In the Heart of the Church

Trust in God Fulfills the Promise of Happy Marriage
Cardinal John O'Connor
Homily on the Feast of the Holy Family

December 27, 1998

In addition to the three readings that we have just heard, specifically selected for the feast of the Holy Family, I would like to make reference to another portion of the Scriptures from the Old Testament. We are told in the 20th chapter of the Book of Numbers that the people were complaining bitterly. They had left slavery under the Egyptians led by the great Moses and now they found themselves out in the burning desert, furiously hot by day and freezing cold at night, with little or nothing to eat and no water. Moses is tired of their complaints, but he goes with his brother, Aaron, and pleads once again before God for the Israelites.

God tells Moses to speak to a certain rock, not to strike it but speak to it. Whether it was simply his anger or that he felt foolish talking to a rock in the presence of all of the people, Moses failed to do this. Instead he took his staff and struck the rock twice in anger. The water flowed forth, and yet God said to Moses, "You have not trusted me; you have disobeyed me. I told you to speak to the rock. Instead you lost your temper and struck it. You will not lead my people into the Promised Land."

We read in the Book of Deuteronomy that they arrived at a mountain called Nebo. They went up the mountain and could look into the Promised Land. But Moses told the people, "I will not be able to enter," and indeed Moses died on Mount Nebo after having led the people out of slavery in Egypt. This is how important trust is with Almighty God. I think it is a wonderful analogy to call upon in relation to the feast of the Holy Family and to today's Gospel.

The Holy Family was told that they were to leave the Promised Land immediately and go to Egypt. Egypt was a strange and a hostile land; anything could happen to them in Egypt. But an angel of God warned them that Herod's soldiers were going to come and kill all of the children in Bethlehem and its environs in order to destroy the Christ Child. So Mary and Joseph took the angel at the word of God and went to Egypt, no questions asked. They were in Egypt for a period of time--we do not know precisely how long--possibly long enough to have settled harmoniously. Joseph was a carpenter, and perhaps he established a shop there. Then the angel appeared and told him to go back into their own land which was the Promised Land. They went to Nazareth and, as the Gospel tells us, Jesus was called a Nazarean, not a Judean even though he had been born in Bethlehem of Judea. He was called a Nazarean because of the place where he was reared.

Look at the difference between these two stories. Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child did precisely as God bid them to do. They did it quietly, without question, with total trust in God and total trust in one another because it was to Joseph that the angel appeared. It was Joseph then who went to Mary and said, "This is what we have to do." What a difference!

Jesus is often spoken of as the second Moses. Moses delivered the people out of the land of slavery called Egypt, and Jesus came to deliver us out of the land of slavery called sin, most particularly Original Sin. Moses never got to the Promised Land. Jesus not only got to the Promised Land in this world, the land that we speak of now as Israel and the surrounding areas, but came to lead us to the Promised Land of eternal happiness. This is the difference that trust makes, the difference that obedience makes. These ingredients, it seems to me, are the difference between the family with great promise, the marriage with great hope that succeeds and the marriage that has equal promise but fails.

Moses might represent those with all the wonderful gifts that God gives to a newly married couple, everything that he promises to a family willing to live in trust, in peace with one another, obedient to his word. Moses might represent those families given these gifts who, for whatever reason--so often out of fear, self-will, refusal to trust in one another, refusal to trust in Almighty God--find that their lives become empty. Perhaps they live together for years and years but in emptiness. Perhaps they divorce with a desolation that can go with a divorce. The Holy Family represents precisely that marriage and that family that trusts completely in God, obeys his word, is given the great grace of trusting in one another, and they reach the Promised Land here and are well-oriented toward the potential of eternal happiness in heaven.

A few weeks ago I spent a Saturday at our seminary that turned out to be for me a beautiful experience. There were a great number of people there with exceptional children, children with special needs. Some of the children were in wheelchairs, some blind, some deaf, some mute, some very badly crippled, some with multiple sclerosis, some with muscular dystrophy. It was wondrous to see how those children trusted their parents! The parents came looking for help from the Church beyond the help already given, help that they deserve not simply in charity but in justice. The trust of the children in their parents was marvelous to behold. The trust was not accidental. Those parents love their children. The children saw how the parents trusted one another. The children already severely afflicted had obviously not been subjected to constant bickering and hostility within their families. They have not had to imbibe the fears that children imbibe when they can not trust their parents because it is obvious that their parents do not trust each other.

As I went down the aisle today with the holy water I saw something that I see Sunday after Sunday--so many parents standing in the back holding little children. I think, what wonderful trust on the part of these children to let a mother or a father pick them up and hold them! For a little baby it must seem an enormous distance to the ground. There is no question they feel safe and comfortable and secure. They experience this love that their parents have for them.

At Christmas Midnight Mass I told a story of the little boy who adamantly refused to accept the role in the Christmas play of being the innkeeper. The role was forced upon him. Why had he refused it? Because he could not see himself being mean to Joseph and Mary and refusing them room and forcing them to have the Christ Child in a manger in a stable. So firm was he in his conviction and in his resistance to what he saw as great unkindness that when the morning of the play came he was truly sick. It was not that he was refusing to go, he could not go. He was sick out of fear, out of hatred of what he was being required to do.

