Communicating the Family: A Privileged Place of Encounter with the Gift of Love
Pope Francis’s message for the 2015 World Communications Day centers on the family. “After all, it is in the context of the family that we first learn how to communicate.”
The Pope reflects on the Gospel passage of the Visitation (c.f. Lk 1:39-56) in which Mary arrives to see Elizabeth and Elizabeth exclaims in joy when her child, John the Baptist, leaps in her womb. It is the child who responds first to Mary’s greeting. The Holy Father says that this demonstrates that “communication is a dialogue intertwined with the language of the body.” We know joy even before we are born, the Pope writes, and says that this is “the archetype and symbol of every other form of communication.” The womb is a place of education, “a place of listening and physical contact where we begin to familiarize ourselves with the outside world within a protected environment, with the reassuring sound of the mother’s heartbeat.” This is our first experience of communication, an intense interrelatedness even in distinction, “an encounter so full of promise.” Everyone has this experience; we are all are born of a mother.
Pope Francis goes on to say that this experience of being in a womb is not confined to the physical womb of our mothers; the family is another type of womb: “A womb made up of various interrelated persons: the family is ‘where we learn to live with others despite our differences’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 66).” He writes that the greater the differences and the wider the range of members in the family, the “richer” the experience will be, when members accept one another because of the bond between them. Our very language, our way of speaking, comes to us through the family—we speak of our “mother tongue”. Other people precede us, and make it possible for us to continue life and to flourish. “We can give because we have received,” which is the model for communication.
The Holy Father notes that the “most basic form of communication” is prayer, and this too is handed down in the family, beginning with parents who pray for their newborn baby and continuing all through the child’s development, “permeated with love.”
The family is a school of communication in a clear way because, “In the family, we learn to embrace and support one another, to discern the meaning of facial expressions and moments of silence, to laugh and cry together with people who did not choose one other yet are so important to each other. This greatly helps us to understand the meaning of communication as recognizing and creating closeness.”
The Pope returns to the story of the Visitation to highlight that coming together brings gratitude and joy. “To ‘visit’”, Pope Francis writes, “is to open doors, not remaining closed in our little world, but rather going out to others. So too the family comes alive as it reaches beyond itself; families who do so communicate their message of life and communion, giving comfort and hope to more fragile families, and thus build up the Church herself, which is the family of families.”
Of course, it is not always easy to be in a family and the Pope notes that there is no such thing as a perfect family: “More than anywhere else, the family is where we daily experience our own limits and those of others, the problems great and small entailed in living peacefully with others. A perfect family does not exist.” But, he says, “We should not be fearful of imperfections, weakness or even conflict, but rather learn how to deal with them constructively.” The family is also a school of forgiveness, which the Pope says is “a process of communication” in which “contrition is expressed and accepted” in order to restore communion. He notes that when a child has learned respectful, true communication in the family, he or she “will be a force for dialogue and reconciliation in society.”
Of particular note for Pope Francis in this message is families in which a child (or children) in the family have disabilities. These limitations, if approached in love, can become “an incentive to openness, sharing and ready communication with all,” including the local parish, school and community.
The Holy Father notes some of the sins of communication (gossip, detraction, cursing) before calling the family to demonstrate to the world that communication can be understood as a blessing. Especially when family situations are difficult, “it is only by blessing rather than cursing, by visiting rather than repelling, and by accepting rather than fighting, that we can break the spiral of evil, show that goodness is always possible, and educate our children to fellowship.”
Pope Francis next turns to the media and its influence on young people in particular, to reflect on how it can be “both a help and a hindrance.” He cites Pope Benedict XVI’s message for World Communications Day in 2012, that silence is necessary for communication, and that media can hinder this if it is used to avoid it, or to avoid listening or physical contact with others. The media can help people to stay in touch, share their lives, or meet new people, but Francis cautions that we must not be dominated by technology. The Christian community, he said, must help parents to teach their children “how to live in this media environment in a way consonant with the dignity of the human person and service of the common good.”
The Pope states that, “The great challenge facing us today is to learn once again how to talk to one another, not simply how to generate and consume information.” The latter is what is encouraged by much of modern communications media. “Information is important, but it is not enough. All too often things get simplified, different positions and viewpoints are pitted against one another, and people are invited to take sides, rather than to see things as a whole.”
“The family,” Pope Francis writes, “is not a subject of debate or a terrain for ideological skirmishes. Rather, it is… a ‘communicating community’… which provides help, which celebrates life and is fruitful.” In this light, we should be able to see the family as a “rich human resource,” not a problem. The media often presents the family in abstract terms, or as a forum for “ideological clashes.” But family is a resource for society, “a setting where we can all learn what it means to communicate in a love received and returned.” It is the place where we learn that “our lives are bound together as a single reality, that our voices are many, and that each is unique.”
In conclusion, Pope Francis notes that, “Families at their best actively communicate by their witness the beauty and the richness of the relationship between man and woman, and between parents and children. We are not fighting to defend the past. Rather, with patience and trust, we are working to build a better future for the world in which we live.”