It is impossible to preach a homily on today’s feast of the Holy Family that does not offend the modernist Catholic and the atheist who expect to have the manufactured, alternative living units of today’s society accepted as ‘family’ by the Church. It comes as something of a relief then, when one is given a Bishops Letter to read, because any praise or criticism can be met with the same response –“Why don’t you write to the Bishop and tell him how it has affected you?” I don’t think any will, of course, and as yet I have heard neither criticism nor praise. Rather, there has been a remarkable silence. Here is Bishop Cunningham’s Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle:
My Dear People
I once saw a statue of the Holy Family carved from a single piece of wood. The
figures rose from the same base, Joseph standing with his arm protectively round
Mary’s shoulder. Mary, carved out of his sleeve, sits cradling the child Jesus. It was
an icon of unity that made me ask the question “What is it that binds The Holy
As I looked for answers I contemplated the individual members of the family. Mary’s
“Yes” to God had brought the child Jesus into the world. Joseph’s “Yes” to God had
made him take Mary as his wife and look after the child Jesus. Jesus’ humility in
saying “Yes” to God in the temptations, and in the Garden of Gethsemane, led him
to the cross where he won our salvation. This family was united in accepting the will
Sadly, we often dismiss the Holy Family because we see them as too perfect, too far
beyond us. The Church needs to be careful when it points to the Holy Family as the
ideal as it could be an obstacle. When ordinary people compare their own poor
experience of family life, its weaknesses and divisions with this ideal it can lead to a
sense of failure and despair. We need to look, more carefully at what scripture tells
us about the Holy Family, then, we may find that it actually addresses our divisions
and weakness and becomes a source of hope.
There were divisions within the Holy Family. Joseph was minded to divorce Mary.
Jesus upsets his parents when he stays behind in the temple. Mary rebukes Jesus
because of the distress she and Joseph suffered as they tried to find him. An upset
between husband and wife, a wilful teenager, a distressed mother rebuking her
child, are all situations which are common to our experience. What is important
about the Holy Family is that they seek to resolve these problems. That is where we
need to learn from them.
Their problems are resolved by recourse to prayer which asks the Holy Spirit to help
them see what the will of God is. In each case they affirm and support one another
by first, saying “Yes” to God and then to each other. Where there is no immediate
understanding they hold it before God. “Mary pondered all these things in her heart.” What unites the Holy Family is their willingness to listen to the Holy Spirit
and to use his help to obey God; in our weakness we must do the same.
Pope Francis at the recent Extraordinary Synod on the family has reminded us that
there are all kinds of families and relationships in today’s world. Many are unsettled,
broken or in other difficulties and all need to be approached with compassion. He
criticised the Church for sometimes being too judgemental in its approach. He
reminded us that the Church, called to be the family of God, is called to exhibit
compassion and mercy within its own membership. It can only do this by allowing
the Holy Spirit to fill it with the burning love and mercy of God. This will seek to
bring healing and reconciliation within the family of the Church. But it will go much
further than this as it drives the Church to reach out to those on the fringes of
society, seeking to understand them and share the gospel of hope.
The process in our Diocese called “Forward Together in Hope” which is just
beginning, is a three year period to help us discover what it is to be the Family of
God in Hexham and Newcastle. It must be rooted in prayer to allow the Holy Spirit
to draw us closer together in understanding and love. If we are to grow spiritually
we need to understand ourselves, our needs and weakness. We have to recognise
the gifts our community has to offer the wider Church. In the same way we need to
understand others, their needs and weaknesses and we must not be too proud to
accept their gifts.
If we do this we will grow together in unity, renewing the Church as the Family of
God and moving forward in hope to bring his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
With very best wishes
Rt Rev Séamus Cunningham
Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle