranteed Hollywood ending. But, oh, how we keep wishing for a Hollywood ending. 

We know deep down that, as Pope John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio, his 1981 exhortation “On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,” “marriage and family constitute one of the most precious of human values”—one of our own most precious values.

And while it’s unlikely that John Paul watched dysfunctional-family Christmas movies, he knew the difficulties families face and saw ministry to families as “an inescapable requirement of the work of evangelization.” It is, he wrote, “to the families of our times that the Church must bring the unchangeable and ever new Gospel of Jesus Christ, just as it the families involved in the present conditions of the world that are called to accept and to live the plan of God that pertains to them.”

Because we are created in the image of the God who is love (1John 4:8), “God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation, and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion. Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.”

Love is, of course, fundamental to marriage and family—or at least it should be. Husbands and wives, giving themselves fully to each other out of love, find the results of that love sleeping in bassinets, cribs, and bunk beds. 

“According to the plan of God,” wrote John Paul II, “marriage is the foundation of the wider community of the family, since the very institution of marriage and conjugal love are ordained to the procreation and education of children, in whom they find their crowning.”

They create a family and once we know what a family is, the pope taught, we can understand what a family does. The mission of the family comprises four parts: forming a community of persons, serving life, participating in the development of society, and sharing the life and mission of the Church.

We form a community of persons by being who we are and that’s not easy. Family “can only be preserved and perfected through a great spirit of sacrifice.” All families, he wrote, “know how selfishness, discord, tension and conflict violently attack and at times wound its own communion.” And this makes understanding, forbearance, sacrifice, and reconciliation vital to family life. Each of us in the family needs to serve and to forgive and to have the humility needed to be served and to ask for forgiveness. In this way we grow in communion with each other.

Second, families serves life by the begetting and welcoming children, and by educating them to love one another, family, neighbors, and the poor, weak, sick, and aged. 

From this, flows part three: participating in the development of society. Pope John Paul took seriously the notion that families are the building blocks of a healthy society. “Thus, far from being closed in on itself, the family is by nature and vocation open to other families and to society, and undertakes its social role.” The family becomes, “example and stimulus for the broader community relationships marked by respect, justice, dialogue and love.”

Finally “the family is placed at the service of the building up of the Kingdom of God in history by participating in the life and mission of the Church.” The Christian family, “constantly radiating the joy of love and the certainty of the hope for which it must give account,” is God’s choice for evangelism as the love-starved world looks in and says, “I want what they have.”

Three days after we gather around the turkey, Advent begins. God did not pretend humanity did not exist. God the Son left the perfect communion of the Trinity to be born into a human family so that he might enter into loving communion with the human family in all its dysfunctionality, sadness, anger, and stupidity. 

That thought can change home for the holidays from chore to joyful service.

Jim Tonkowich is a writer, commentator, and speaker focusing on the role of religion in our public life. His new book, The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today is available from St. Benedict Press and other online retailers. 

Publication date: November 26, 2014