For the sake of our visitors, and to avoid scandal allow me to share again that I was married for 37 years. My wife and I have six children and I have twelve grandchildren. Cynthia passed away a few years ago, and I later went to the seminary.
When Cynthia and I were dating and were students at the University of Dallas, a great Catholic school, by the way, we began to talk about the possibility of marriage. Fairly soon, the topic of children arose. She was one of two children in her family, and I was the oldest of three children. We compromised and settled upon a good number of 2.5 children as the acceptable number, since it was close to the national average at the time. That conversation represented our maturity at that point.
Later, in a completely different conversation, we were talking about friendships, hers and mine. We were examining the people we most admired and those with whom we each most enjoyed their company. After we had each mentioned several names it occurred to us that there was a pattern we had not seen before. There was some overlap. The people we named represented certain traits and qualities in common. They were easy to be around. They were not “cliquish” the way many young people tend to be. Although our friends were young adults, they were as comfortable and natural with an old priest or nun or parents of other students as they were with young children or even people their own age. Although they represented a broad range of interests and abilities they all demonstrated a impressive set of interpersonal skills and survival skills. They had learned a certain self-reliance that endeared them to us.
Then we realized another underlying trait that these friends shared. We were, after all, attending a Catholic university, and these people were from large Catholic families. They had learned certain social and survival skills that Cynthia and I had not learned so well in our smaller Protestant families. As members of larger families they were forced to get along and learn to take care of themselves and each other. Their interest in material things was not so pronounced, because their focus was upon their multiple family relationships and traditions. Their human qualities were clearly shaped by their larger Catholic family experience.
Cynthia and I returned to our previous discussion about the number of children that we might have. We changed our focus to the kind of children we might have, not the number. We focused more upon the personality traits, skills and qualities we wanted for them. We were still not theologically shaped in any way that would be either for or against birth control. Instead, we were drawn to the kind of family we would like to have. There was no longer any importance we attached to any number of children. Together we grew to be open to the number of children God would give us. That is how we came eventually to embrace Natural Family Planning, not by theology, but for a desire for a certain kind of family.
Once we married the children began to arrive. As I said, we had six. People sometimes say, “Six! How can you handle six?” Let me assure you that no two sane, healthy, rational adults can raise six or more children by themselves. What actually happens is that the children help raise one another. Everybody participates in the challenge of making the family function.
Our children turned out as we had hoped with regard to the traits and skills we admired so much in our friends. I’m proud of them! They have their faith and life struggles like everyone else. But they are a close family and they make friends easily. And, given their life skills, they are doing fairly well on their own. Cynthia and I were blessed.
Once, when my oldest son was 20, and trying to make his way living in Paris, France, he interviewed to be an “au pair”, a nanny, a live-in baby-sitter. The mother who interviewed him was about to refuse to hire him due to his young age, explaining that she had a mentally handicapped child who was only three. My son, responded, in French, “Oh, really? I’m the oldest of six children. I’ve changed a lot of diapers. May I meet her?” They immediately started playing together, and David got the job. He became like a member of their family.
I have noticed about family that not all families provide good experiences. Families can be dangerous places sometimes. However, this is rare, and the alternative is usually worse.
It appears that there simply are no good substitutes for the skills and gifts that family provides. I’ve noticed that, for the most part, family is good, and more is better. We rarely see anyone die from an overdose of family. However, we do see a great deal of distress among those who do not have a good family, or whose families are broken. In family, people learn to sacrifice their tendency toward the idea of the supremacy of their independence, or, “It’s all about me”, and to share goals and concerns. There are unique individuals in every family, but individual concerns almost always come secondary to the good of the entire family. Family is where our best human qualities are formed.
There is much in Sacred Scripture about the life of Jesus in his family that we will never know. We will never read in Scripture about Mary or Joseph changing Jesus’ diapers or feeding him or teaching him or forming him as a young man and a carpenter. We all understand why she wrapped the child in swaddling clothes, and what happened to those later. If we believe Jesus is truly human, then it all had to happen. We don’t need to use too much imagination to see this. God loves families, and he provided his Son a human family on earth. Jesus had a mother and a father and cousins and relatives on earth. He had to learn to get along with them, and they with him.
When Jesus was twelve years old we read in Luke that he stayed behind in Jerusalem to talk with the teachers in the Temple. His parents didn’t know about it at the time. It took them three days to find their young son. Jesus’ response to his mother was, “Didn’t you know I had to do this?” Remember, he was twelve.
We read that the boy returned to Nazareth with his mother and father; that he grew in strength and wisdom and was obedient to them. Can’t you just imagine that Mary and Joseph gave him some strong lessons in parental respect on the way home. After all, Mary told him in the Temple, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been worried.”
And, imagine with me the conversation between Mary and Joseph that night he was warned in a dream to get up and leave Bethlehem and flee to Egypt. Can’t you imagine that at some point in the journey, some form of the following conversation might have occurred? “Really, Joseph! I was nine months pregnant when you drug me down here from our home in Nazareth to a cave with a manger in Bethlehem. Just a few days ago I gave birth to this baby, and now you want me to climb back up on that donkey, in the middle of the night and flee across the desert to someplace in Egypt we’ve never seen? Are you sure it wasn’t just a dream?”
People were trying to kill the child. As the father chosen by God, Joseph had to protect the mother and child. Remember the Fourth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, that you may have a long life in the land which the LORD, your God, is giving you.” Even if it is a desert.