Evangelization Through the Family: in Faith, Hope and Love

A deep article on the resurrection and the universe.
Looking at the family as a means to propagate Catholic Teaching

Keynote address, Sunday November 28, 1999
Council for Marriage and the Family Conference
Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne
Corpus Christi College, Clayton


It is always good to begin by defining our terms. Religious language is no exception to this rule and often benefits from it, because we easily fall into careless habits of language relating to faith. We use words we do not quite grasp or we lose touch with meanings we should not forget. In Christian life, pious approximations are no substitute for precise and clear thinking.

Faith, hope and love are the infused virtues, gifts of the Holy Spirit, imparted in the sacrament of baptism. In turn, these are taken and strengthened by the Holy Spirit in the other sacraments. Thus marriage shines forth particularly as a radiant sacrament of faith, hope and love. Sacramental marriage builds on the natural virtues of mutual faithfulness, trust in the future and abiding love we would want to find in any marriage. In the sacrament, God builds on what is natural, elevating and perfecting so that parents and children can live together in faith, hope and love.

Evangelization is derived from the Greek word euvangelion, gospel, good news. It is used to describe the work or mission of bringing the good news of Jesus to others. It includes meanings such as: to spread the faith, to convert people to Jesus Christ, to call them to the new life of baptism and membership of the Catholic Church.

The Holy Father often speaks of a “new evangelization” for the new Millennium. He refers to the difficult task of re-evangelising the highly secularised or “post-Christian” societies that dominate the world today. In that perspective we can recognise the challenging and urgent context for our reflection and celebration today. Indeed we are reflecting on how we can improve our evangelization in and through the family, and we are also celebrating what has been already accomplished.

However, it is not my task to give you a nagging moralising homily on what you should be doing. I want to encourage every married couple and all members of our families here to take the good things you are doing a bit further, perhaps to sharpen the focus and emphasis. If you take away one message, that would be enough. The message is simple: as families you are involved in the mission of Jesus Christ and his Church and you can do this well.

We dare not reduce or water down the meaning of the word “evangelization”. It does not mean just being a nice family or a kind or caring family, because the nice family can be closed to others and need not have much faith, and the kind or caring family may still carry moral baggage that impedes grace and does not spread the word of Christ or extend his Kingdom. The proclamation of the Gospel of Christ’s saving grace and the “faith and morals” teachings of his authentic Church are inseparable from true family evangelization.

Having clarified our language, I wish to take each of the infused virtues as discussion starters for an exploration of what we mean by “evangelization through the family”. Here some preliminary definition is also necessary. The expression “evangelization through the family” is good because it is ambiguous. It is open enough to affirm the basic principles of Familiaris Consortio and the Gratissimam Sane (the Pope’s Letter to Families): the family is the subject or recipient of evangelization as well as an agent for proclaiming and spreading the faith in the wider community today. Indeed these two aspects are inseparable. Insofar as it is the subject of evangelization, or re-evangelization, the family gradually becomes an agent for proclaiming the word. By being transformed, more deeply converted, the family is able to reach out to others with the good news.


The family is the smallest community of faith, the “domestic church”. The Second Vatican Council restored this ancient way of describing the Christian family. It is based in the experience of domestic prayer, obedience to the moral law in the faith of Israel, such as we still see in the homes of our Jewish brothers and sisters. The early Christians inherited this tradition.

The family a basic living cell of the society that is the People of God, the Church, just as it is always the basic living cell of human society, a principle of Catholic social doctrine resting on the natural order and the natural law. (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 42). In this mini-church, the faith is transmitted directly, through word and example, and indirectly, through all the small things that go to make up Christian family life.

However the faith of the family begins in the sacramental consent of marriage. As the Holy Father put it in Familiaris Consortio, 63. “The celebration of the sacrament of marriage is the basic moment of the faith of the couple. This sacrament, in essence, is the proclamation in the Church of the good news concerning married love.” That is precisely what Christian couples proclaim by their public consent in the sacrament.

The family constantly needs to evangelize itself, to discover its potential, its “tremendous energies”. The family is thus the subject of evangelization. It is first called to be a believing family for only then it can be an agent, an evangelising community, as Pope John Paul explains in Familiaris Consortio 51 and 52. He cited the words of Pope Paul VI: “The family, like the Church, ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates” (Familiaris Consortio 52). Then the Holy Father recalled his own words to the bishops at Puebla, that the future of evangelization depends in great part on the church of the home. We see this when we reflect on the education of children in Catholic faith and practice.


