Messages from the Bishop
Written by Bishop Henry on Sunday, 03 November 2013
"First Steps," a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, is a "translation" of a photograph by Jean-Francois Millet that shows a mother and father teaching their child to walk. The mother is holding the child up, protectively guiding the child's movements; while on the opposite side, you see the father, having put his tools down, has his arms stretched out. He is beckoning the child to dare to take her first steps and walk to be with him. And the child's face is filled with pleasure, eager for the adventure. In a sense this is what life is all about – learning to walk, something that happens, with joy, in the context of community.
The parents are teaching their child one of the most difficult lessons that she will ever have to learn, which is to walk on her own two feet. At this moment the parent begins to introduce the child to her most basic freedom. In the book of the prophet Hosea, God says, "It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I who took him in my arms, and they did not know that I secured them with reins and led them with the bonds of love" [Hos. 11:3]. God, here, is the loving parent, teaching the baby Israel to stand on his feet and walk, one of the first lessons for any father or mother to teach their children. And when Jesus begins the formation of his disciples, he invites them to walk with him to Jerusalem. To be a disciple is to walk on "the Way."
Most of us cannot remember the experience of learning to walk, but what we do know is that likely one of the first things that happened was that we fell flat on our face. Indeed one must fall flat on one's face several times before one can walk gracefully, and confidently. Unless we dare to get it wrong, then we shall never get it right.
The suggested meaning of the "First Steps" painting seems particularly appropriate for our times.
In our society with individualistic values, we must help young people discover the joy of giving life and watching it grow; the joy of forgetting oneself in order to serve others with love. We must help them understand how important it is for a parent to be present with their growing children.
Women and men are both fully equal and very different. Their natural complementarity and mutuality bring specific, yet different gifts to their relationship. The father and the mother are co-responsible for the children's up-bringing. One cannot replace the other, and it is by the example of both parents through witnessing the dynamics of their relationship that children learn, bit by bit, step by step, how to walk.
What matters most is not whether one parent, or both, choose to work outside the home, but rather the value of being present in each of their children's daily life. Sometimes, like in the painting, we have to put the tools down.
The difficulties of reconciling work and family preoccupy an ever-increasing number and have become an issue that can no longer be avoided. In wanting to take both their professional and family responsibilities seriously, many parents feel as though they are just managing to survive instead of living life to the fullest.
In 2002, in the National Study on Balancing Work, Family and Lifestyles, Canadians defined the following conflicts between work and home: "It is having a job that interferes with your family life. It is when your family interferes with your career and your ability to get ahead at work. It is when housework interferes with time for yourself. It is having a long commute to and from work that takes a toll on your energy. It is role overload – having too much to do in the amount of time available. It is being crunched for time – constantly. It is going it alone as a single parent or living with a workaholic. It is balancing two or more jobs with a life. It is balancing work and education with a life. It is postponing having children (perhaps forever) because you cannot see how you can manage one more thing."
Time is a rare commodity for families, especially when both parents are working outside the home, or when a single parent is responsible for the children's upbringing while working as well. Overburdened by their heavy schedules, parents are exhausted. They have almost no time to be together. They have little time to spend with their young children or their teenagers. Several studies have shown that parents spent 11 hours a week with their children in 2001, compared to 16 hours per week in 1991.
By constantly reducing the time they spend together, the ties that bind family members become looser and are worn thinner. It would be much more advantageous to everyone in the family if they could rediscover the joy of sharing the 1001 everyday activities, such eating together, going for a walk or participating in a sport, praying together, or discussing current events.
Husbands and wives who make their family life a priority, often by making very real sacrifices where their career or lifestyles are concerned, give each other a remarkable gift. Less stressed and less tired, parents and children benefit from the joy of spending time and growing together in their home.
Some workplaces offer creative innovations to deal with the reality of their staff/workers who have families. These innovations include, for example: flex-time; childcare at work; parental leave when a new child arrives in the family; and six weeks of compassionate leave to family members forced to leave work to be with another family member who is gravely ill or dying.
Nevertheless, the disproportionately high productivity requirements of some employers have a negative impact on many families. The insecurity and financial vulnerability that go hand in hand with a lack of job security, and the worry and ensuing poverty that can come from the loss of a job, combine to discourage young people from getting married and having a family. For them, it is often simpler just to live together and put off having children until much later in life. We must make everyone more aware of their responsibility to respect the demands of employees' family lives.
Because the family is the first place in which today's children learn how to walk—to become women and men of tomorrow—it is essential that re-evangelization begin here.
Pope Francis has convoked a Synod in 2014 with the theme, The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization. It is timely and much needed.
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