“Parents need to consider what they want their children to be exposed to, and this necessarily means being concerned about who is providing their entertainment, who is entering their rooms through television and electronic devices, and with whom they are spending their free time. Only if we devote time to our children, speaking of important things with simplicity and concern, and finding healthy ways for them to spend time, will we be able to shield them from harm. Vigilance is always necessary and neglect is never beneficial.” (Amoris Laetitia #260)
This article is a reading of Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic exhortation AMORIS LAETITIA in the light of my experiences involving children and youth, specifically in third world countries. It is also a reflection and celebration of the 10 year anniversary of my religious vows.
Children Need The Family
Children occupy a special space in the life of the Church. Their innocence is their best gift to humanity and to the salvation story, but with innocence comes vulnerability. This vulnerability is a concern that demands attention from various stakeholders: families, schools, churches, and humanity as a whole.
Each party takes a different approaches in defending the delicate vulnerability that so obviously requires preservation. It naturally follows that there are institutions for children’s welfare, centers for children’s development, and organizations dedicated to the protection of children.
There are educators, health professionals, and religious figures hoping for smart children, healthy children, and holy children respectively. Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation AMORIS LAETITIA takes the best of all these approaches and holistically hopes for responsible, productive and disciplined citizens and devoted sons and daughters of God. But the means to that end is not through the state, or even the Church, but through the family.
Why The Streets Cannot Replace The Family
I had the wonderful opportunity to work with street children at Foyer De L’Esperance (Home of Hope) in Yaounde, Cameroon, Africa. I tried to immerse myself into the complex world of street children. I listened to their stories and I shared my own. I tried to speak their language and live life alongside of them as family problems and poverty forced them to camp on the streets and beg for food and money. Sometimes, they resorted to stealing. Pope Francis notes that the social circumstances which cause children to flee home today were strikingly similar to those experienced by Jesus:
“Jesus himself was born into a modest family that soon had to flee to a foreign land…Jesus knows the anxieties and tensions experienced by families and he weaves them into his parables: children who leave home to seek adventure, or who prove troublesome or fall prey to violence. He is also sensitive to the embarrassment caused by the lack of wine at a wedding feast…and the anxiety of a poor family over the loss of a coin.” (AL #21).
What is even more striking is Pope Francis’ take on the dignity of children based on the account of Jesus as a child:
“The Gospel goes on to remind us that children are not the property of a family, but have their own lives to lead. Jesus is a model of obedience to his earthly parents, placing himself under their charge, but he also shows that children’s life decisions and their Christian vocation may demand a parting for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Jesus himself, at twelve years of age, tells Mary and Joseph that he has a greater mission to accomplish apart from his earthly family…All the same, in the concern he shows for children – whom the societies of the ancient Near east viewed as subjects without particular rights and even as family property – Jesus goes so far as to present them as teachers, on account of their simple trust and spontaneity toward others.” (A.L. # 18).
It might be the case that children flee home because they are treated as property. When
they misbehave at home, a punishment is automatically executed against them. No gentle
guidance, no encouragement or exhortation — simply punishment. They prefer to wander in the streets, leaving them vulnerable to all kinds of danger.
In the streets, they can no longer dream of a better life; they are only concerned about daily survival. Couldn’t this be avoided if parents would only apply a more understanding approach, putting appropriate limitations on children while providing a guiding hand and loving direction? Pope Francis reminds us that:
“A child who does something wrong must be corrected, but never treated as an enemy or an object on which to take out one’s own frustrations. Adults also need to realize that some kinds of misbehavior have to do with the frailty and limitations typical of youth. An attitude constantly prone to punishment would be harmful and not help children to realize that some actions are more serious than others. It would lead to discouragement and resentment: “Parents, do not provoke your children.”
My experience with street children has taught me that children dream big but can only realize their dreams when they are properly guided. They are creative, resourceful, disciplined, and determined when their energy is properly channeled. They simultaneously need formation and an acceptance of who they are. They need a hand to guide them.
How Displacement Is Killing Families
Aligning a child’s upbringing with the experience of Jesus builds a solid foundation for their future. However, the circumstances of today’s world completely forestall such a wholesome upbringing. Many children are displaced by both calamities, both natural and manmade.
Displaced by war, children in refugee camps are deprived of the social and emotional space where they can freely live their lives as children: making new friends, playing with siblings, sharing their stories, inventing and acting out new stories with other children.
Displaced by mining, dam constructions, and other commercialization of ancestral lands, children of indigenous peoples are uprooted from their socio-cultural context thereby cutting them off from a necessary source of history. Their ancestors cannot pass on traditions and cultural values to the children because families are displaced and scattered all over.
