Sunday, June 28, 2015

Gospel of the Hospitable Family

I think it would be better to change the phrase “Gospel of the Family” (Relatio Synodi [R.S.]) of the 2014 Extraordinary Synod) into “Gospel of the Hospitable Family” for the Ordinary Synod in October 2015.

I think the following four realities deserve more attention in the discussion of the social context and the challenges in family life today: (1) the homelessness and the insecure residency of many families worldwide, (2) the many refugee families who have fled and are fleeing from war and oppression,
(3) the age-old shadow of idolatry of the family, or the priority of family interest over the common good, especially with the reality of clannishness, tribalism, or political dynasties in many weak States, and (4) the estrangement, alienation, or insufficient compassion that Catholics in problematic relationships or fragile families have experienced in their contact with some church institutions and communities. 

On the estrangement of some Catholics in problematic or broken relationships, one reads in the Instrumentum Laboris (Working Document) for the 2014 Extraordinary Synod: “persons who are separated, divorced or single parents sometimes feel unwelcome in some parish communities…some clergy are uncompromising and insensitive in their behavior; and, generally speaking…the Church, in many ways, is perceived as exclusive, and not sufficiently present and supportive” (I.L. 75).  These Catholics feel like unwelcome strangers in the Church.

Just as the Body of Christ cannot turn its back on those who suffer from poverty and disease, it cannot be heartless toward those who suffer from estrangement, broken relationships, and fragile families.  As Vatican II affirms: “The Church encompasses with her love all those who are afflicted by human misery and she recognizes in those who are poor and who suffer, the image of her poor and suffering founder.  She does all in her power to relieve their need and in them she strives to serve Christ.” (Lumen Gentium 8)

On the plight of refugees, the “Message” of the Extraordinary Synod says: “We think of so many poor families, of those who cling to boats in order to reach a shore of survival, of refugees wandering without hope in the desert, of those persecuted because of their faith and the human and spiritual values which they hold.  These are stricken by the brutality of war and oppression.”  The plight of refugees belongs to the category of “families in extreme situations.” 

I propose to include in the discussion of the vision and mission of Jesus as regards the family his radical redefinition of his family: “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matthew12:50).

Jesus proclaimed the Gospel of God’s Reign or Kindom, one image of which is the gathering of peoples, especially estranged peoples, to feast on “God’s abundance” of gifts “for renewed community” (John Koenig).  As Jesus declared, “Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob at the Kindom of heaven” (8:11).

God’s Kindom is much more important than any treasured ties based on blood, marriage, affinity, descent, or the decision of guardians or authority figures.  Thus, Christ has declared: “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (10:37).  Among faithful followers of Christ, (baptismal) water is thicker than blood.  Water in the Holy Spirit is weightier than ancestral blood.

Jesus rejects any idolatry of the family, and thus conscientious pastors, missionaries, and theologians ought to consider the possibility that a “Gospel of the Family” might turn into a betrayal of the true Gospel in contexts in which clannishness or tribalism prevails to the detriment of the common good. 
In reference to one of the shadows in Philippine family life, the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines states: “Unity is sometimes solely based on ties of flesh and blood.  The family community itself consequently becomes insensitive to the greater demands of the common good.  When this happens, the families no longer care to participate in the development of society or the mission of the Church.” (PCP II, 582)

Especially among members of the elite, the welfare, comfort, prosperity, or political power of their families is their concern above all.  The unequal access to politico-economic power in many struggling societies contributes considerably to the pervasiveness and persistence of poverty, which in turn contributes to the dissolution of many marriages (R.S. 8) and to the decision of many couples to live together and delay or do without a church wedding, which in some locales is deemed “too expensive” (R.S. 42).  “Economic difficulties” constitute one of the significant obstacles to “the responsible procreation and education of children” (PCP II, 584).

The new family of Jesus comprises those who welcome the will of heaven, which finds a home in their hearts.  In this light, I hope the 2015 Ordinary Synod would include in its discussions of the family apostolate the Christian practice of hospitality.

Jesus valued hospitality when he sent out the Twelve two by two to preach the good news and heal the sick in villages throughout Galilee, and he instructed them to take no bread, bag, or money, for they were to hope for and rely on the hospitality of households that would welcome them (Mark 6:7-13).  The mission of the disciples involved the acceptance and offering of gifts: they were travelling strangers who received the gift of hospitality (food and shelter), and they offered their gifts of healing and good news.

