Monday, January 30, 2017

Seeing the Church as a family must somehow accommodate the reality of family dysfunction too.

The Chinese New Year is a widely celebrated holiday here in Singapore, largely because the majority race of the population is of Chinese origin.  The traditions that are observed have an unmistakable appreciation of life.  This is easily observed both in the arrival of the Spring season (more so back in China where the winter thaw gives way to the blossoming of cherry blossoms) as well as in the gathering of family at reunion meals where there is an continual partaking of feasts and gastronomical delights.  This is a time of making visits to friends and family, giving us the opportunity to meet kith and kin who we seldom see, reminding us of the largeness of our family tree, with its sometimes ‘hidden’ branches.

No one chooses the family one belongs to.  Each family, without exception, will have its members who are very visible, very active and do much to ‘hold it all together’.  There will also be members who do not come for such gatherings unless there is a very special reason to make an appearance, like at weddings or special birthdays, or when there is a funeral.  Some really understand the need for maintaining and contributing to familial bonds, whilst others could be so wrapped up in their own worlds and work that they think that taking part in all this ‘tradition’ is just making a fuss about nothing.  Some members of the family do not fancy or think it necessary to forge a relationship that is really committed and regular.  This is the reality of family life.

The Church has always taught that the body of believers needs to be seen as the Body of Christ.  As such, it is a family of people who are linked in and by the blood of Christ that courses through the veins formed by baptism.  Like a family of blood relations, we do not choose our fellow brothers and sisters in this body of Christ.  We are given these through our baptism, and as much as it can give us a real sense of belonging and support and love, it can also often reveal the very same flaws and dysfunction that prevail in blood familial bonds. 

I have come to see that the church as family has much in common with all that our earthly family experiences.  In the church, we see clearly that there are different levels of participation and belonging.  Indeed, there are those who see it as something that is of utmost importance, giving much of their time and energy selflessly.  They understand in a very deep way that their belonging to this family gives them a privilege and along with the privilege comes a duty and a responsibility out of love.  Like in an earthly family, these members do the often thankless task of arranging for meals, organizing gatherings, paying for the meals and do all that they can to keep the family together and uphold family ethos.  Then there are those who appear to take the family for granted as well – coming late for family gatherings, making the slightest excuses to be absent from them, being present only in body but hardly in spirit, or even wishing that they were not part of the family for all sorts of reasons – in short, being participants of the family on their own terms.

In my coming to 16 years of being a priest of the Church of God, I can see so many similarities and it bemuses me.  If I am unrealistic in my appreciation of the kinds of dysfunction that are present in earthly family ties, I would be similarly unrealistic of the dysfunctions that are present in the church that makes up the body of Christ.  Not everyone gets it.  Not everyone is passionate about God at the same time, and some may seem to be only in it for their own benefit and give nary a thought about those who have given their lives for it because of love. 

But just as God sees our earthly broken family and loves it, I strongly believe that he also, in the same way, looks upon the broken body of Christ that makes up the church and loves it all the same. 

I think we struggle with this very much, especially those of us who can readily identify with those family members who are consciously carrying more of the burden than others.   I know parents can, from time to time, feel their love and dedication to their families taken for granted.  They reveal this to me in counseling sessions.  I often like to remind them that what they do has to stem from love, otherwise it will always become a job or a task, performed out of an obligation and not one that is rooted and coming out of love.  When it is an action that has love as its rationale and foundation, there will be little room for bitterness and rancor to result. 

Priests who are at the service of the people of God who form the family of God need to know this and need to serve from the love of God.  It is constantly recharged and grown when we make prayer a non-negotiable as part of our vocation as priests.  When we stop praying, it becomes easy for us to look at the church narrowly, become overtly critical and run the church as an organization with tasks to perform rather than love the church as a family that has members who are capable of loving in very limited ways, for various reasons. 

Fr Ronald Rolheiser once said that the reasons why most people do not go to church do not also mortally sever our connections.  To a certain degree, I am inclined to agree with him.  A family member remains a family member no matter how wayward he lives his life.  Indeed, you do not cease being a “practicing member” of the family just because you are not home very much.  We who are in the ecclesial family, which is the church, need to be mindful of this.