This is what Pope Francis calls “the lack of historical memory” and he considers it as a very serious problem of modern society which must be addressed first in the family. He says:
“Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people; it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods and their country. A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future. “A society that has no room for the elderly or discards them because they create problems, has a deadly virus”; “it is torn from its roots”. Our contemporary experience of being orphans as a result of cultural discontinuity, uprootedness and the collapse of the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us to make our families places where children can sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history.”
When families are displaced, cultural values and traditions are likewise displaced. When communities are displaced, the historical vein which connects one generation to another is cut off. And when this happens, the “lack of historical memory” sets in and takes its toll on an entire generation of young people. The environment likewise suffers when this happens.
Sadly, this is happening in many areas around the world. And our only hope for restoring things to God’s plan is through children. Educating children is the only remedy when politics fail. Educating children remains potent when the world economy is an ally of displacement.
Why Families Must Plant The First Seeds Of Education
Education is and will always be a missionary priority. But it should begin with parenting.
Parenting is a family affair that fashions the character of children. It regulates relationships and social roles within the family. As such, the business of parenting is not as simple as bringing children into this world: “One of the fundamental challenges facing families today is undoubtedly that of raising children, made all the more difficult and complex by today’s cultural reality and the powerful influence of the media.” (A.L. # 84).
Raising children requires a series of socio-cultural and psychological adjustments on the part of modern adults. One of these adjustments is understanding that parents ought to be the first educators of their children: “...the overall education of children is a most serious duty and at the same time a primary right of parents...The State offers educational programmes in a subsidiary way, supporting the parents in their indeclinable role...schools do not replace parents, but complement them.” (A.L. # 84).
In reiterating the importance of parenting with regards to moral formation and education of children, Pope Francis exhorts:
“Parents rely on schools to ensure the basic instruction of their children, but can never completely delegate the moral formation of their children to others. A person’s affective and ethical development is ultimately grounded in a particular experience, namely, that his or her parents can be trusted. This means that parents, as educators, are responsible, by their affection and example, for instilling in their children trust and loving respect. When children no longer feel that, for all their faults, they are important to their parents, or that their parents are sincerely concerned about them, this causes deep hurt and many difficulties along their path to maturity. This physical or emotional absence creates greater hurt than any scolding which a child may receive for doing something wrong.” (A.L. #263).
How Family Is The Inspiration For Missionaries
The foundation of a missionary vocation is understanding the person of Jesus, beginning with his early years. As a child, he was once separated from his parents. He was lost but did not camp in the streets. He did part ways with his parents but his parting was necessary to make his them aware of his mission.
He was found mingling with the elders, demonstrating his knowledge to them; and when his parents found him, he reminded them that he had a bigger mission – a dream – to fulfill: “Jesus himself, at twelve years of age, tells Mary and Joseph that he has a greater mission to accomplish apart from his earthly family.” (A.L. # 18). And yet, he did not abandon his role as the child of his parents. Very much aware of his bigger mission, Jesus learned the craft of his father, obeyed his mother, and learned to practice Jewish culture and tradition, just like the other children in his neighborhood. Jesus’ family did not inhibit him from his greater mission; they prepared him for it. And he brought their love with him when he left.
Being a missionary necessarily demands leaving one’s own family and culture. But this happens only after a missionary is very much rooted in his family and culture. When I joined the missionary congregation of CICM, one of the most difficult trials I underwent was being away from my family. My family, despite its many challenges and problems, was a package of comfort, support, security, familiarity, inspiration, and joy.
CICM, however, was a completely different package: mission, service, sacrifice, multicultural living, and the unfamiliar. As I lived my life as a missionary, I realized that I hadn’t quite left my family behind. And in fact, it would have been fatal to do so.
Like Jesus, a missionary brings the love of his family with him when he goes. A missionary’s strength comes from what he learned first in the family; they taught him the values behind service and the Christian beliefs he now shares with other people. “Children who grew up in missionary families often become missionaries themselves.” (A.L. # 289).
In this sense, the family is not merely a social institution, but an opportunity to nurture humans into wisdom, charity, gratitude, faith, joy, and mission. To lose this opportunity is to lose children to lives of strife and hardship, but it is also to lose our society’s greatest asset.
Thus, the greatest work a missionary can do is teach parents and families how to do the hard work of learning, teaching, and growing together; the work of transgressing, forgiving, and persevering in relationship; and the work of doing all this despite imperfections, flaws, infuriating habits, and loving one another anyway. “Families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity.” (A.L. # 7).
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