Catholic News Service
The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy in “Anna Karenina” wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
The first line of Tolstoy’s classic novel is widely familiar. While quoted often, the statement isn’t necessarily true. Every family is different.
However, there are certain qualities that can be found in every happy family, and that may well be missing in every unhappy family.
In 1994, Catholic bishops in the United States prepared a pastoral message to families. It was via the document “Follow the Way of Love.”
There, they addressed some of the qualities that exist in happy families.
They started by noting that in happy families God is revealed in unique and personal ways through the sharing of love and affection that takes place: “God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him,” from 1 John 4:16. These families “create a community of love,” helping each other to grow in service to others.
The bishops also recognized that fidelity is an essential virtue for happy family life as people “follow the way of love.” When people are true to each other and to what they believe in, their lives will be filled with joy.
There are other attributes they found in happy families, including: belief in God and belief that God cares for their families; unconditional love for each family member; a strong sense of intimacy; a willingness to share oneself freely and fully; a safe environment in which to share the family’s gifts with others; praying together; opening one’s heart and reaching outside the family to help others in need; admitting errors freely; offering forgiveness and reconciliation even more freely; joy and celebration at the gifts of daily life; a commitment to justice and respect for all.
The bishops noted that “a committed, permanent, faithful relationship of husband and wife is the root of a family,” while also recognizing that happy families can take many different forms.
The bishops wrote that “an enduring marriage is more than simply endurance.” It is growth into an intimate friendship.
Many couples who have been married for years will say that their spouse is also their closest companion and best friend. They are bonded together in friendship through common interests and attitudes about life. They think of each other first and look out for the other’s best interest.
The pastoral message recognized that challenges and problems, arguments and hurt feelings happen in every relationship, even the closest friendships and marriages. What allows these families to thrive when others fall on hard times is that they have learned the importance of humility, of recognizing the value of the other person’s gifts and talents.
But healthy families have also learned to communicate, to compromise and to take everything that happens with a sense of humor. Finally, the bishops recognized that healthy families grow stronger when they spend time together, share experiences and seek guidance.
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The Holy Family is a tough act to follow. We can’t compete with a holy child, a perfect mother and father when we live in a world of extremes. There is either too much work, too much “racing,” as Pope Francis said, or no work at all and no means to provide for the well-being of others.
Both of those circumstances, plus secularism, wars and famine, also affect the well-being of the “gift” that is the family, as Pope Francis puts it.
He recognizes that these challenges threaten the institution’s happiness and success. But families can build toward happiness with prayer, by keeping the faith and experiencing joy, he said in an October 2013 homily.
He said, “Family is the salt of the earth and the light of the world, it is the leaven of society.” It is only in the family where we can find “true joy,” he said. This joy is not rooted in the material world.
It comes from the “profound harmony between persons, something which we all feel in our hearts and which makes us experience the beauty of togetherness, of mutual support along life’s journey.”