BY CARMEL PILCHER
About two years ago our cousin was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He hadn’t been well for some time and eventually the tests were conclusive.
Our cousin is a man in the prime of his life, and with three young children. Fortunately, he also has a very loving and practical family man.
His parents help with the children and his brothers and sisters will pitch in when he becomes less physically able. But perhaps the most tangible response to his illness came from his sister and brother-in-law who organised the family to become part of MS South Australia’s major annual fundraising event.
The organisation sets up an annual 24 hour swimming marathon where participants register and seek sponsorship. Young people swim during the day and adults swim through the night. The first year, Anthony and all his siblings formed a team and his children and their cousins joined the juniors.
This year other friends and extended family, including my nephew’s daughter took part. Some others of us are connected from afar by providing sponsorship, and so the net is widening.
As I become older and perhaps more reflective, I come to realise that one of the greatest gifts in life is family.
This can appear something of a cliché. We sometimes idealise the family so that it seems all wonderful and loving and yet the image might be far from the reality. Many of us, especially if there is a mob of us, know the arguments and even physical violence that occurred as sibling rivalry took hold.
Often at least one in any family will say they were "neglected" or treated less fairly than others. Sometimes tragically this or other misunderstandings lead to terrible estrangements that are never resolved.
We might like one brother or sister better than another or wonder how the child we knew has become the adult that appears so different. Some families remain incredibly close, and in constant contact. Others don’t connect much, but are ‘there’ for each other when needed.
The face of the family has changed over the decades and is becoming more complex.
Children today might have one or no siblings and many find themselves growing up in a situation where they are regularly moving between two places they call ‘home’. There are single parent families, gay couples raising children and parents who choose not to marry. This changing dynamic is a reality of our time.
So how do we as church assist young struggling families in our communities and Catholic schools? What is our attitude to the single parent, the gay couple, the divorced and remarried or perhaps the unmarried parents who nurture and support a young family?
Do we turn away children who cannot pay school fees because their parents have somehow mismanaged their finances? Can we any longer judge the ‘good’ Catholic as the one who regularly ‘goes to Sunday Mass?’
It is often at moments of crisis or uncertainty that young families turn to our church community for solace and support. Then, and when it is ‘time’ to celebrate the sacraments of initiation: baptism, first communion and confirmation. Will they find the ‘regular’ community reaching out to them at these times? Or will they experience Catholics who either ignore them in an effort to remain ‘anonymous’ or to chat with friends?
We do hear of welcoming parishes that reach out to the stranger and offer tangible support to those in need, whether in the form of material goods or taking time to visit others. But these days they are often the exception rather than the norm. Is it any wonder that Catholic families seek to live the gospel separate from the church?
More often though it seems to me that we leave families to sink or swim on their own. Fortunately I have a wonderful family who is generous and giving enough to swim together! While most of the time they may not look to the church for support or nurture they are more than willing to be church for each other, witnessing to the power of Christ’s message: “love one another as I have loved you”.
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