On The Holy Family, by Bishop John Edward Cuthbert Hedley

detail of a stained glass window of the Holy Family; by L. Collinet, year unknown; funeral chapel, tomb of André Corréa Mendès, Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France; swiped from Wikimedia Commons

The Christian family described; its beauty and sanctity – No family can be Christian or holy without religion – Especially must there be intelligent solicitude for the welfare of the children; divine admonitions on this subject – Every family has an example, an instruction, and an attraction in the Holy Family of Nazareth – The threefold light, of the presence of God, of mutual love, and of general edification – The two forms of devotion to the Holy Family.

The late Holy Father Pope Leo XIII told us a few years ago that he was convinced that nothing will tend more to check the spirit of worldliness and of licentiousness, to make men contented with their lot, and to bring back Christian faith and charity, than the contemplation of that Holy Family of Nazareth, which was divinely established to be the model and example of all families. And, on the other hand, a pious and tender devotion to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, could not fail, he said, to draw down on every family which consecrates itself to them that help and those graces which will make them worthy of such glorious Patrons and Protectors.

All pastors know and feel what the Sovereign Pontiff so emphatically says is true. If you sanctify the Family, you sanctify the community; whilst, if family life becomes corrupt, you may despair of the life of the nation.

The father, the mother, and the children, make up that divine and sacred institution of God which is called the Christian Family. In the Family we have the most primary of human relationships, arising out of primitive nature itself; a ” society ” on which all society rests; a society and relationship which God has sanctioned and blessed in a thousand ways, and which ought to be the strongest, the sweetest, and the holiest upon earth.

In the fear of God the young man and the young woman join their hands before the altar of God, promising each other perpetual trust and truth. They henceforth belong to one another and to God. They have their home apart their bed and board, a door to shut out the world, a fireside to call their own. The father shares his earnings with his wife and children; the wife labours for all; the children look to the hand of the father and mother for all their wants and all their enjoyments. If prosperity blesses them, they all rejoice alike and equally partake of it; if bad times come and adversity visits the home, they meet it together and bear one another’s burdens. As the years go on, they do their best to keep all together, facing the world in unity and affection, knowing one another, trusting one another, standing each by the other. The husband and father has to toil with his head or his hands; it is the thought of his wife and children at home that makes him brave and patient, and it is his best reward to be welcomed back by those to whom he is more than all the world beside. The wife, the mother, with all her troubles and strivings, never forgets who it is to whom she gave her heart in the early days, and she is ready to sacrifice herself for him and to believe in him to the last. Together they watch their children grow in body and develop in mind happy yet anxious; thanking God for the wonders of life and intelligence, yet fearing for themselves in the responsibility which is laid upon them. Thus the little community lives through a generation, till the years as they pass on bow the father’s back and dim the mother’s eyes, and the children whom God gave them are fathers and mothers themselves, with a roof-tree of their own, and God’s dispensations to carry out in their turn as their parents before them.

