The call to prayer, fasting and almsgiving in Lent may lead us to turn inward and pull away from our families, or rush past them to do “good works” for those in need. Yet, the Order of Charity demands we focus on our families first. This article explains why and makes practical suggestions for how you can strengthen your family this Lent.
Order of Charity
After the first three commandments (the first table of the Decalogue), which focus on how to honor God, the Fourth Commandment leads the rest of the list for honoring “others.” That placement shows us how to order our priorities, as the Catechism explains:
The fourth commandment opens the second table of the Decalogue. It shows us the order of charity. God has willed that, after him, we should honor our parents to whom we owe life and who have handed on to us the knowledge of God. We are obliged to honor and respect all those whom God, for our good, has vested with his authority. (CCC #2197)
Honoring parents requires obedience, as well as “affection and gratitude.” (CCC #2199) This principle extends to all those delegated with rightful authority, those to whom our parents entrust us while we are minors, like godparents, teachers and schools, as well as those in political authority. Obedience is the first order of business for parents too: “Showing themselves obedient to the will of the Father in heaven, they educate their children to fulfill God’s law.” (CCC #2222)
The family is the “original cell of social life.” (CCC #2207) “The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom.”(CCC #2207)
Parents grow through their role as parents, through the graces accorded in the Sacrament of Marriage: “Children in turn contribute to the growth in holiness of their parents.” (CCC #2227). Likewise, “parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children.” (CCC #2223). The family is a “privileged community,” where “the relationships (within the family) bring an affinity of feelings, affections and interests, arising above all from the members’ respect for one another.” (CCC #2206)
Education remains the parent’s “first responsibility:” “They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues.” (CCC #2223) The parent’s role in educating their children is so essential, it cannot be delegated: “The role of parents in education is of such importance that it is almost impossible to provide an adequate substitute. The right and the duty of parents to educate their children are primordial and inalienable.” (CCC #2221)
In sum, the family is “a community of faith, hope and charity.” (CCC #2204) When children obey and honor their parents, and when parents fulfill their obligations to obey God, teach, model and lead their children toward holiness, then: “Filial respect fosters harmony in all of family life.” (CCC #2251)
I find my children are lovely people in the world, respectful toward adults, kind to other children. Yet, in our home, they struggle with obedience and respect, and they can be unkind to each other. As a matter of fact, my husband and I can get snarkier with each other, or lose our tempers, in ways we would never act toward others. Some say, sure, we all “let our hair down” at home. But, that means we’ve got it all wrong, and we’ve got the most important part wrong. In fact, this turns the Order of Charity upside down. It is disordered.
The Order of Charity demands that we get it right at home first. We are called to be our best among those nearest to us. This should not diminish as we move out into the world; instead, the sure habits of virtue at home spill out onto others we encounter, from a firm foundation. And the opposite is true: If we do not get it right at home, no matter how lovely we seem to others in the world, something is disordered in our spirit. That creates a fissure in our foundation. And the reading today reminds us that the house not build on solid rock will not stand.
A plan to strengthen your family’s rock foundation this Lent
We know God gives us the graces to lead us to holiness, through the Sacrament of Marriage, confirmed in the blessings of each of our children, by our Baptisms and through the Eucharist. That supernatural grace abounds, and the Communion of Saints, our Guardian Angels and the Body of Christ help along the way. We are called to ongoing humility and constant prayer, to frequent the Sacraments, and to cling to Jesus throughout each moment of our day, if we are to grow in holiness. We are called to ongoing and attentive repentance; and we must forgive others quickly and deeply.
In addition to relying on supernatural grace, we must labor to develop the natural virtues, by habituating our souls to the natural virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude – in order to realize the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity. That is our work to do, both as individuals and as families.
I suggest you focus on one virtue per week this Lent. Make a poster each Sunday, and write the virtue. Put a jar out, and catch your children “doing good:” Throw a bead in the jar each time you catch them acting virtuously, and plan a fun family event when the jar fills. Also, give each family member a small notebook, so they can list each instance of sin. Bring that weekly to Confession, so you work out sin in the particular, specifying the number of times for each instance, and bringing God and the graces of the Sacrament of Confession, into a deep healing process.
“Dig deep, …lay a foundation in the rock.”
Make each week in Lent heighten your awareness of sin, and strengthen your striving – as a family. If the rock your house stands on has cracks, you can mix up strong cement to solidify the foundation by developing habits in the natural virtues. You make cement by using sand, crushed rocks (gravel or limestone) and water. We all know when our family structure seems sinking in sand. If we crush those rocks of pride and selfishness, which led to the vices, sprinkle in lots of Holy Water, God will do the rest, and we will be like the man who built his house on solid rock.
When you get it right at home, and re-order family life toward the Order of Charity, then your family will be: like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. (Luke 6:48)
What will we gain by these efforts? : “Respecting this commandment provides, along with spiritual fruits, temporal fruits of peace and prosperity.”
What happens if we don’t strive to get it right at home first? “Conversely, failure to observe it brings great harm to communities and to individuals.” (CCC #2200) Because, what we do at home affects our world too: “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life” (CCC #2250)
As the Trinity links, surrounds and infuses all our relationships, we do well to remember that we have the eyes of heaven always upon us, even within the privacy of our homes. Lean upon the breast of Jesus, and the rock of his Church, and fortify your family’s foundation this Lent.
Read this entire section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to understand these principles more fully.