WDTPRS: Holy Family – children first learn who God is by knowing their parents

holy-family-murilloThis coming Sunday in the post-Conciliar, Novus Ordo, Ordinary Form calendar, is the Feast of the Holy Family.   In the traditional Roman calendar, Holy Family will be on 11 January.

The place God Incarnate chose to begin manifesting His sacrificial love, which reached its culmination on the Cross, was the family home.

Together with Mary and His earthly father Joseph, Christ began to reveal something of the unity of love within the most perfect of communions, the Holy Trinity.

It is fitting to celebrate the Holy Family as part of the Christmas cycle. We contemplate the coming of the Lord in imitation of that final, perfect communion with God to be enjoyed only by the blessed in heaven.

The family is a paradigm of all other human relationships. Food for thought during the presidential campaign process and also as we scrabble for solutions to so many growing social ills.

The Holy Family teaches us, still in this world but moving inexorably toward our judgment and final goal, how to live together in this present state of “already, but not yet”.


Deus, qui praeclara nobis sanctae Familiae
dignatus es exempla praebere,
concede propitius,
ut domesticis virtutibus caritatisque vinculis illam sectantes,
in laetitia domus tuae praemiis fruamur aeternis.

This is a new composition for the Novus Ordo.  It could have a precedent in the Ambrosian Rite.


Father, help us to live as the holy family,
united in respect and love.
Bring us to the joy and peace of your eternal home.

According to the fine Lewis & Short Dictionary the noun exemplum, which we have seen before, means, “a sample for imitation, instruction, proof, a pattern, model, original, example….” For the ancient Fathers of the Church, exemplum – a technical tern from rhetoriccould mean many things: man as God’s image, Christ as a Teacher, and the content of prophecy, etc. In Greek and Roman rhetoric and philosophy, which so deeply influenced the Fathers, exemplum had auctoritas, “authority”, which means among other things the persuasive force of an argument. When we hear this prayer with Patristic ears, exemplum is not merely an “example” to be followed: it indicates a past event as a reason for hope and an incitement to the spiritual life that leads to being raised up after the perfect exemplum, the Risen Christ.

The deponent verb sector (you know the word “sect”) is, “to follow continuously or eagerly… to strive after.” The playwright Publius Terentius Afer (Terence + 158 BC) uses it for followers of a philosopher (Eunuchus 2.2.31). These disciples would take their name from their philosophical master just as we “Christians” have taken ours.

In the ancient Church there was a gossamer thin distinction between religion and philosophy. Christ, the teacher offers His disciples perfect exempla. He is the verus philosophus. He is Wisdom and Truth. Our Faith is vera philosophia.

That illam goes back, necessarily to familia (singular feminine), not to exempla (neuter plural).

Praeclarus, a, um, the adjective (paired with exempla) signifies basically, “very bright, very clear” and then by extension, “very beautiful (physically or morally), magnificent, honorable, splendid, noble, remarkable, distinguished, excellent, famous, celebrated.” Praeclara …exempla is so packed with information that it is really impossible to render it into English completely without a long excursus, like, “authoritative models for imitation very beautiful in instructive clarity”. Also, the combination of praebere exempla is very common in the writings of the Fathers often for “offering examples for imitation” of virtues or good works.

This prayer is laden with philosophical vocabulary revolving around instruction of and conformity of life to wisdom through virtues.

The term domestica virtus, is used by ancient authors of philosophical works (e.g., Cicero (+43 BC) and Seneca (+AD 65)) and thereafter by the doctor of the Church St. Ambrose of Milan (+397) in his own works on virginity and on virtues and duties.

This word pairing brings to mind the Second Vatican Council’s description of the family as the “domestic Church”, presented again in the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1656 citing Lumen gentium 11:

In our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to faith, believing families are of primary importance as centers of living radiant faith. For this reason the Second Vatican Council, using an ancient expression, calls the family the domestic Church (Ecclesia domestica). It is in the bosom of the family that parents are “by word and example…the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children. They should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each child, fostering with special care any religious vocation.”


O God, who deigned to provide us
with the very beautiful models of the Holy Family,
grant propitiously
that we who are eagerly imitating them in domestic virtues and the bonds of charity,
may enjoy eternal rewards in the joy of Your house.


O God, who were pleased to give us
the shining example of the Holy Family,
graciously grant that we may imitate them
in practicing the virtues of family life and in the bonds of charity,
and so, in the joy of your house,
delight one day in eternal rewards

Father asks God to enable us through grace, building in us the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and especially charity, to imitate the clear examples (praeclara exempla) of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in the communion of their earthly household. We are to build communion among ourselves, on their authoritative model, which in turn exemplifies the communion of the Church and of the Persons of the Trinity.

Thereafter, our examples, our own families, serve as the building block of a society oriented to God, the “city of God”, not the “city of man”.