Within the family, the formation in faith of children is the first work of evangelization entrusted to parents, grandparents and, I hope, to other members of the extended family. We do see “evangelization” here in terms of suggesting that each child is a naughty little pagan needing the attention of zealous missionaries. Strangely enough that assumption permeates the thought of some religious educators in our Catholic community today, to me implying a counsel bordering on despair or at least a terrible pessimism about Catholic family life. The “evangelization” of baptized children in a family is more a supernatural work of catechesis and spiritual formation and the word “evangelization” must taken on a nuanced meaning in this context.

Nonetheless, we face real problems. First there is a widespread assumption that schools are meant carry out all this work. That view has placed a great responsibility on our schools at a time of change and transition. In many cases, Catholic schools have become the only point of regular contact between many families and the Church. The assumption that others outside the home pass on the faith is a misunderstanding inherited from the past. In part it dates back to the days when the good sisters or the brothers taught religion and children were “handed over” to them for that purpose, not forgetting salutary discipline. In those days, however, family piety such as the praying the rosary was strong, and most families came to Mass on Sundays, observed Friday abstinence and other precepts and customs. These practices and the culture they embodied helped pass on the faith. Today that is not so obvious and religious practice in many homes is minimal.

The family needs to rediscover its role here. Even the most orthodox and devout parents sometimes fail to enter this work of forming children. But once they do they discover something else, something wonderful, how the children re-evangelise their parents.

If our children are not formed in the faith at home, the catechetical task of the school becomes almost impossible. It is not difficult to outline some ways we can keep the faith alive in the domestic experience of our children: grace before meals, other times for prayer, discussion of the feast days and seasons of the liturgical year, interest in religious formation at school, moral formation, including a positive and prudent education in sexuality at the appropriate time. This formation is meant to happen through a dialogue of trust and openness between parents and children.

There is also a need in these times to “desecularize” our homes. In some Catholic families the crucifix, if there is one, is hidden in the bedroom and there is no sign of Our Lady to be seen anywhere. This is so even in the homes of families that regularly attend Mass. It may rest on a sense of not wanting to thrust religion on visitors, what we might call “Christian cringe”. It may reflect a failure to realize the need we have for signs and symbols, not only in forming our children in faith but it reminding ourselves who we are through the very ambiance and environment of the Christian home. The home should be a kind of sanctuary for the domestic church.

This principle also extends to who and what we do not allow into the home. This applies to persons as well as literature, newspapers, magazines, television and especially the internet. Evangelization includes a shrewd awareness that Satan has his counter-evangelization program, an infernal project running hot day and night. Facing up to the problem of evil raises the need for redemption, conversion, penance and healing, for all are essential parts of Christian evangelization.

This leads into the delicate but unavoidable issue of the need for repentance and conversion in families wounded by such serious problems as marriage tensions, infidelity, domestic violence, contraception, abortion, sexual abuse, manipulative relationships, delinquency, drug addiction etc. Evangelizing is a call not only to faith but to conversion, to penance and liberation from the bondage of sin. It involves all members of the family. But there are wounded families stricken by problems that are not basically moral issues, such as mental illness, alcoholism, despair arising from unemployment and they need the healing of Christ that involves strengthening the faith. Here I already anticipate the hope that Christ brings to wounded families and through the healing of families a hope he brings to the wider society of our nation.


In the domain of faith there is an additional reality to confront: the many weaker Catholic families. Among them we find confusion, especially about what the Church teaches, but also much good will that survives in spite of the steady stream of anti-Catholic or anti-clerical propaganda in the media. Many Catholic families involved in our schools are happy to be regarded as “Catholic” but they rarely come to Mass. They would feel self-conscious, nervous or embarrassed were one to speak directly to them on the themes I am presenting today. The priest may not always be so effective in contacting these families and calling them to deeper conversion.

Therefore, these families need to be drawn into contact with more committed families. This is the evangelistic model of families ministering to families, the stronger guiding and encouraging the weaker. It can be done in a non- threatening, and non-patronising way. We need to reflect on strategies at this gathering, responding to the call of the Lord to bring him to other families.