The beauty and we may add the sanctity of the Christian home, which ought to beautify and sanctify the whole world and every generation of the world’s history, are too often marred and spoilt. This we all know too well. But we are at no loss to understand what is the reason why sometimes the Family is so noble and worthy a sight for men and angels, and at other times so lamentable and miser able a failure. No home can stand unless it is built on a solid foundation. No family can be worthy of God and of Jesus Christ unless it stands upon Religion. Religion must be first and foremost, or else there is no order, no fidelity, no dignity, no success. The family of an unbeliever may be respectable in the world’s eyes, and outwardly prosperous. But the day is coming when the tide must ebb, and the souls who lived for earth and for time will realise their loss, when time is no more and earth has passed away. Children who are brought up without God are not brought up, but blinded and maimed and cast out. A husband who does not believe in God is a man who will live for himself, and not for his wife or his little ones. A mother who cannot teach her boys and girls to pray remains half a stranger to them to the end. She may clothe them, and caress them, and instruct them but she can never enter into the Holy of Holies where the immortal soul speaks to its Maker. It is Religion alone which lifts the eyes of fathers and mothers to heaven and to eternity, and thus teaches them that the only true education they can give their children is to educate them for life everlasting, But what shall we say of those who know and believe in God and in holy Religion, and yet by negligenee, bad example, and culpable laziness, do as much to ruin their children as if they were heathens or atheists? What shall we say of responsible fathers and mothers, such as priests know too well, who drink, curse, and quarrel in the very sight of their children who never kneel to pray, never come to Mass or Sacraments who allow their children to desecrate the Sunday, to stay away from school, to live in the streets and to grow up ignorant, disreputable, and vicious? Let us, for the moment, only say this that such fathers and mothers are doing their best to destroy the Kingdom of God, purchased by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. For the children are the future. To neglect them and to ruin them is to fight against God Himself; for He looks for the day when they will be good men and good women; but their miserable parents are carrying out the will of the devil, and bringing up God’s own little ones to be men and women like themselves, who will live as if there were no God at all.

In speaking of what is good or bad in a family, we are naturally led to think chiefly of the children. The truth is, that fathers and mothers will be good or bad, virtuous or wicked, in proportion as they understand and fulfil their duties to their children. Let the word “understand” be well observed. There are far too many Catholic parents, and those not of the poorest class, who have not taken into their minds what they owe to God in connection with the children whom God has entrusted to them. Many look upon their children as playthings, as drudges, as mouths to be fed, as encumbrances, or at best as naturally lovable possessions. But children are immortal souls, and parents are God’s ministers to those souls. There is no ministry of God in this world which has a more direct Divine sanction than that of the father and mother of a family. There are none into whose hands God so completely puts Himself as those of a parent. The priest handles the Body and Blood of our Lord and dispenses His holy Word; this ministry is more Divine by the nature of its object. But the office of a parent is more ancient than any priesthood; and, by the nature of things, it is more fundamental. The institution of marriage is the oldest institution in the world. The relations and duties which arise from marriage are, therefore, primitive and Divine in a most strict sense. For it is not merely the bodies of the children, or their physical condition and welfare, that are committed to the responsibility of the parent, but it is their im mortal souls. The child is the future citizen of heaven. He is the end and purpose of God’s creation, the subject of Christ’s redemption, the anxiously-loved object of the heavenly Father’s solicitude. Yet God does not visibly interfere. The child is born, and both God and man leave it to its parents. Man leaves it to them because, even if men were so mad as to wish by their laws to disturb the natural connection of mother and child, they could not do it. And God leaves it to them because it is the order of His Providence that His work should be done by human hands. The child has to be brought to the knowledge of its Maker and of its last end, to be made to discern good from evil, to be disciplined to self-restraint, and to be instructed in things Divine. But God does not do this by personal interference. He does not descend and carry away into His own keeping that being which is so dear to Him. He does not put it to a school where it can see His law written across the heavens, or hear His command ments in thunder and lightning. He does not even send His Angels those ministers of His who are ever ready at His orders to teach little children; although the Angels have their ministry too, and a ministry much nearer to children than we are accustomed to think. He holds back His hand He keeps silence He gives no sign to His heavenly host. It is to the father and the mother that He leaves that body and soul of His little one. If it is to be taught, to be turned towards heaven, to be sanctified and saved, it is they who must do the work. If they do not carry it to the baptismal font, it will not be baptized; if they do not instruct it, by their own labour, by taking it to the priest, and by sending it to a Catholic school, it will not be instructed; if they do not see that it approaches the sacraments, the chances are that no sacraments will sanctify it. On the other hand, if the parents keep it in darkness, and bring it up in wickedness amid bad example, then that soul will be lost, and it is they who will have its blood upon their head.

