Many a mother has been astonished to hear feedback from neighbors or teachers, revealing that the children they trip over regularly in their own homes or nag over the merest chores otherwise prove to be cheerful, helpful, articulate and kind. Despite hang-wringing and near despair over the seeming lack of maturity, reciprocity and initiative around the home, parents are often gratified to discover another hidden personality in these kids that emerges once they are out of sight.
This common phenomenon came to mind when reading the memoirs of Father John Huang Yongmu, who spent nearly a quarter century in prisons and labor camps under the Chinese Communists. “In that environment of hatred and terror, there was nothing but enmity and cruel hostility. Oh, that oppressive and fatal Communist prison!”
He survived the “thought reform” by relying on his Christian principles, instilled through long years of formation that began in childhood. He relied on memories of home, “especially the affection and concern of my aged father, which gave me courage and strength and allowed me, during that storm, to remain bold and steadfast in my convictions.”
It is a stark reminder that faith begins in the domestic church, in the bosom of the family where affection and faith are instilled with the smallest concrete acts of love. The reality of God is brought home to the family table, in regular conversations which contextualize the larger world, and through humble service that gives each soul a sense of well-being and meaning.
Just as Holy Mother Church catechizes the faithful and spiritually nourishes them, each family setting does likewise, providing a “viaticum” of its own – “food for the journey.” It begins with nursery rhymes and bedtime stories, then builds on the universal faith with family anecdotes and personal examples of humor and virtue, and culminates in an abiding sense of personal worth only truly understood through God’s salvific and sacrificial love.
Father John relied on his knowledge of Holy Scripture, especially the Psalms – but he is clear that he knew the love of his own father first. In that, mothers play a pivotal role, for as Mulieris Dignitatem makes clear, “The man – even with all his sharing in parenthood – always remains ‘outside’ the process of pregnancy and the baby’s birth; in many ways he has to learn his own ‘fatherhood’ from the mother” (MD, 18). While the mother is intricately tied to the child in unique physical and emotional ways, she cannot neglect the essential task of building a bridge for her children – first to their own father, and ultimately to God the Father.
Now none of us are preparing our children for concentration camps or to survive traumas of that magnitude, but we are preparing them for a world that is quite hostile to the Gospel. Just as those little anecdotes about our children’s behavior drift back to us and provide glimmers of hope that our lessons of basic courtesy and decent manners have made inroads – despite their slack efforts at home, we must trust that our words and example take root as well in order to blossom in God’s own time.
When a child is grounded in the Father’s love, given access to and appreciation for the sacramental graces of the Church, and provided with the mutual respect and collaboration natural to a healthy family, he has the tools to endure all things. He has his “food for the journey.” Whether or not we hear of his astonishing acts of virtue from our friends across town, we trust that he’s entirely capable of them – and will come through when it counts.
Copyright 2009 Genevieve Kineke