The reward for doing this faithfully is participation in the heavenly household of God the Father in the new family of the Church triumphant.

Holy FamilyWhat the Holy Family offers us is a real exemplum, authoritative model, of freedom.

This is not the false freedom of self-interested satisfaction of appetites, or the freedom to “choose” divorced from consideration of objective truths.

This is freedom within, not from the bonds of charity.

The more we are implicated or “bound up” in the love of God, giving Him our freedom, the freer we truly are.

Vinculum literally means “that with which any thing is bound”, a “fetter”, like a chain. Here it describes effect of real charity, vincula caritatis, the kind of sacrificial love based on obedience to God’s will that the Holy Family had for one another and Christ showed forth perfectly while fixed and bound to the Cross.

The “bonds of charity” require sacrifices and the abandoning, or better, transformation of selfish desires.

The bonds of the family, and any authentic relationship based on something other than mutual use of each other, seem to modern eyes often to restrict personal freedom. But this is not the case. God’s love and God-like love, charity, makes us freer than we could ever hope to be without it.

The bonds of love and virtues of the Holy Family are foreshadows of the harmony of heaven which we are eagerly striving after.

The family, nourished in the faith and sacraments of the Church, is an image of the Holy Family, itself an image of the communion of persons of the Church in heaven and of the Persons of the Trinity.

This Collect points to the importance of the “domestic Church.” The family is the first “church” children know.

Parents are the first examples of God children experience. Your children first learn who God is by experiencing you.

Can anyone wonder why the forces of hell are bending relentless attacks upon the family and the virtues which must be practiced in the home?

Through the media, especially cinema, TV, and the internet, there pour into our homes a constant assault on virtue.  And it is precisely virtue (not diversity, not tolerance, not inclusivity, not politically correct sensitivity, not freedom of choice unfettered from charity) that makes possible a family and therefore a society.

This prayer is a contradiction of worldly ways and an affirmation of the God’s true image in us.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  2. Penta says:

    Father, a problem.

    I have several friends who were abused as kids. Throughout their childhoods.

    How does one explain God if the Holy Family is, for said reasons, not really a reference point you want to (or even *can*) use?

  3. Rachel K says:

    I am thinking of a similar situation, Penta. My husband is addicted to pornography, has committed adultery and has been abusive to me and our children, including physically. He is a Catholic adult convert. Presently he does not live with us or see us.
    How can our children learn about God from this?
    I am still struggling very much with this question as I believe this kind of experience is a huge deficit for our children.
    However, God’s grace abounds more where there is sin. The Holy Family do continue to be a template for us, even when we do not name them explicitly, perhaps as you say because our friends cannot yet think in these terms. Each of us can continue to try to imitate the virtues of Mary and Joseph, not to forget Jesus Himself. And I pray that St Joseph will directly father my children during this time of great stress and loss. I believe we need to ask God for the graces to make up for the deficits of virtue and love which we all experience in our family life, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in very large, gaping holes.
    He takes our few loaves and fishes and expands them to a feast if we ask Him.
    The practice of virtues is so important as I can see from my own experience that larger sins are the fruit of lack of faithfulness to the small, simple everyday virtues.
    Let’s continue to pray for one another.

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  5. stephen c says:

    Penta – I would like to hear Father Zuhldorsf’s opinion on this, too. As for me, I have found these Bible verses helpful over the years as I have considered with concern the pain abusive parents inflict on their innocent children – “For my Father and my Mother have left me, but the Lord has taken me up” Psalm27:1.
    “And think not to say within yourselves, we have Abraham for our father. For I tell you that God can make of these stones on the roadside children of Abraham.”
    And the most tragic line, for me, in the New Testament – “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh for his body, which is the Church.” Colossians 1:29 (the most tragic because of the feelings Christ must have when he sees an innocent child suffering in order to fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ…).
    From a practical point of view, I believe the easiest way to feel forgiveness for a violent, cursing, and cold and mostly unconcerned parent is to imagine oneself, a hundred years or more ago, before even one or one’s parent was born, discussing with that parent who would be brave enough to be the child of the even more abusive grandparents – the future parent (child of the grandparents) or the future child ( grandchild of the grandparents). Hope this helps, if just a little -even if it does not, you will be in my prayers.

  6. Caritas says:

    It has been my experience that people do relate to God in ways they have learned from family life.
    A stern father can give a view of God as one of judgement and condemnation
    Likewise it can be difficult to relate to Jesus as a loving friend/ brother without experience of such in life. Mary is more approachable to some because their mother was their goto parent.
    It is important to remember such when relating within our own families, for what are we teaching our children and siblings in how to relate, but also in recognizing the difficulty that people we meet may have in understanding the love of God for them.
    For how can you love a God you cannot see if you do not love the children of God whom you do see.
    This is yet another joy of larger families, as there are many experiences of love from all different people.

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