I spent a portion of Christmas following that Midnight Mass with the Sisters of Life. One of them, a former schoolteacher, told me that this was very common when she taught school and when it came time for the Christmas play. Everybody wanted to be Mary or Joseph or an angel or a shepherd or a wise man but nobody wanted to be the innkeeper. Finally, one little boy accepted the role and when Mary and Joseph came and Joseph knocked on the door the little boy, the innkeeper, opened the door and said, "Well, we do not have any room for you to stay but why don't you come in and have a cup of coffee." When the sisters told me this story I thought, what a trusting family that youngster must live in! What love that youngster must be taught, to reach out to others in this fashion. That is a wonderful, wonderful thing. It is true of many families. Sadly, we have to ask is it true of every family.

There is a young couple here today--I won't embarrass them by calling out their names--who will be married on the 9th of January. I do not know the young lady, and I am sure it is true of her, but the young man is from an extraordinarily loving family. The probability that these two will have a wonderful marriage, a marriage in which there is trust in one another and trust in Almighty God is very, very strong.

During the course of the year I witness a number of marriages. I do not like to witness a marriage without having had the couple myself for several months for premarital discussions. We talk about their families. I always ask them what they think of their mothers and fathers in terms of trusting one another and their attitude toward Almighty God. You can see it reflected in what they say, in how this couple, how each one, treats the other prior to the marriage.

There are tremendous pressures in our country today and you live among them. It would be inappropriate for me to describe them. Many of you live under pressures in offices, some in factories, in various kinds of businesses in different professions. You live under pressures in school as you live under pressures in neighborhoods and communities and many, perhaps, under pressure in your own homes. There are financial pressures and the pressures of the world, this world that our Holy Father has described as now having developed a "culture of death" in which pornography, divisiveness, murder, theft, political corruption, so much that we see on television and in the movies, eats into our families and our homes. It is truly a culture of death so that marriage today needs an enormous amount of trust in Almighty God, a simple trust, a simple faith.

It was not easy for the Holy Family and it certainly was not easy for Joseph before they had come to live together to discover that Mary was pregnant. But when an angel said to him, "Don't be afraid. The child that will be born of her is not born of any man but of the Most High God," that was enough for Joseph because he had complete trust and complete obedience to Almighty God. It had to have been difficult for Joseph and Mary after the Magi had come to see them bringing them these wonderful treasures and giving the impression that the whole world was going to treat them lavishly. No sooner had the Magi left than Mary and Joseph are told Herod's soldiers are going to come to try to kill this child. They were displaced refugees like many of the refugees and immigrants here in New York, always in fear of being detected and deported, like those who, at this very moment, are out on the streets because they have no place to live, like others who are living in excessively crowded circumstances. The Holy Family knew these problems but they always trusted. They had reason to trust one another.

In conjunction with trust I would like to make one quick reference before we conclude. I am a priest now more than half a century. I do not know if I could single out any more destructive force in any marriage, any single phenomenon that causes distrust than the excessive use of alcohol. I am not giving a temperance lecture, but I am talking about the tremendous number of marriages that I have seen literally destroyed, of families that I have seen shattered because the mother or the father gets caught up in the vice of excessive drinking.

At the Midnight Mass I read of an encounter that one of our Sisters of Life had had. Permit me to read another one. The sisters over on the West Side of New York are out in the streets a great deal.

" 'Sister. It's me, Chip. Will you pray for me?' He kissed my hands. He was showing me the purple plastic rosary he was wearing around his neck. 'She's got one too. That's Belinda.' Chip is a middle-aged man usually drunk. Chip is often at this spot in the morning. 'I love you, Sister. Oh, see if you can help my friend. Here, meet my friend who needs some help. He needs a bus ticket home.'

"Eric was young and Irish. 'I don't want money, Sister. I want to work to make $18 to get home to Philadelphia. I'm a carpenter, not a street person. I've been in New York five days, haven't eaten, and I can't find work. Nobody will hire me.' Come, Holy Spirit, I started praying to myself.

" 'When you're hungry and frustrated, it could make you a terror. It could make you do something sinful, but I haven't sinned, Sister. I haven't committed any sins, but I've been tempted. I just want work for one day to make enough to go home. My wife and two boys are there. She doesn't want me to drink anymore and so I had to leave. [How often that story tragically has to be told.] My boys are 5 and 3. My wife is an Italian girl from Brooklyn.'

" 'So I should try the parish house or the carpenter around the corner from you? OK, I'll go. I'm a Christian, not a Catholic. You're beautiful, Sister. You're just beautiful for stopping and listening. Everyone makes a good or bad impression and you've made a good impression on me. That's what we all need to do for each other--make a good impact, not a bad one. So, if my wife and I are back together that will make a good impact on people and especially my two boys.'

"Chip interrupted, 'Are you going to service now? Where are the other sisters? Oh, you're cooking dinner tonight? Will you have any wine? Can I come if you're having some wine? God bless you, Sister. I love you, Sister. Don't forget to pray for me.' "

How family life can be distorted and twisted and tortured and how different from the advice that St. Paul gives to families:

"Because you are God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another, forgive whatever grievances you have against one another. Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you. Over all these virtues put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect. Christ's peace must reign in your hearts, since as members of the one body you have been called to that peace..."

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