In the 1980s, when I was a young Franciscan priest, I served as a rural pastor in the Philippines. It was a graced time in my life. I could visit and spend time with the people of the villages. Children in the rural villages were raised in a strong communal context. Everybody knew everybody else. Children were taught by the example of the adults around them, as well as by the example of their own older siblings.
Kids roamed about the villages and were in and out of the homes of neighbors and friends. They were respectful of their parents and of other adults in their village. Everyone seemed to care for the children, teaching them by example and by word. Children learned to contribute to the welfare of the familiy by doing daily chores and helping out as they were able. Often, I saw the older children bring their younger siblings into chapels to tell them about their village’s patron saint, or to pray the rosary with them. Parents always brought their children to Mass, scheduled community prayers, or devotions like the Flores de Mayo or novena prayers before village fiestas.
I imagine that is what the villages and towns of Galilee were like when Jesus was a child. The narrative of how Jesus was left behind in the Temple in Jerusalem, when the rest of the village pilgrims were returning to Nazareth, leads me to think that way. Joseph and Mary just presumed that Jesus would have stayed with his relatives as they all began the long trek back to Nazareth. They travelled a whole day when they realized that Jesus was not in their company. So Mary and Joseph hastened back to Jerusalem, worried sick, no doubt, about their lost child (Lk 2:41-52).
The Gospel reading for today (Mt 5:17-19) is part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This part of the sermon focuses on the Law of Moses and stresses the importance of handing it on. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish, but to fulfill.” (Mt 5:17) Jesus was formed by his family and by the synagogue of Nazareth where he learned his lessons and learned to read the Hebrew law and prophets. Apparently, Jesus made quite an impression on the teachers and priests at the Temple when he was just 12 years old (Lk 2:41).
Today, when I see parents bringing their children to Mass or to visit the churches here in the States, I recall those little villages, where everything was so communal and everyone generally taught the faith by example. Strong families and strong communities are the best way to teach the faith, that’s for sure.They are where social values are passed on to the next generation.
Unfortunately, families and communities today are not always so strong. And don’t forget, most of us live in more highly diversified societies with a great deal more distractions. That may be why churches in the United States are generally on the decline. There is more emphasis in our homes on other things than our religious faith and social values. Whether it is entertainment or sports or whatever, families today are under a lot of stress. In fact, social values are also on the decline. We really need a “new evangelization” as Pope John Paul II pointed out.
As a Franciscan, I wish that the lay Franciscan movement were stronger today. Years ago, many young people were active in what used to be called the Third Order of St. Francis. Some of my siblings were involved in the Third Order because it provided solid religious formation and social activities, which shaped their lives as they grew into adulthood. I think I owe my calling as a Franciscan to the example of my parents, my siblings, and my relatives. Cousins, aunts, and uncles—we all took our faith, family, and parishes for granted. We knew we weren't perfect, and there was always room for improvement, but we also knew that we were strong in our faith as a family.