December 2, 2004


The reason is not altogether evident. Some will perhaps point to the political discussions of the past few years to explain the phenomenon, and they may be right. Whatever the reason, however, it is clear that the family has suddenly taken on a new and loftier status in the estimate of our society. It is the "hot topic" for everyone from talk-show hosts to editorial writers and beyond. If in the not-too-distant past it was thought to be a sign of a certain worldly sophistication to speak of the family in less than positive terms, this is plainly no longer the case. The winds have changed, and not a moment too soon.

I became especially aware of this happy turnabout during the days that led up to Thanksgiving this year. On Sunday, Nov. 21, it was my privilege to celebrate the "White Mass" in St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 10:15 a.m. This semiannual event is specifically for doctors, nurses and administrators of hospitals, nursing homes and psychiatric institutions throughout Greater New York. In preparing my homily, I was struck by how often the family is referenced in recent literature for healthcare professionals. Those who treat the sick, I read over and over, are not to see themselves as just a community of persons in the same line of work or even as just members of a particular profession. Rather, they are to understand that they are a kind of "family"; and with remarkable frequency they are urged to greater commitment, greater compassion and most especially greater collaboration among themselves because of the "familial" character of their calling.

In the afternoon of that same Sunday, I found myself in Jamaica, Queens, celebrating Mass and consecrating the new St. Thomas More Church on the campus of St. John’s University. Again, "family" figured repeatedly in the descriptions of the community that the new church is to serve. Professors, staff and students are not just so many individual participants in the educational enterprise. No, not at all. They are to be a "university family," and this quality is to shine forth in everything they do. No one is to stand apart. All are to be bound together in mutual understanding and support, and the family is to be the model and the inspiration.

On Monday morning, I was in the car quite early to make my way up north to the town of Ellenville in Ulster County for Mass in the Eastern New York Correctional Facility, a maximum-security prison for some 1,250 male inmates. The institution is inevitably a place of punishment and restriction, and all that this implies. Nevertheless in chatting with the administration before the Mass and in comments that were made afterwards in the mess hall where the superintendent and I spoke briefly to the inmates who had attended the Mass, the expression "family" was used often and pointedly. If the prisoners are to work successfully toward rehabilitation, it was noted, they need to deal with the various programs of guidance, recreation and education as though they are part of a "family" insofar as this is possible. Anything less, it was suggested, will hold them back from finding themselves and remaking themselves as good and valued members of society.

On Tuesday afternoon, I joined benefactors and staff persons from Catholic Charities at the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Memorial Community Center in Harlem as they provided the makings of a Thanksgiving dinner to 350 families who are helped, the director of the center observed, not just on feast days but throughout the entire year. "We are a family that does our best to take care of families," I was told; and to make the point the staff introduced me to a family from Albania, one of whose four children they had helped through a nearly fatal disease. In somewhat halting English, the mother kept telling me of her family and what the Catholic Charities "family" meant to her.

Wednesday morning took me to St. Cecilia’s parish on 105th Street and Lexington Avenue where I observed an extraordinary parish "family" at work for the needy, the aged, the sick, the homebound and especially the immigrant. In cooperation with Catholic Charities, St. Cecilia’s is achieving miracles of Christlike goodness for the neediest in its community. I listened with immense admiration to reports from staff and volunteers alike; I helped with the distribution of food, which at St. Cecilia’s too is an all-year-around project; and, most importantly, I attended a meeting of an organization of dozens of Mexican mothers, El Grupo Maria, who have banded together, as a kind of "family" to learn together how best to care for their families.

All of this traveling from "family" to "family" came to a most satisfying conclusion when I finished the workweek with a meeting with Sister Mary Elizabeth, S.V., director of the Family Life/Respect Life Office of the archdiocese, and Mr. Edward T. Mechmann, Esq., the assistant director who is coordinator of the Marriage Preparation Program of the office. The subject of our discussion was preparation for marriage, which I have always considered to be one of the greatest contributions to healthy and holy married life that the Church as an institution is in a position to provide.

Sister Mary Elizabeth is a Sister of Life, the religious congregation of women that was founded by my wise and farsighted predecessor, John Cardinal O’Connor. Mr. Mechmann is a graduate of Harvard Law School with a master’s degree in religious studies. They and their associates oversee the marriage preparation of literally thousands of couples every year most effectively and with a wide variety of approaches.

Some couples attend an all-day program on a Saturday or Sunday in various locations throughout the archdiocese. Others participate in a three-evening program, again in locations throughout the archdiocese. Still others join in a two-day program sponsored by either "Engaged Encounter" or "Three-to-Get-Married," national organizations working across the nation and in several locations in the archdiocese. Finally, not a few choose parish-based programs supported by the Family Life/Respect Life Office but directed and sustained by dedicated pastors, parochial vicars, deacons and lay parish staff and volunteers.

A handsome booklet has just come off the press with the dates and locations of all of these programs, in both English and Spanish. It is titled "Preparation Programs for the Sacrament of Marriage" and includes as well an extensive and impressive schedule of classes in natural family planning, classes which Sister Mary Elizabeth reports are attended by an ever-increasing number of couples. (Copies of the booklet can be obtained from the Family Life/Respect Life Office at 1011 First Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022; telephone, (212) 371-1000; fax, (212) 371-3382.)

The curricula for all of these marriage preparation programs cover such matters as the theology of marriage, marital love, children, communications between married couples, questions of finance in marriage and natural family planning. The methods for sharing both the information and the inspiration that are intended in all of the programs include lectures, discussions with staff and roundtables for the couples themselves. In addition, the couples are provided with a workbook for the engaged, published by the Family Life/Respect Life Office, and entitled "Partners in Life and Love." Also available to them is another handsome publication focused on the liturgical celebration of marriage and written by two priests of the archdiocese, Reverend Joseph R. Giandurco and Reverend John S. Bonnici. It too is entitled "Partners in Life and Love" and can be obtained from Alba House Publications of the Fathers and Brothers of St. Paul (2187 Victory Blvd., Staten Island, N.Y. 10314).

It would be impossible to overstate the importance of marriage preparation. We have been through a devastating period in our nation’s history in which marriage and family have been attacked from every side. That period may, please God, be passing; but the havoc it has wreaked continues.

Divorce has become commonplace, and wives and children are especially paying the price. Sexual involvement before marriage has become the snickering theme of countless "B" movies and trivial television comedies. The plight of children with little positive guidance from parents and much damaging guidance from the media of communications is illustrated daily in press accounts of teenage pregnancies and youthful suicides.

In the face of all this, it should be as clear as crystal that the time and energy expended in serious, Catholic preparation for marriage are time and energy wisely spent. Indeed, they are an investment in the fundamental happiness of father, mother and children here on earth, and hereafter as well. For marriage is a gift from God, a life’s work made essential and holy by the Creator and even more holy by the Savior, Who raised it to the level of a sacrament, a sacred sign that begets grace.

Our beloved nation may be waking up to the beauty and critical importance of marriage and family life. The "ordinary" folk, the people with basic and common sense, may be at last dismissing the destructive foolishness of the anti-marriage and anti-family "elites" among us. If a profession, a university, an institution of charity, a parish and even a prison can find in marriage and the family an ideal to be embraced and imitated, we may be witnessing the rebirth of regard and reverence for that earthly "trinity" which is husband, wife and child. There could be no more precious blessing for this land, a blessing toward which we must work with ever more effective marriage preparation and for which we must pray with ever greater devotion.

Edward Cardinal Egan

Archbishop of New York