I was on the bus today on the seat in front of me was a Muslim women in a headscarf with three young boys and a baby, she was gently telling one of the boys to stop sulking, whilst feeding the baby and chatting and laughing with the others. On the sideways on row of seats was another mother dressed in western clothes chatting on her phone and rather noisily telling off her daughter for making a mess with the chocolate she was eating. In fact she was more interested in fixing up a date for this evening a friend. I know I shouldn't have been listening but it was impossible not to. Her shopping seemed to be mainly bottles. The first mother was relaxed with her children and seemed to enjoy them, the other seemed to find her daughter a bit of trial.
I've been thinking about that phrase in the marriage ceremony about 'welcoming children'. It is interesting that so many of the early Fathers speak of hospitality as an important virtue for Bishops, it seems to be one of the virtues our Holy Father wants in bishops and priests, being welcoming.
I went to Bishop Schneider's Mass at Ramsgate some months ago, I was made very welcome by the Parish Priest, as usual and by the other clergy attending and I had several invitations to lunch, which as I had some parishioners with me and lunch was in restaurants I refused because I some couldn't afford it. My last invitation was from Dominic, the director of music, he invited me back to his parents house, I explained I had five parishioners with me, so I couldn't. His reply, "Oh bring them along, I'm taking the choir anyhow, my mother is used to catering for large numbers!" I think there are thirteen in the family, they are one of those large Catholic families that not only welcome the children God gave them but also their children's friends, and anyone else God sends them. They have certainly had a priest or two staying with them for extended periods. What I love about families like that is the sense of abandonment to God's will, which I am convinced is really behind the Church's teaching, not just on marriage and celibacy but on the spiritual life.
Another of my parishioners met a very nice French girl, who was just different, she took him home to meet her family, her parents and ten younger brothers and sisters, immediately he wanted what they had. He been thinking about becoming a Catholic but it was the encounter with her family that seems to have been main reason for his conversion. They had their wedding a few weeks ago in Paray le Monial, celebrated in the Old Rite by an Archbishop a family friend. In fact both these families are attached to the Old Rite. A real Catholic family is a great evangelical sign when it is truly the 'domestic Church'.
The interesting thing is of course that most Catholics have the national average number of children and practically all of the responses to the pre-Synod questionnaire demonstrate that Catholics are really unaffected by Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality etc, in fact many, including sadly bishops and priests identify, themselves by their opposition tothis very teaching.
Having more than the average, 1.7 or 1.8 children, is often the preserve of the wealthy today, the cost for many is prohibitive, or at least frightening. The choice for children is counter-cultural, a choice against many of the values of what has become mainstream western culture. It needs a stable marriage for a start, it also has serious financial implications, it involves the mother choosing not to work, accepting different roles in the family.
For most Muslims, unlike Catholics, it is not a difficult choice, and yet 'welcoming children' has serious political and economic implications. Not welcoming children has meant the necessity of immigration, simply because we are not replacing our population or producing the number of people we need for industry. In fact we tend to treat poorer nations as a source of trained, educated workers in the same way as we might treat the as a source of other raw materials. Not welcoming children has been the cause of gender confusion, the commodification of sexuality, a trivialisation and narrowing of our understanding of the family, and a cruder and rougher society.
I get the impression children are part of our society on sufferance, that they are seen not as the natural result of the love of two people but 'chosen' and 'planned'. Now we can speak of children 'being wanted', as if there is a possibility in God's plan of a child being anything other than a gift or a result of God's good providence. If in our society children were a natural result of the committed love of a man and women, children themselves mioght grow up with the understanding that they will naturally themselves become parents sooner rather than later. In reality parenthood itself is not now normative, rather than being something which happens in the late teens or early twenties and being the reason for home and family and labour, it is often now the last significant thing that happens before retirement.
Human loving has changed, it is not seen in terms of protecting and nurturing but in terms of personal satisfaction or even personal happiness. Protecting and nurturing is the mark of unselfish adult love. 'Love' in the Gospel is about moving from self to the other, to God and one's neighbour. The family, is or should be the school of loving and a place of human maturing and flourishing.
My hope for the Synod is that it is really about is welcoming children, as important as other issues are, fundamental to everything is children. The fact they they have not figured greatly so far in pre-Synod discussions indicates how the Church has itself become as contracepting as the average Catholic family or the rest of society.