Americans are more miserable and unfit than ever before, with life expectancy in its first multi-year decline since the 1960s. Opioid addiction rates have spiked to shocking levels, with overdoses now the leading cause of injury death.
It’s to this bruised and broken world that the Catholic Church sends us, the laity, to evangelize—no matter how busy we are, or how much we struggle to make sense of the madness around us. “Even when preoccupied with temporal cares,” the Second Vatican Council teaches, we are called to “perform a work of great value for the evangelization of the world” (Lumen Gentium 35).
The council goes on to say that we are to do this, first, by asking God for wisdom and deepening our grasp of revealed truth. But Lumen Gentium also singles out the Christian family as playing a unique role in this effort, in a way that may surprise you:
For where Christianity pervades the entire mode of family life, and gradually transforms it, one will find there both the practice and an excellent school of the lay apostolate. In such a home husbands and wives find their proper vocation in being witnesses of the faith and love of Christ to one another and to their children. The Christian family loudly proclaims both the present virtues of the Kingdom of God and the hope of a blessed life to come. Thus by its example and its witness it accuses the world of sin and enlightens those who seek the truth.
It’s the last line that is so striking. What does it mean to say that a Christian family “accuses the world of sin”? Simply put, it’s a recognition that we live in a world that’s hurting, but a world that often doesn’t realize that it’s hurting—or doesn’t realize that there’s a better way.
How we live on earth is a foretaste of either heaven or hell. If we’re headed towards damnation, our lives seldom are great until the moment of our deaths. Rather, the consequences of our bad actions catch up with us and affect us, even in this life. People who give themselves over to greed, promiscuity, gluttony, jealousy, and selfishness ultimately destroy their own lives and the lives of those around them. The “glamor of evil” is a thin veneer hiding an ugly and unpleasant reality, and one need only to watch the news to see it. So it’s not surprising that as our country turns further from God, it descends further into a life-shortening malaise.
On the other hand, a family committed to sanctity is a family helping to bring about heaven on earth in its own small way. If all someone has ever known is materialism, promiscuity, self-medication, broken families, and the rest, these things can seem so normal that he doesn’t realize there’s a better way. He will never learn that there is, unless he encounters something better.
Therefore, part of the evangelical mission of the Christian family is to proclaim to the world—to witness to each suffering person in the world—that there is a better way. That’s why the council speaks of two closely related roles of the Christian family: “accusing the world of sin” and “enlightening those who seek the truth.”
Why the family?
For starters, because the family is visible, in a way that priests can’t be. People who might never cross paths with a man in a Roman collar (who might even go out of their way to avoid him) can’t help but to encounter families on a regular basis. If our coworkers, friends, and family members are going to have a life-saving encounter with the gospel, we can’t just hope that they meet a great priest. Instead, we should recognize that they were likely placed in our lives (and on our hearts) so that we could be God’s instrument of salvation.
But it’s more than that. The family also presents a realistic alternative to the world’s way of living. Most of us aren’t called to be priests or religious, and it’s easy to write their holiness off as something that’s just for their states of life. The Christian family, on the other hand, shows us that holiness is for those of us in “real life,” and that sanctity is within all of our reach. This doesn’t mean we should pretend our families are phony-perfect, papering over the real difficulties of family life, but that we must live even times of tumult and trial with the graces offered by Jesus Christ. It is precisely in these moments that the Christian family shines forth in its distinctiveness.
It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the Church’s call to evangelize, or to try to pass the buck to our priests. But lay people living in happy, healthy Christian families are a credible witness to the life-changing power of the gospel, and the true joy of sanctity. So to quote John Paul II (and the angel Gabriel), “Do not be afraid!” Amidst an unhappy world, we are bearers of truly Good News, and our lives and families reflect this hopeful reality.