Our heavenly Father is very “zealous” in regard to all those who do harm to their neighbours souls, or who do not, as far as lies within their power, help them to be saved. There are two chief reasons for this: one is, that the most sure test of one’s love for God is to be ready to benefit those souls which are so dear to Him. The other is, that, considering what human nature is, it is not too much to say that a man’s salvation depends entirely on the persons around him. It is true that a man must save his own soul, and that he can save his soul in spite of his surroundings. But it is true, all the same, as a general rule, that he is saved or eternally ruined by the words, the advice, the persuasion, and the example of those among whom his lot is cast. Hence the “zeal” of Almighty God in regard to those who are not solicitous about their neighbour. If God has committed His immortal creatures to the influence of their fellow-creatures, how can He not be interested in their fulfilling this awful trust? But with parents and their children all these considerations exist in double strength. For a child is most certainly either saved to God, or given to the devil, by its father and mother. A child uncared for in its childhood is a child lost. There may be exceptions, but this is what is true in the immense majority of cases. It is no wonder, then, if Almighty God is prepared with His awful judgments on parents who neglect their duty to His little ones. For, let us remember, they are His little ones. The children belong to God first; they are only entrusted and lent to their fathers and mothers. In the ancient Jewish times, the holy and good parents used to say that their children were God’s gifts. ” These are the children whom God hath given me” (Genesis 33:5). Among God’s people the children standing round the table were likened to the shoots of the fruitful olive tree a sign of God’s benediction (Psalm 127:3). If in the New Testament there are higher graces than the bearing of children, yet none the less are children still the dear pledges of His love and the trust of His fatherly Providence. You know the emphatic and remarkable words in which our Blessed Lord speaks of the little ones whom He caressed and blessed. They are in the special charge, He tells us, of Angels Angels who ever stand before the face of God (Matthew 18:10). Against those who lead them into sin, or who harm their immortal souls, He denounces the vengeance of God; it were better, He says, that a millstone had been tied about their neck and that they were drowned in the depths of the sea (Luke 17:2). For there is a special cruelty in scandalising children. They can not help themselves. They have neither the strength of mind, nor the information, nor the experience necessary to enable them to resist evil impressions. They are in the hands of their elders, and especially in the hands of their parents. Therefore, as they are so precious in the sight of the Heavenly Father and of His Angels, retribution will not be wanting on those who harm them. Do you think it possible that the powers of Heaven should spare such people? You have heard how the legislature of this country, especially in very recent days, has interfered in be half of children, made it possible for them all to be taught, regulated their hours of labour, and passed a severe enactment to protect them from cruelty. Can we for a moment suppose that the Father of Heaven is less interested in the souls of these little ones than men on earth are about their bodies? If kind-hearted men are solicitous about the years of their mortality, what must be God’s solicitude about their everlasting salvation? Let all men look to it there fore. Most of all, let parents look to it; for, if there is any law and any certainty, it is certain that the sin of those who neglect their children will find them out.

Such being the responsibility of the parents in regard to their children, no preparation can be too careful, no earnestness can be too great, in order to live worthily in the holy state of marriage. Hearts united, and united in God such must be the hearts of husband and wife. The love and service of God must sanctify the house; and, where that love and service reign, no house, however humble, can fail to be holy and admirable. God is our creator, our loving father and our only friend. In Him, and in Him alone, can husband and wife truly love one another, help one another, and bear with one another. To Him they must lift their hearts in the morning and the evening; to Him they must offer their employment and every word and act. For His sake must temperance, sobriety, and self-restraint make their lives edifying to men and beautiful in the sight of the Angels. For His sake must they seek the Church, and frequent that Sacrifice and those sacraments in which the fountains of Divine Grace are ever open and abundantly flowing for the benefit of the souls of men. Thus, for the sake of God, and by the strength of God, they will watch over, bring up and prepare for God’s service those children with whom He may bless them.