The apostle Paul benefited from and promoted “house church hospitality” (Koenig).  He urged fellow believers to cherish God’s mercy through Christ and his Gospel by avoiding complacency and by offering their bodies as “a living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1).  One of the ways in which believers can practice the sacrificial life in a world that at times can be hostile to them is the following: “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.  Practice hospitality [philoxenia].” (12:13)

Xenos, the word that means ‘stranger’ in Greek, also means ‘guest’ and ‘host’…xenophobia [is] fear of the stranger…philoxenia [is] a love of the guest or stranger.  Philoxenia can also mean love of the whole atmosphere of hospitality and the whole activity of guesting and hosting.” (Ana Maria Pineda)

Although it never mentioned hospitality, the “Message” of the Extraordinary Synod, in the first biblical text it quoted, offered the image of a Christ seeking hospitality: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” (Revelation 3:20)  A few paragraphs later, the “Message” called for a Church that would be hospitable to everybody, as it stated: “Christ wanted his Church to be a house with doors always open to welcome everyone.” 

Similarly, the Relatio Synodi does not mention hospitality, but near its conclusion it offers an image of the Church as a hospitable people: “The Church can assume a valuable role in supporting families, starting with Christian Initiation, by being welcoming communities” (R.S. 61). 
In the case of Evangelii Gaudium, this image is found: “A people for everyone… The Church must be a place of mercy freely giv­en, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel” (E.G. 114).

In its Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity (1965), Vatican II mentions “active hospitality” as one of the ways in which the family accomplishes its divine “mission of being the primary vital cell of society,” and it lists the following “among the various works of the family apostolate…adopting abandoned children, showing a loving welcome to strangers, helping with the running of schools…supporting married people and families involved in material and moral crises” (Apostolicam Actuositatem, 11). 

The Relatio Synodi mentions the adoption of children as an expression of “openness to life,” and it says: “The adoption of children, orphans and the abandoned and accepting them as one’s own is a specific form of the family apostolate (cf. Apostolicam Actuositatem, III, 11)...Such a choice is a powerful sign of family love, an occasion to witness to one’s faith and to restore the dignity of a son or daughter to a person who has been deprived of this dignity.” (R.S. 58)

What is Christian hospitality?  It is “the practice of providing space where the stranger is taken in and known as one who bears gifts” (Pineda).  The stranger is not just the foreigner, but can be the homeless person, the orphan, the evacuee, the refugee, the outcast, the abandoned, the forgotten, or the estranged member of the community. 
Even without possessions, every needy stranger bears the gift of his or her joyful and sorrowful memories and stories, which can offer real-life lessons.  “Strangers have stories to tell which we have never heard before, stories which can redirect our seeing and stimulate our imaginations” (Thomas Ogletree).

For the believer, however, the ultimate gift is the mysterious presence of the Lord and the divine word in the person of the stranger in need (Matthew 25:35).  Pope Francis says: “Whenever we encounter in love another person, we learn something new about God.  Whenever our eyes are opened to acknowledge the other, we grow in the light of faith and knowledge of God.” (E.G. 272) 

When Christ is welcomed as the guest in the hearts or lives of believers, a transformation occurs in which the guest becomes the host who makes believers feel at home in God’s presence and who offers the gift of wisdom, light, energy, rest or relief from suffering. 

For example, Jesus was a guest at dinner in Matthew’s house in which “many tax collectors came and ate with him and his disciples,” but he became the gracious host in showing them God’s gift of mercy and friendship (9:10-13).  In turn, Matthew the host became a guest, as he experienced the welcoming and gracious presence of God through Jesus.

Christian hospitality “involves creating space where people can learn how to receive and give” (Pineda) and where guests can turn into hosts, and hosts into guests.  Such an understanding of hospitality resembles that of married life, as there is “mutual self-giving in the Sacrament of Marriage” and mutual receptivity to or acceptance of the other (R.S. 21).  Each spouse has made the commitment to open one’s heart, one’s inner house or sanctuary, to the other spouse and to keep it open for life, so that spouses regularly turn into guests and hosts of each other’s inner house.

The lack of mutuality or mutual consent among spouses was perhaps one of the reasons for the opposition of the historical Jesus to the practice of divorce in his patriarchal society.  The decision to divorce could be made by the man alone through a certificate of divorce given to the woman (Deuteronomy 24:1), and it was not rare for the woman to find herself in a worse or dire economic condition afterwards.  Thus, it was not rare for a divorce to be unfair to the woman. 
Jesus cared for women who yearned for healing, right relationships, or relief from suffering (Matthew 9:20-22; 15:21-28) and unlike other Jewish teachers, he welcomed female disciples (27:55-56). 

