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A Book Review . . . The Holy Family And The Communion Of Persons

December 26, 2018 Featured Today No Comments

By DONAL ANTHONY FOLEY

The Holy Family: Model Not Exception, by Mary Shivanandan (292 pages, Paperback and Kindle).

The Holy Family: Model Not Exception comes from the pen of Mary Shivanandan, who is an expert on understanding marriage and the family from a Catholic perspective, having taught at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.
The book has eleven chapters and an epilogue, and covers areas including how the Holy Family was a communion of persons, with a particular focus on the importance role played by St. Joseph, and also the nature of the spousal relationship.
It also discusses topics such as paternity, maternity, and childhood, and what they really mean, and looks at the importance of the encyclical Humanae Vitae for modern family life, as well as the universal call to holiness of the Gospel, in addition to a discussion of the nature of sin and conversion.
The thesis of this book is that the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph should be the model for all Christian families, rather than being seen as an otherworldly exception to family life.
The preface by Fr. José Granados, the vice president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome, points out how being part of a family helps man to escape from his individualism, and be a part of a communion of persons, while at the same time the family as a unit has an important role to play in the Church’s evangelizing mission.
Mrs. Shivanandan emphasizes these points and draws on the thinking of St. John Paul II, who took inspiration from Vatican II and particularly Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, in formulating his insight that “only if marriage and the family are viewed from the perspective of a communion of persons modeled on the Trinitarian communion and the communion of Christ and the Church could they be restored to their true value.”
That is, the family can be seen both as the “domestic Church,” and as an image of the Holy Trinity, “in a communion of persons oriented to mutual self-gift,” and in turn, the Holy Family should be seen as the true model for all human families. For John Paul II, the Holy Family was a true human family, even if the Incarnation had its own “special mystery.”
The author argues that the key intuition of St. John Paul II came from his teaching on the theology of the body, where he said, “Man becomes an image of God not so much in the moment of solitude as in the moment of communion.”
This is a reference to the Book of Genesis, in which Adam, even though created in the image of God, was alone and in solitude before the creation of Eve. But he was not created to be a “self-enclosed” individual, but as a “person intrinsically ordered to another like himself in the manner of the Trinitarian persons.” Thus Adam and Eve became a communion of persons, and although this communion was shattered by original sin, God, through Mary began the work of restoration.
Shivanandan emphasizes the role of St. Joseph in salvation history, and the gradual growth in understanding in the Church of the importance of that role, and the corresponding growth in devotion to the saint, which led to him being declared Patron of the Universal Church by Pope Pius IX in 1870.
In emphasizing the importance of St. Joseph, Pope John Paul II contrasted the sinfulness of Adam and Eve, with the sublime holiness of Joseph and Mary, to the extent that it was only with the emergence of a proper understanding of his role in salvation history that the Holy Family could be seen as a communion of persons and a true family, whereas before this, the Holy Family had been regarded as something apart and distant from ordinary families.
In this connection, though, Shivanandan says that “it is above all the faith of Mary and Joseph, both challenged and permeated by the presence of Christ, that makes the Holy Family a model par excellence for all Christian families.”
She also says that we can see the fatherhood of St. Joseph as the “essential link between the majestic fatherhood of God and human fatherhood,” while Pope St. John Paul II argued that Mary understood her motherhood as a total self-gift to Christ in God’s plan of salvation.
As regards human families, this Pope saw it as the main task of parents to make a “mature gift of humanity” to the child, such that each member of the family lives in truth and love, and all find fulfillment by a sincere gift of self, such that the children in particular are properly valued in the way that Christ clearly valued children.
Shivanandan points to psychological evidence which shows the crucial importance of the father in the family, citing evidence which shows that many leading atheists had either absent or abusive fathers; and likewise she emphasizes the mother-child relationship as crucial, and this includes practical aspects of this such as the importance of breastfeeding for the well-being of the child.
In his Letter to Families, Pope John Paul II repeatedly referred to the family as the “domestic church,” and linked it to his idea of a “Civilization of Love”; while in his apostolic letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte, he stressed the universal call to holiness, which he argued can certainly be achieved in a properly ordered Christian family life, that is one which gives pride of place to prayer, but one which is also prepared to accept suffering.
The Polish Pope contrasted the prevalent “culture of death” with his proposed civilization of love, and described it as arising from an “all pervasive secularism” which has come to dominate contemporary culture. For John Paul II, the family was at the center of the “great struggle” between these two opposing philosophies, and its task is to “unleash the forces of good, the source of which is found in Christ, the redeemer of men.”

Contrasting Families

The author gives two interesting but contrasting accounts of family life to illustrate the above point, first that of Talleyrand, the dissolute French cleric whose life was blighted by a lack of affection, but who was finally reconciled with the Church on his deathbed.
As the author notes, “Talleyrand suffered much from his family not being a communion of persons.”
She then contrasts his life with that of St. Therese of Lisieux, who although she had to endure suffering during her life, was buoyed up by a strong and loving Christian family life, one modeled on the life of the Holy Family.
This is an excellent book for anyone who wants a really in-depth and many-sided analysis of what a Christian family should look like, and one which benefits from insights from the works of many important theologians and authors. But it would also be very worthwhile if the main points could be summarized in a shorter book or booklet.

+ + +

(Donal Anthony Foley is the author of a number of books on Marian Apparitions, and maintains a related website at www.theotokos.org.uk. He has also a written two time-travel/adventure books for young people – details can be found at: http://glaston-chronicles.co.uk/.)

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