It should not be very difficult for Christian believers to love and honour God. It is true that men and women, especially in the married state, are subject to many trials and many temptations. But, if they really wish to live God-fearing lives, God has made it easy for them. For by His Incarnation He has come very near to us; and we have only to turn to Bethlehem, to Nazareth, to Calvary, in order to understand Him, and to be drawn to Him with all our hearts. Above all, He has deigned to give to the Christian Family an example, an instruction and an attraction such as He has given no other institution on earth. For He has so bowed down His majesty as to have lived in a family Himself. He chose most holy Mary for his mother, and Saint Joseph for His foster-father; and with them, in the humble house at Nazareth, He lived for the greater part of His earthly life. That holy House, though it stood unnoticed among the cottages of the little town, was illuminated in the sight of heaven by a glory un speakable. There fell upon it from the heavens a triple ray of light, brilliant and divine, such cannot be found on earth. First, there was the light of God’s Presence. Jesus was there; and the hearts of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph lived in the thought of God, of heaven, and of eternity. Next, there was the light of mutual love and devotedness. Saint Joseph laboured, watched, and suffered for Jesus and Mary; the Virgin Mother had given her whole being to Her Son her thought, her will, her feelings, and her every act; reflecting and repeating in her own heart all His sufferings for the world’s redemption, and standing by Him in the work of His Father as the most faithful “minister” He has ever had (John 12:26). Jesus, on His side, though Master and Lord, was subject and obedient, accepting work, submitting to teaching, sharing in every hardship, and devoting Himself wholly to Mary and Joseph; and this in order that all generations might learn how holy and blessed a thing it is to obey, to be obscure, to be poor, and to suffer. Lastly, there was the light of a holy and edifying life. Kindness to all, self-denial, modesty, speech purer than that of Angels, justice, and all the virtues which adorn a life blameless in the sight of men this was what those round about witnessed in the life of the Holy Family.

It is easy to understand that this heavenly effulgence which shone upon the holy House of Nazareth is intended to shed its rays upon every house where father, mother, and children are gathered together. Every Christian family should live in the presence of God; in the constant presence of the world above, and the thought of the eternity to come. Every family should seek and cherish that love of one another and that mutual devotedness, which we witness in Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. And every family should so live as to edify all men by a good, pure, sober, and honest life. Where, then, shall Christian families find an easier means of thus living like Jesus, Mary and Joseph, than in the constant contemplation of the Holy Family itself, with devout prayer and loving imitation?

This is a devotion which has been widely propagated in recent times. It has been sanctioned and amply explained in the Letter of Pope Leo XIII, beginning “Neminem fugit” dated 14 June 1891.

The Pious Association of the Holy Family is an association of families who consecrate themselves to the Holy Family of Nazareth. These families under take to honour Jesus, Mary and Joseph in their life at Nazareth, and to imitate the virtues of which they give to the world so admirable an example. Once a day at least and that in the evening, if possible they undertake to gather round a representation of the Holy Family, and to pray in common before it; the prayer which is recommended is the one printed at the end of this letter, beginning “O most loving Jesus.” The “representation” here spoken of may be a simple picture of the Holy Family, or any picture, or group of statuary, representing Jesus in the hidden life which He led with Mary and Joseph. In order to become members of the Pious Associa tion, a family must be enrolled by their priest, and must make the Act of Consecration, the form of which is printed at the end of this Letter. The consecration may be made either privately, or by several families together in the Church.

There is another form of the devotion, especially promoted by the Redemptorist Fathers, which received a fresh approbation from Pope Leo XIII in a letter dated 7 May 1894. This is more adapted for the enrolment of individuals, whilst the former is suited to families.