Surely this begins with the mutual evangelization process, that is, the families of practising Catholics first ministering to one another. This is what we are doing today and it is very worthwhile. It is the ministry of mutual support, encouragement and prayer in a society where the practising Catholic home often seems isolated, odd or out of step.

That this is a positive way forward is evident in the growing number of circles, movements and organisations given over to this work. Some have a long history, such as the Teams of Our Lady or the New Families of the Focolare Movement. Others are new, such as the National Association of Catholic Families, whose founder in England, Dr. Tom Ward is a friend of mine, a truly remarkable man. Then there are circles where some specialized work brings families together, for example the network of home-schooling families, or the circles of families where the parents are committed to teaching the natural methods for regulating fertility.

Some movements have a specific marriage focus, such as Marriage Encounter or Couples for Christ, but ultimately this is meant to enrich family life and spirituality in the home. Other movements in the post-conciliar Church have a strong pro-family dimension and a sustaining spirituality which means the families influenced by specific spiritualities naturally relate to minister to one another. I have mentioned the Focolare, I also indicate Opus Dei, the Neo Catechumenate and various groups or communities within the Charismatic Renewal. But the ministry of families to families can be developed within a parish as a local project of evangelization in a way that draws in that large category of the shy, wounded or “casual” Catholic families. This openness to these families is essential if we are to use elitism well to overcome the dangers of elitism.

One interesting example of this interactive evangelising of both fervent and tepid families is the Apostolate for Family Consecration in the United States. I was privileged to work with Jerry and Gwen Coniker, founders of the Apostolate, during my service in the Pontifical Council for the Family. The Apostolate uses the television video as it means of formation, based in parish or neighborhood circles, with access to a magnificent family holiday and formation centre in the rolling wooded hills of Bloomingdale Ohio, not far from Steubenville University. Christian families need “space” to be together, living apart from the world for a time in order to recharge the spiritual batteries. In France, the little Brothers of Saint John welcome families into their monastery grounds for summer holidays with a difference. Would that more religious congregations could discover the white fields crying out to be harvested through family apostolates.

Before we go beyond the area of faith, let us never forget that the faith we have is the “faith of the Church”. Evangelising means fidelity to the teaching Church and passing on that teaching. In practical terms that involves the use of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Together with the Scriptures, this is an essential resource in every home.


None of us here today needs convincing that the family is obviously the greatest sign of hope in society today. But if you expect me to start our reflection on hope with a peroration about children as a sign of hope in today’s world, I may disappoint you. I believe we have to begin with marriage itself.

No longer can we assume that couples will marry at all, or that they see religion as having bearing on their marriage. Therefore, the man and woman standing together before an altar are presenting themselves to society as a sign of something different. Their very choice of sacramental marriage has an evangelising quality – even if they themselves may have mixed motives for the choice or limited awareness of the sacrament and the faith behind it. They are signs of faith and bearers of hope.

Here we face the challenge of developing better preparation for marriage, which involves better catechesis on marriage, because this is a great opportunity, a chosen time or kairos, for effective evangelising. Engaged couples come from generations that have not been well catechised, yet their presence at marriage preparation courses is a sign of good will. These courses can take up a spiritual and evangelistic approach, together with the practical formation in relationships, domestic harmony, economy etc.

Underlying all preparation for marriage, remote (beginning at home and in school), proximate and immediate (through direct marriage preparation courses etc.) there is one challenge we have to take up: to banish the pervading pessimism about stable relationships. The good news of Christ we bring to the world today, especially to young people, is that stable relationships are possible, even if often difficult.

Now we can turn to the hope that shines through procreation. Every pregnant woman is a sign of hope. She is also a sign of contradiction, liable to arouse glares or sarcasm in the public places of a sterile society where, we are told, 28% of women are not going to bear children. So, in a pre-evangelism sense, she is evangelising that society by being pregnant. She is making a statement of faith by showing her body as a sign of hope in the future.

