A School of Virtue
As a Catholic priest, I’m blessed to get to know a lot of Catholic families.
After countless hours of listening to confessions, providing counselling, and just speaking with families on a regular basis, I’ve come to notice certain patterns of how families relate. I see so much—so much good—but sadly, quite often I see so much bad. I’ve often noticed patterns of self-seeking behaviour in one or even both of the parents, which sadly erodes the joyful and mutual love that should fill the family. But I’ve also noted that the more some parents are sincerely engaged in their own spiritual life, the more they are able to give of themselves to others. Their prayer leads them to deeper self-giving in imitation of Christ, and in this way purifies the love in the family.
In seeing this, it becomes clear that what we as spouses and parents do affects not only other members of our family, but also the relationships within the family.
We all make mistakes, and perhaps the vices we have strove to weed out will occasionally shoot up as we battle them. But do not lose heart. Do not accept your fallen nature, do not settle in the vices
One of the greatest difficulties of being a priest, at least for me personally, is being so limited by time, especially when it comes to the day’s homily. There is so much I want to say, yet I have so little time to say it in.
So allow me to take a few moments of your time today and at least graze the surface of this topic which I seldom have enough time to speak about, but that I fervently want to devote more attention to.
You, dear parents, are called to holiness as a spouse and as a parent.
That is perhaps the most foundational of all the things I’d like to say.
If I could freeze time and chat with every Catholic husband and wife, at some point I’d like to ask them this question, “Do you believe that the Bible is God’s Word and that we should follow It?”
Everything in our life depends on the answer to this question. It’s that simple.
Why? Well, if you believe in the Bible as God’s Word, the only loving response is obedience and trust—trust that God knows what’s best for you, even when that’s not the easiest thing to do. On the other hand,
If you don’t believe in the Bible as God’s Word, striving for personal holiness through marriage and parenthood will simply never be a real priority for you.
In 1 Peter 1:15-16 we hear Christ say, “... as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘you shall be holy, for I am holy.’” This call echos God’s command to Israel in Leviticus (11:44-45) to be a holy people.
So you see, we are all called to holiness—priest, husband, wife, child. Our paths to holiness may be different, but each of these vocations can lead us there if we allow it to.
For Catholics, holiness consists of three essential elements: 1) Doing God’s will; 2) God living in us by sanctifying grace; 3) striving for heroic virtue.
Let’s explore what these mean within the sphere of family life.
1) Doing God’s Will as a Family
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 11:35)
This first element of holiness is quite clear. Doing “God’s will” means doing what we believe God wants us to do. We don’t just follow the 10 Commandments, but we try as much as possible to live out all the teachings of Jesus revealed to us throughout the New Testament—all day, every day, as best as you can in a given moment.
What exactly does that mean within the family?
Well, for one, would your spouse and children say you are always loving? Forgiving? Patient? How well would they say you live out the Beatitudes? (See Matthew 5 if you need a refresher on what all of those are.)
Becoming holy is a lifelong journey. Out of love for God and neighbour, we are called to continually struggle with ourselves so as to become a better likeness of our Heavenly Father Who is perfect. Growing in holiness also entails learning what the Catholic Church teaches and why, so that we can better discern and follow God’s will, made known to us through His Church (Matthew 16:18).
Are you, your spouse, and your children sincerely trying hard to discern and live out God’s will and make that the primary pursuit of your life?
2) God Living in Us by Sanctifying Grace, and Fostering this as a Family
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor 3:16)
This second element upholds that holiness can also be seen in terms of how God lives in us.
God enters our lives and resides in us through Baptism. This divine life of God within us, what in theological terms is called “sanctifying grace,” actually increases in us whenever we receive the Sacraments properly. The more open we are while receiving any particular Sacrament (especially the Most Holy Eucharist and the Sacrament of Reconciliation), the more that sanctifying grace (along with lots of particular graces) flows into our souls. It’s like receiving an injection of God’s love and life right into your heart! Who wouldn’t want that?
Are you doing your best to lead your spouse, your children, and yourself to the Sacraments frequently and with hearts completely open to God?
Frequent reception of the Sacraments needs to be intentionally included in the life of the family. Failing to do so can be likened to neglect. Sure, you may feed your children wonderful earthly food, or give them great material gifts, yet in the context of eternity, none of these are as important as feeding them spiritually. Their salvation—and your own for that matter—depends in part on how well you raise your children and lead them to the Sacraments. This is often best done by good example and catechesis. Families should receive the Sacraments often, and never neglect frequent confession.
If you want a tried and true recipe for genuine and lasting happiness in the family, I’ll give you one that I have witnessed firsthand: forgive one another often, forgive yourself often, and go to confession often. I strongly encourage monthly Confession. You’ll quickly come to wish you started it earlier.
(Remember that even in this crazy time of pandemic, the vast majority of priests still hear confessions generously; – just reach out to your parish priest!)
3. Virtue - Striving for it in and with your Family
“And if anyone loves righteousness, her labors are virtues; for she teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage; nothing in life is more profitable for mortals than these.” (Wisdom 8:7)
The third element of holiness is striving to grow in virtue.
We are all called to foster strong virtues (good habits) and remove vices (bad habits). Habits are changed by putting intentional effort into doing things we don’t normally do. For example, an undisciplined person can become better disciplined by practicing denying himself/herself of things they generally enjoy. A lazy person can become industrious by repeatedly trying to complete tasks, small or large, even when they don’t want to. A merciless person becomes merciful by choosing to forgive others, even when it’s not easy, in imitation of our limitlessly merciful God.
Virtue makes us holy and happy and vices do just the opposite.
In fact, when the Church begins to assess whether a particular person ought to be declared a saint, It examines if that person displayed heroic virtue. What the Church means by the term “heroic virtue” is virtue in high degree, increased with time through practice and fidelity. Think of St. Teressa of Calcutta and how she devoted her whole adult life to self-sacrifice and care for the poor—that’s heroic virtue!
Heroic patience, heroic self-sacrifice, heroic purity, and so on; a life of heroic virtue built on heroic prayer habits. The Saints avoided the vices of rationalizing their sin, or of lashing out at their families. They were heroic in their love of God and neighbour. They weren’t stingy in their love.
This is what you and I are called to be. Virtues require practice and let me tell you, family life provides more than ample opportunities for practice and sanctification.
Allow me to offer you some reassurance because it’s much easier to talk or read about virtue than to practice it, I know. We all make mistakes, and perhaps the vices we have strove to weed out will occasionally shoot up as we battle them. But do not lose heart. Do not accept your fallen nature, do not settle in the vices, but continually strive to grow above them by confessing your sins, and practicing the virtues you need most to live a life of holiness.
The same is true when we make mistakes in marriage or as parents. Of course, we all do and we will because we're human. Yet, as long as we pick ourselves up, make amends, and strive to do better for our spouse and our children, we are moving in a good direction, and our kids observe this and learn from it too.
After all, the family is, what St. John Paul II called, a “school of virtue.”
Father Gregory Merkley
Father Gregory Merkley is a priest of the Diocese of Hamilton, in Ontario, Canada. Having grown up in a family where the faith was not very practiced, he lived for some years as a practical atheist. After his return to the Catholic Church, he gave his life to Christ and was ordained a Catholic priest on May 4th, 2019. Father Merkley is interested in anything Catholic, with a special love for evangelization, apologetics, Catholic Tradition, and canon law. When he is not praying, he is most typically involved in some form of evangelization or ministry. You can learn more about him at his personal website.