Bishop Edward Scharfenberger
Bishop Edward Scharfenberger

Without a doubt, aside from the gift of life itself from God and my parents, family has been my greatest blessing. If you wondered why, I did not say priesthood or even being bishop are not the first, it is only because they mean nothing without their foundation in and connection to family. God, in essence, is family: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God, forever in relationship, in whom human beings above all are imaged, is reflected in the whole ecology of creation itself, the order and pattern of all existence.

I well know that my confession may risk at once inducing a touch of pain or even terror in the hearts of some of my dear readers. The word “family” may have different meanings, etched in personal memory and human history. Be assured, it does the same for me! Nor should it surprise or restrain us. The intimacy and blessing that family promises, is also the seedbed of the Devil’s contempt and the main target of his wrath. Blessing may engender curse, but the darkness will not overcome the light.

Recall that Satan could not bear the holy, innocent intimacy of Adam and Eve, walking with God as an indispensable partner. By the grace of Redemption this “Paradise Lost” is restored as the sure model of human joy, happiness and fulfillment, whatever “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” be hurled against it.

Despite the sin-soaked strains and stains of abuse, violence and deceit that so disrupt the God-willed harmony and nurture of many a family unit, the hope that even the word “home” itself may evoke, can brighten the path of those who have yet to know one, or to find one again. Jesus immediately reached out to the homeless and homesick: “I am the Way,” he says, the one who prepares “a place” for every yearning heart. In him is our peace.

That is doubtless why I continue to see my family as my greatest blessing: my parents brought me and my siblings to Jesus. That is always the first role of any couple, to build their relationship on true love, which comes not from their emotions and assets alone, but from Love itself, God in them and God through them. The prime goal of any friendship, any truly loving relationship, is to lead the beloved to God.

As I have already written in my columns, the one question my parents needed answered on their first encounter was about their faith in God. It goes much deeper than religious background or tradition. It is about Who is the foundation and center of one’s life. Their first love is what they instilled in me and, I know, sustained them and my siblings over the years.

So as not to sound so naïve or unreal, I know that the first thing my father noticed was not if my mother was wearing a cross or miraculous medal. If she was, neither of them told me. I know he dared to ask for the dance because he first saw her auburn hair and approached her, shall I say from the stern, for a dance. After that, the conversation.

God has been known to attract through all forms of human delights, a dance, a dinner, a concert or a game. The Saints have much to say about this. That dance was the start of a life together that led to me and the lives of my four siblings and, in turn, their children and their children’s children. My parents’ faith is the bond that has held us together and still holds.

Maybe that’s why I find joy and happiness in my priesthood which, after all, is just another way of being a father, forming and nurturing family. I have always seen “church” as a family of families — and for those apart from or without family.

It grieves me to see and know so many who have been mistreated, abused and wounded in our families, both our smaller and larger family communities. We have often failed to be what God calls us to be. We have fallen and sinned against God and one another. We sorely need to confess, seek pardon and receive forgiveness. Only then can healing begin and take route.

No one who makes a commitment to marriage, religious life or priesthood can expect the blessed union they enter to be risk-free. The Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ, was himself bruised, reviled and spat upon, even hated by his own creatures. But this is the God-life: to give and not to count the cost, to forgive and rise from the tomb of the victim, to know the true liberation of fearless loving as a survivor, a wounded healer.

No witness is more important to the world at this time — any time — than the joyful example of families in love. Those who are not married with children, those in priesthood or religious life, those mischaracterized perhaps as “single” — no one in a relationship with God is alone! — well know or may come to rediscover a profound bond of love with families and families of families in our communion of Faith.

Though my greatest blessing has always been in family, my family of origin, my friends’ families and my family of Faith, these have also been my greatest risk. To be committed to any family is to risk being ridiculed, wounded by sin, even betrayal, and to make great sacrifices in forgoing some of the trophies the world doles out. And I feel very deeply our struggles as a Church in need of reform, sanctification and focus on our mission to all who are wounded, neglected or in the margins.

I am keenly aware and grateful to all parents (and grandparents) who pay that tuition while also schooling themselves and their children in the formation and practice of their Catholic faith. I am awed and blessed by the survivors of sexual abuse, domestic violence and addictions, who bravely share their stories of crucifixion and redemption, enriching and healing even the families that wounded or neglected them. I thank God — as we all must — for those who respond to the generous and sacrificial call to spend their lives in the service of our larger family, the Church. Pray for all these loving men and women, living lives that affirm the blessing that, with all its risks and dangers, is family, God’s family on earth.

“Life is the childhood of our immortality,” as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote. May every child, and the child in us all, know the loving face of a God who sacrificed his only Son to give us a path to holiness, a divine family connection, a free ticket to heaven.

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