  1. Cong Xi Fa Cai, Fr Luke. Yes it's a privilege to belong to this family, added value and purpose to life. Ignatius & Florence

  2. I struggle with this a lot. The idea of family. Especially the idea that church is family because the church is so big and my family is quite small. But I love how to compare the dysfunction of our families to the dysfunction of church... I think about that a lot. I have to say that I am perhaps one of the dysfunctions in church.

    Families are so precious and a true gift from God, though it is not always apparently so. My husband's family is far bigger than mine, and it was a little disorientating when I first stepped into their household during Chinese New Year. Yet, four years on, I have already started to love and treasure these reunions with them. Through being with them I learn what a family (a bigger family than mine) is all about. It's about everyone taking up their role, about men and women each playing a role and joyfully, about simply being in the same space as one another and treasuring that. Unlike my own family, my husband's family (or rather uncle's family) has been blessed with many children, and I deeply observe and experience it to be a tremendous blessing from God.

    And as for dysfunction. It is also my experience that dysfunction in the family plays out quite similar to that in the church, especially in cases of divorce, or "uncommon partnerships". How can we be loving without outcasting one or the other. How do we stand our ground without being trampled over. It is our hearts that grow in such circumstance, to expand so as to hold more people in it, simply because they are family. Yet it is not always the heart that expands, but also the space in-between.

    I don't know what it is I am trying to say. As I said, I struggle with this a lot. But surely God sees my struggle. There is no "unrealistic" expectations from Him; only full knowledge. I rest in that. And yes, I do continue to strive, I learnt, best unencumbered by perceived expectations of others. We do what we can.

  3. Dear Fr. Luke,

    I agree with the statement "Fr Ronald Rolheiser once said that the reasons why most people do not go to church do not also mortally sever our connections."

    Recently, I had an uncle who was a baptised Catholic was at the last stage of his life. He stopped going to Church when he was in his 20s and married a non-Catholic. All his children were not Catholic.

    At his dying bed, he asked his son to contact me and asked me to come and see him. When I saw him, he was lying in the hospital bed and could barely talk.

    I told him, that he was baptise as a Catholic when he was born and I asked him would he like to have a priest to come and anoint him. He agreed and I manage to get a priest to come and anoint him.

    After his anointment, he broke down and wept like a baby. I was very surprised and also couldn't hold back my tears.

    He had a Catholic funeral.

  4. “A family member remains a family member no matter how wayward he lives his life.....”

    This brings to mind what we used to call the black sheep in the family fold and I believe every family has at least one. Looking back - it is this black sheep who by his incorrigible behaviour, provides the unsavoury family legends/stories of his innumerable escapades - that draws together and bonds the rest of the “law-abiding” members of the clan....even if it is just to come together to berate and bewail the black one’s un-wholesome behaviour at every annual meeting of the clan at Re-union Dinner. Yet, amazingly, we can say that the Lord has use for the likes of him who acts as the catalyst to unite the others.

    I was thinking of a relative of mine who had the gift of the gab and was an incorrigible liar but he did it in such a charming way that my mum who was a soft-hearted person would never turn him away without first donating him a small portion of her marketing money - to the dismay and exasperation of my father. Somehow, I felt that his itinerant way was a camouflage for his broken heart when his teenage-spouse eloped with the teochew opera troupe that visited the village. At his death, he was missed by all his siblings - for I remembered that no eyes were dry.

    Similarly, in church we do have some colourful characters as well who don’t toe the line at what we tend to see as the ‘norm’. They can be exasperating and difficult to put up with, especially in ministry work but some wise guys have termed them as the “saint-makers” and that do help...sometimes!

    Reflecting on this, I believe that one has to start with oneself – if one makes a conscious effort to re-orientate one’s first unfavourable impression of the other - it would go a long way to create “room enough for the other to grow” (in his own way) - and not as usually the case, one is only willing to give the other “enough room to grow.” I believe that this has to be Jesus’ secret (to give everyone room enough to grow) – that’s why he is able to accept and love vastly and deeply everyone - saints and sinners alike, dysfunctional too, naturally!

    God bless you, Fr.