Ars Praedicandi: Holy Family as Model (?)

by Fr. William Skudlarek, OSB

The repeated use of the words “example” and “imitate” in the prayers of today’s Mass and our office makes it pretty clear that the primary reason for introducing the Feast of the Holy Family in 1893 was to present Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as the model for all Christian families.

The problem with that approach, however, is that all too often we are being asked to imitate culturally and historically conditioned icons of the family that are retrojected onto a particular first-century family in Nazareth without much regard for what the Gospels actually tell us about that family.

Luke, for example, presents us with a twelve-year old Jesus who doesn’t come across as particularly meek and mild when he responds to his distraught parents by asking them, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’*

When Jesus sets out on his public ministry, he acts and speaks as more of a questioner than a supporter of traditional family roles and models.

Instead of settling down and taking over the family business, he becomes an itinerant preacher and healer, leading his family to think that he is out of his mind.

When he is told that his mother and brothers have come looking for him, his reply must have taken them aback: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And then he points to his disciples and says, “Here are my mother and my brothers!” (Matt 12:47f).

A better way to approach this feast might be to see the family – with all its strengths and limitations – as an essential element of the Incarnation.

In Jesus, the Word of God does not just become flesh; he dwells among us, first in the nuclear family of Joseph and Mary, then in the family of his disciples, and now in the family of all the baptized, who are called to teach and admonish one another (an indication that in families, things are not always ideal), to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with heartfelt gratitude, to do everything in the name of Jesus, and to give thanks to God the Father through him.

William Skudlarek, a monk of Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville MN, was the principal writer for the subcommittee of the USCCB that produced Fulfilled in Your Hearing and prepared the document in its final form. He taught homiletics and pastoral liturgy at the Saint John’s School of Theology/Seminary for twenty years, was a Maryknoll associate in Brazil for five, and a member of Saint John’s priory in Japan for ten.  He is currently Secretary General of Monastic Interreligious Dialogue and managing editor of its on-line journal, Dilatato Corde.


  1. What a wonderful, concise and pithy homily. Good point, leading us back to the essential meaning of the feast. Nice work!

    The Catechism of the Catholic Church has some good paragraphs about the “hidden life of Jesus.” I like this one, from #531: “During the greater part of his life, Jesus shared the condition of the vast majority of human beings, a daily life spent without evident greatness…”

  2. Indeed; a useful reminder that the icon on my wall doesn’t necessarily translate well to the “ideal family” of both Roman and Evangelical Catholic culture. As one who came from a decidedly dysfunctional family of origin, I find my completeness in Christ and His Holy Church. Praise God for the Cross of Christ and His resurrection from the dead. Baptism initiates us into the radically inclusive family of the Church which is a foretaste of the Feast to come!

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