Faith renewed and spirits lifted by the World Meeting of Families

Faith renewed and spirits lifted by the World Meeting of Families Massgoers wait for the closing Mass of the Pope's visit at Phoenix Park in Dublin last year.
The View


Although the scandals in the US concerning criminal sexual abuse by clergy cast a grey and dispiriting shadow over the World Meeting of Families, there were still many uplifting and inspiring aspects to it.

I know that thousands of prayers have been offered by faithful Catholics in the hope that the Church will finally begin to act consistently in order to safeguard children and vulnerable adults and to hold bishops accountable. We can only wait and see whether that fervent desire for reform among the laity will result in real action from our leaders. The damage that will be done to the message of Christ is incalculable if the Church fails.

But despite the scandals, there were still many lovely moments at the World Meeting of Families. It was wonderful to see so many nationalities present and so many young people and children. The music was uplifting, not only at the World Meeting but in Croke Park and the Phoenix Park.

The World Meeting allowed people to connect and be re-affirmed in their Faith. It is always good for Irish people to see that there is a huge international Church and that many Christians have worse threats than secularisation to face.

For me, Bishop Robert Barron’s keynote address was a highlight.  The hall was packed.

He spoke about chapters seven and nine of Amoris Laetitia, effortlessly moving from Thomas Aquinas to Aristotle to baseball. He focused on the idea of the family as a school of virtue. He contrasted a virtue ethics approach with a rules-based approach to being a Christian. The former focuses on becoming the type of person who is inclined by habit and inclination to choose the good.

He is not abandoning the rules but simply pointing out that if we present Faith as simply a set of rules and prohibitions, we are presenting a very impoverished version of the moral life. Moral formation is about the inculcation of virtue, which is an inner and consistent disposition towards the good.

We learn to be good through practising virtue, by making it a habit. Bishop Barron quoted from chapter seven: “Without the conscious, free and valued repetition of certain patterns of good behaviour, moral education does not take place. Mere desire, or an attraction to a certain value, is not enough to instil a virtue in the absence of those properly motivated acts.”

Bishop Barron used an analogy to describe what initiation into Christian life is about. A woman or man does not learn to play golf by sitting down to study the rulebook. Someone takes her or him out on a golf course and helps them fall in love with the sport. Then, the rules not only fall into place but make the game possible.

There is a profound truth here that our culture is in grave danger of losing.  Aristotle said, long before Christ, that we are what we habitually do.

Not what we say: what we do. And that is true of everything from acts of charity to a neighbour in need, to how the leaders of our Church address child abuse.

To love is to will the good of the other, as Bishop Barron reminds us. We cannot be credible witnesses to this profound counter-cultural message unless we live some sense of the primacy of our Faith.

Where do we learn this ability to embody this insight? In our families, because when families function well, they both model this kind of intentional practice of virtue and encourage children to develop these positive habits.

In our world, we emphasise autonomy, independence and choice instead. We are encouraged to see ourselves primarily as individuals and to see families just as conglomerations of individuals.

As a consequence of this individualist stance, the modern world tells us that we must constantly invent ourselves and make our own rules. Forget about that, Bishop Barron declares, because that makes for a very boring life. Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, the glory of what God has promised us. Get in tune with what God wants and that is where a real adventure lies.

Freedom is a paradox. Our culture tends to mistake freedom for license, which is the ability to do what we want, when we want to. Bishop Barron suggests that we are free when we are striving to become the person God wants us to be.

To return to the shadow of the scandals, Bishop Barron’s recent video on the abuse crisis is sober, serious and absolutely aware of just how much trouble the Church is in.

If we believe that the Church is a family of families, what is good for families is good for the Church, too. A virtue-ethics based approach applied worldwide in order to tackle not just child abuse scandals, but accountability for cover-up, is badly needed.