A deeper evangelization in terms of hope is evident among the couples who choose the “authentic alternative” of the natural regulation of fertility, couples who enter God’s plan for procreation. I have talked often with the leaders in this field, such as John and Lyn Billings, about the evangelizing quality of the natural methods, or, to be more precise, the message of the way of life implicit in the methods. Critics thought they were being funny calling John, Lyn and their people the “Billings Methodists”. It really was a back-handed compliment, because it catches not merely the zeal of spreading a morally-good way of spacing childbirth, but it links this work to the energies of John Wesley. He was surely one of the greatest Christian evangelists of history and, let it be noted, a good friend of Catholics in the difficult penal times of the Eighteenth Century.

Another dimension of hope that a specific kind of family offers us all is that of the progress towards the unity of all Christians. I speak of inter-church families, that began with what was called a “mixed marriage”. The evangelization in hope of these families is both internal and outgoing. Where both husband and wife are committed members of their respective churches they can develop ways of being witnesses to hope for unity. Yet these couples will often share their concern for a better evangelization directed towards the tepid or non-practising couples in inter-church marriages, another large and growing category of families in a nation notable for religious indifference.

Let me conclude the reflection on hope with a more problematic category of families that cries out to be evangelised with compassionate ministry and much pastoral care – the families of divorced and remarried Catholics, families often on the fringe of the Church for obvious reasons. What can we do for them? They remain part of the Church. They merit pastoral care. They cry out for hope. This challenge needs to be faced and there are models for ministry available in other countries where the divorce rate is high and the Church has taken this problem seriously.


Finally we come to the greatest virtue: love. We are familiar with the teaching arising from Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, then developed by Pope John Paul II, that the family is called to become a “community of life and love”.

But what kind of love? This is the challenge raised by John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio 6, when he indicates what Saint Augustine described, the struggle between the love of God to the point of disregarding self, and the love of self to the point of disregarding God. That raises the crunch issue of how people are to live in this world – and where they wish to spend eternity for it all depends on love.

Is the love of our marriage and family life modelled on the cross of Christ? Is it the concrete expression of the self-giving love of Jesus, the Bridegroom who cherishes his beloved bride the Church? Is it his caritas or agape, because that is the infused virtue of love given to us by the Holy Spirit in baptism. This is a strong self-giving love, only made possible by the regenerating grace of God. Any family where that kind of love is at work will become an agent of the deeper evangelisation. The parents in that family are responding to a call to live their sacrament no matter what it costs and their children, wider family and friends can see it. It inspires and encourages them to do likewise.

This love flowing from the Heart of Jesus is open to others. It is epitomized in the hospitable Christian home, a family that reaches out by opening its arms to embrace, in some cases, an army of honorary members. This is the kind of family where the bruised members of broken families find solace and peace, where confused teenagers see something different, a new vision, a surprising hope, perhaps just the assurance that married love is possible today, that marriage “works”. They also see and experience the good news that maternal love, and paternal love, and a caring love between children is possible today.

Here we find the kind of Christian family that has become not only a subject or even an agent but a source of evangelization. These are the homes where people want to linger. Like the monasteries of the distant dark centuries they are refuges, secure centres of warmth, citadels of truth and communities of a vibrant love that is visible, almost tangible. If that all sounds romantic or idealistic, so be it. But we can all think of families that are like this and we thank God for them. Let us look into our own homes and ask why we cannot go a little further in that direction of a love that is open to others beyond our immediate circle. Christmas is a time to reflect on a practical act of charity that could be carried out by our family.

Love drives out fear. Love can overcome the self-consciousness that impedes much family evangelization. Love urges us on and encourages us.

The summit and source of the love of the Lord Jesus is the holy Eucharist, thus full family participation in the Eucharist is the practical goal of all evangelization, whether we see the family as a subject, agent or source of this work of the Holy Spirit. This journey begins in baptismal conversion, strengthened by the seal of the Spirit in Confirmation and the sacrament of penance. These sacraments literally make the Church even as they are given through the Church. They are all celebrated within journey of the domestic church at the same time as they are sources of grace in the pilgrimage of the parish community and the bishop’s particular church or diocese. Evangelization through word and example leads to the Eucharist.

Together we make this journey, as families who are never alone. We are surrounded by the wider family of all the families of God, the Church. We are surrounded by our dear patron saints and the holy angels. We are assured f the gentle protection of our Mother Mary, the Queen of the Family. May she pray for all our families, that we may bravely step into the third Christian Millennium, and cross “the threshold of hope”, with firmer faith and all the love of the Heart of her Son.


© Msgr. Peter Elliott 1999