Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Review: The Choice of the Family by Bishop Jean Laffitte

All of us who live in the United States are looking forward to the arrival of Pope Francis next month for his first journey to America, which culminates at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The main organizer for this event is Bishop Jean Laffitte, secretary for the Pontifical Council for the Family, who organizes the World Meeting of Families every three years.  While I may have encountered his name through articles related to the family that I have read over the years, I'll be honest with you and tell you that I did not know very much about Bishop Laffitte until I was approached by Image to review their latest release The Choice of the Family: A Call to Wholeness, Abundant Life, and Enduring Happiness.  However, after reading this interview book from Bishop Laffitte, I was very glad that Image had contacted me for the review.  In many ways, this little book can serve as a primer to the upcoming World Meeting of Families.  I hope to point out a few sections in this lovely book which I feel are quite helpful and insightful.

To give you a little background about what you will find in this book, Image has provided a helpful description:
"In this series of interviews and reflections, the Head of the Pontifical Council on the Family at the Vatican focuses on the intricacies of family. Bishop Laffitte provides theological and practical insight to deepen our relationships with our parents, children, brothers and sisters, and, ultimately, God. The Choice of the Family stresses the importance of the family in the twenty-first century. and issues a call to action for everyone to reinvigorate the teachings of Jesus in his or her day-to-day life." 

So, as you can see, this book is not a continuous, developed theological treatise on the family. I think this is for the good, since it makes it more accessible to more people.  There are six chapters to this book, the first focusing on Bishop Laffitte's own experiences growing up in a large family in France in the 50's and 60's.  I appreciated reading about his life growing up in a large Catholic family, including how the "crisis that affected the Church during the 60's" moved him away from the Church for a time (20).  When asked whether or not he viewed those years as having any spiritual continuity, Bishop Laffitte remarks, quite charmingly, that it was a life "lived as a succession of broken lines (20)."  I think many of us have felt that same way about our adolescent and early young adult years.   I felt that I was pretty well prepared for life after high school, yet when I look back on it now, with all the mistakes and "broken lines" regarding my faith and the relationships I had with others, I thank the Lord for directing me and providing me the grace to actually follow His lead.  However, it took a number of years for me to get to that point.

The following chapters deal with a whole host of issues centered on the family, most notably love, fidelity, the modern crisis of the family, as well as authority and freedom.  Yet, it was chapter two that struck me the most in The Choice of the Family.  Chapter two is entitled: "Engagement: Giving One's Faith".  It is focused on marriage preparation which can often be quite difficult and filled with lots of difficult decisions and pressures that may be laid upon the engaged couple.   Bishop Laffitte reminds us that "the moment the bride and groom marry and receive the sacrament of marriage, this sacrament, far from being limited to the moment of celebration, is given for the whole of their common life (37)."  It is a true covenant, that unites the couple both horizontally (to the community of believers) but also vertically (with God).  Ultimately, this covenant is truly a gift, and not simply some sort of "loan" that can be given back or simply tried on for size.

This valuable insight then leads to a long and important discussion on the issue of cohabitation.  Cohabitation is, of course, taken for granted by many in today's society.  It seems both reasonable and practical to most people.  When I taught "Marriage and Parenting" to high school students, the vast majority of them felt that cohabitation was a responsible thing to do.  What Bishop Laffitte points out is that cohabitation prohibits the engaged couples from experience "a certain solitude" that is necessary for the spiritual development of the engaged (42).  I know that for a fact most of my students cannot handle more than 5-10 minutes of silence at any given time.  It is as if there is an unacknowledged fear to confront the many issues of life, both positive and negative, that help to bring about maturity and selflessness.  For those who are surrounded by noise for majority of their day, silence can be scary.  Yet, it is in the silence of our hearts that God speaks to us most often.

Bishop Laffitte then points out a connection made by JPII concerning the original solitude of Adam: "He recognized within man's heart the desire to come out of solitude.  Yet man may only come out of solitude on the condition that it has first been confronted and not avoided. Therefore, there are a great number of young people who start living together with having the least project for the future.  It is a kind of arrangement, an act without reflection.......When young people live together in this way, they are not able to build themselves in truth.  Why?  Because the fact of their being together does not correspond to a gift (42)."  In this situation, it becomes very hard to see the other as a gift.  Often this means that if the relationship meets some bumps in the road, which happens to almost all marriages, there becomes no need to endure the difficulties of this relationship.  Many will be convinced that ending the marriage is the most just and best action that the two can make.

This then leads right back to the importance of solitude or an experience of the desert.  While many would recognize this as being important for those going into religious life or the priesthood, those who are to be married can lay a firm foundation by allowing themselves this experience of God within the solitude of their hearts.  Bishop Laffitte says that "a time in the desert is necessary-one of reflection, of introspection, of getting right with God, of walking with Him, of growing stronger in purpose (51)."  When the engaged person can rest in God's silence, the offer that God gives of His love "passes through the meditation of the beloved person, of the future bride or groom (51)."  It can be a powerfully transformative experience.  So, this time of engagement should not be seen as simply a "countdown to the big day" or one that is focused only on the perfect cake, dress, or reception.  Rather, it should be seen as a "privileged time" that gives the engaged an opportunity to grow in love of God and each other (57).

After reading The Choice of the Family, I look forward to reading more from Bishop Laffitte.  I hope more of his works are translated into English.  Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus Carl A. Anderson concludes his introduction to this book by stating that Bishop Laffitte "provides an appreciation for the Catholic vision of the family that is at once a practical and a sublime guide for every Catholic family seeking to become who they are (6)."  I agree completely with this and urge you to consider purchasing The Choice of the Family this month as we celebrate the World Meeting of Families.

Thank you to Image Catholic for providing me a review copy.

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