Pray With the Pope: July 2020
Pope’s Universal Prayer Intention: That today’s families may be accompanied with love, respect and guidance.
The great value of family connections
As a great-uncle, I watch the progress of my nephew and niece’s families with interest and a measure of awe.
I note the immense commitment, dedication and energy required to bring up young children. On one occasion I was moved to say to a niece that I thought parenthood was a vocation.
The families I am talking about would be described as “nuclear”; in other words, they live in a house physically separate from the extended family. Some nuclear families have very little face-to-face contact with the extended family except through social media, such is the extent to which families have been “globalised” today.
The notion of “nuclear” is supposed to highlight the independence of the basic family unity. It is like a previous understanding of the nuclear structure in which we imagine nuclear particles running around independently of each other.
More recent science, particularly quantum physics, has shown that it’s not like that at all. Atomic particles are, like all of reality, connected to other particles, and they are ultimately connected to everything else.
In this quantum and systems view of reality, the central characteristic of creation is its interconnectedness. This connectedness is not static, indeed it is more like a great cosmic dance in which things are constantly in motion but always linked in breathtakingly creative ways.
The extraordinary result of this vast cosmic choreography is that the whole is much more than the parts. The Amazon forest is a greater and more magnificent phenomenon than its individual trees.
Being connected is the key
This more modern understanding of “nuclear” enriches that concept of the nuclear family. Indeed, it makes it unrecognisable. A certain measure of independence is important, but being connected is what it’s really all about—and being connected is healthier, safer and more satisfying.
Hence it is important for nuclear families to have the necessary connections with the extended family as well as with friends, colleagues and acquaintances. This seems to me—speaking as a complete amateur of course—why the first need of a family, especially a young one, is to feel connected.
For example, a young mother looking after her firstborn needs the support and advice of an older, more experienced mother to reassure her that she’s getting things right. There are many books on parenting these days, but there’s no substitute for wise advice from a real person.
My nephew and niece are blessed to have a full deck of grandparents, all of whom are in South Africa. They also have a good spread of siblings which makes for myriad uncles and aunties for their children, which is great for their socialisation. As more children arrive, this makes for a network of cousins among the younger generation.
We are social animals, not self-sufficient individuals. The family network is where we grow and learn. People who subscribe to the theory of the sovereign individual should ask themselves who changed their nappies and brought them through the dangers and challenges of childhood to the relative security and independence of adulthood.
It is simply and obviously not good for us to be alone. The Covid-19 pandemic is teaching us this again through the pain of separation.
Of course, many families do not fit the almost idyllic description I have just given. The symbols we use for families usually have figures representing the father, the mother, and two or three children.
In South Africa and elsewhere, that symbolic representation does not tally with the reality of single parenthood, migrant labour, dire poverty and all the other forces which contrive to cause traditional family structures to break down.
With such a high proportion of “non-traditional” families in our society we, as the Church, will have to work hard and with much imagination and prayer to accompany with love, respect and guidance, all our families.