In solemnly recommending to the faithful this practice of devotion to the Holy Family, our Holy Father the Pope has in view, as he has stated, to sanctify every family by the example of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, by the grace of Our Lord and the intercession of His Blessed Mother and His reputed father. But he has aimed at another good purpose as well. He has shown his earnest desire to see the revival throughout the Church of family night-prayers. Prayer is an imperative obligation, for without prayer no one can save his soul. More than once a day should father, mother and children pray, and, if possible, pray together. But at least in the evening, when the day’s toil is over, when sins have to be asked pardon for, and renewed protection implored, the family should meet in family prayer. How appropriately, at that moment, do they gather round the image of the Holy Family! What sweet thoughts of the meek and humble Jesus, of the most pure Virgin and the faithful Saint Joseph, will soften the hearts of all in that hour, and turn their desires to heavenly things! What a desirable way of remembering that God whom during their whole life they have too much forgotten! What a consolation will it be at the hour of death to recall those evening prayers, those moments of peace, recollection and good desires, which sanctified and consecrated each day as it ended!

That this devotion will be widely taken up cannot be doubted. It has the express recommendation of the Holy Father, who has granted numerous Indulgences to all who are enrolled in either Association. It is not too much to say that it is a devotion which is capable of transforming the face of the world. If Catholic families, both rich and poor, enter into it with earnestness and zeal, it will not be long before the prophecy of the Sovereign Pontiff is fulfilled, and faith and piety revive throughout the Christian flock. Jesus will bless those who honour His poor, obscure and lowly life at Nazareth; and the powerful prayers of Mary and of Joseph will guard and protect father, mother and children. What is begun in the Catholic flock will spread to those around. Were there lively faith and true piety amongst ourselves, there could not fail to be a great harvest of conversions. The power of Jesus is no less than it ever was; but it is tied and hindered by the sinfulness, the ignorance, the indifference of those who profess His holy faith and belong to His one true Church. He does not convert souls unless we lift Him up for all men to see; the idols of Egypt do not fall down unless His own household carry Him into the land where they are. May Jesus, Mary and Joseph bring into the midst of every Catholic family the spirit of true religion and of solid piety, and the steadfast keeping of the Divine commandments, that the light of Christ may save us, and may save our neighbours round about us, and bring us all to life everlasting!

Form of Consecration of A Christian Family to the Holy Family

O Jesus, our most loving Redeemer, who didst come into the world to enlighten it by Thy teaching and by Thy example, and who didst will to pass the greater part of Thy mortal life in the poor cottage of Nazareth, in humble subjection to Mary and Joseph, thus sanctifying that Family which was to be the model of all Christian families; graciously receive this family which dedicates and consecrates itself to Thee this day. Do Thou protect us, do Thou watch over us. Do Thou bestow upon us Thy holy fear, peace, concord, and Christian love; that so, by the imitation of Thy Family as our pattern and model, we may each and all obtain everlasting happiness.

O Mary, loving Mother of Jesus, and our Mother, by thy gracious intercession make this humble dedication acceptable to Jesus, and obtain for us His graces and blessings.

Saint Joseph, holy Guardian of Jesus and Mary, assist us by thy prayers in all our spiritual and temporal necessities; so that, with Mary and with thee, we may for all eternity bless and thank our Divine Redeemer, Jesus. Amen.

Prayer for Daily Recitation Before a Representation of the Holy Family

O most loving Jesus, Who by Thy ineffable virtues and by the example of Thy domestic life didst consecrate the Family which Thou didst choose on earth, in Thy clemency look down upon this household humbly prostrate before Thee and imploring Thy mercy. Remember that this family belongs to Thee, for to Thee we have in a special way dedicated and devoted ourselves. Look upon us in Thy loving kindness, preserve us from every danger, give us help in the time of need, and grant us the grace to per severe to the end in the imitation of Thy Holy Family; that, having revered Thee and loved Thee faithfully on earth, we may bless and praise Thee eternally in heaven.

O Mary, most sweet Mother, to thy intercession we have recourse, knowing that thy Divine Son will hear thy prayers.

And do thou, O glorious Patriarch Saint Joseph, assist us by thy powerful mediation, and offer by the hands of Mary our prayers to Jesus.