After his statements on divorce and “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom” (Mt 19:12), Jesus welcomed the little children (19:13-15).  They usually are the ones who endure the most suffering when their parents undergo divorce.  Such suffering is a form of “injustice which very often is associated with divorce” (R.S. 47).  The dissolution of a marriage and its aftermath almost always make it more difficult for a household to be hospitable to little children. 

At the same time, this question ought to be considered: even if he was primarily concerned about the fate of the woman and the children after a divorce, could the wise Jesus have wanted to give a rock-hard teaching on divorce and the indissolubility of marriage, when he was aware that his primary interlocutors were “some Pharisees [who] came to test (or trap) him” (19:3)?  It would be interesting to examine the question on how Sacred Scripture is utilized in the R.S. and the 2015 Instrumentum Laboris.

Missionary activity and pastoral care for those who suffer from homelessness, abandonment, neglect, discrimination, exclusion, persecution, or broken relationships can be envisioned as a venture in mutual and active hospitality in which space is created for everybody to receive and share gifts. 

Active hospitality does not merely wait for the homeless, the stranger, or the needy to come and beg for help or shelter.  Believers go out to meet them in the streets or to look for their huts, hovels, or holes-in-the-wall in order to invite them into welcoming hearts and hearths and to ask them to share the gifts of their presence, feelings, memories, and stories.

Missionaries, pastors and pastoral agents, including married couples and their families, who reach out to fragile families and couples in problematic relationships have to do so with sensitivity and receptivity to their real-life stories and struggles and the day-to-day signs of how “the grace of God works also in their lives” such as their everyday energy “to care for one another in love and to be of service to the community in which they live and work” (R.S. 25).

Another sign of God’s grace at work in persons with problematic relationships is the deep thirst for true love, and this is shown in the passionate interaction between two strangers, Jesus and the Samaritan woman in social intercourse at the well (John 4:4-26). 
It would be a practice of both wisdom and humility for missionaries and pastoral agents who want to proclaim the Gospel of the Hospitable Family to be receptive to or to seek first the day-to-day signs of grace, God’s self-giving, in the lives of fragile families and wounded couples, and to acknowledge, to show appreciation for, and to learn from these signs of self-giving, and to let themselves be surprised by these signs of grace.

After receiving the gifts of initial welcome and encouraging signs of grace, missionaries and pastoral agents can offer their gifts of compassionate and patient pastoral “accompaniment” (R.S. 45, E.G. 169) and the timely and eventual challenge to couples or family members to proceed to the next or higher stage of growth in their relationship with God, their interpersonal relationship, and their participation in the life, worship, and mission of the Church.  “To find the right way to gain their trust, their openness, and their readiness to grow,” wise discernment is necessary on the part of pastoral agents who accompany them (E.G. 172).

A “Gospel of the Hospitable Family” is relevant in our time of ecological crisis and anthropogenic climate change.  Jesus once said, “foxes have holes and birds have nests,” but humans are homeless (Matthew 8:20) usually because of indebtedness, greed, aggression, or war. 

In our time, many humans are still homeless, while the foxes are losing their holes and the birds their nests with the destruction of their habitats owing to greed, irresponsibility, and indifference, which also sustain involuntary and oppressive forms of poverty globally.  Human activities are rapidly depriving many vulnerable people and endangered species of hospitable places, spaces and places where they can thrive.

In discussing “the Wisdom of the Biblical Accounts” in his latest encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis includes the following text from the Torah: “‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers’ (Lev 25:23)” (L.S. 67). 

The Creator is the ultimate owner of the earth, the “common home” of all earthly creatures.  The Creator is the Host, and humankind and all other species are guests, or at least strangers who are welcome to partake of and cultivate the gifts of God’s earth. 

The Creator has chosen humankind to be a genuine partner with a unique responsibility to help keep and make the earth hospitable to all peoples and other creatures.  Such responsibility requires humankind to create great space in their hearts, their inner houses, for other families, other peoples, other species, and the Ultimate Other, each one of whom bears visible and invisible gifts, benefits and challenges.

To conclude, (1) I propose to change the phrase “Gospel of the Family” into “Gospel of the Hospitable Family.”  (2) I propose to include in the description of the vision and mission of Jesus his radical redefinition of his family in order to maintain the challenge of the Gospel in contexts in which people tend toward clannishness, tribalism, dynastic politics, or an idolatry of the family.  
(3) I propose to include in the discussion on the vocation and mission of the family the Christian practice of active hospitality in which the homeless, the vulnerable, the stranger, and the estranged are sought, welcomed, befriended, and considered bearers of visible or invisible gifts.

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