‘Oh Father, I couldn’t begin to tell you. Where do I start?’ This is not an uncommon line from someone speaking about their family. Often when I hear this comment it makes me smile and think of my own family. I especially think of a few years before my Mum died and I told her that I was doing a bit of work on the family tree, she was excited and looked forward to hearing more about it. This mood of delight was in stark contrast to when I told her that I had not only discovered that great Uncle Tom had become a member of the Church of Ireland but that he had in fact become a Church of Ireland Minister. I’ll never forget the look on her face as she looked at me and said, ‘Maybe better leave well enough alone son’.
Families are funny things. In one way they can be hell and yet where would be without them? Nobody can hurt us like our brother (or sister)! but who else can make us feel that it’s ok, that this too will pass, that we will feel normal again? In family we encounter people at their most raw and beside that people at their most heroic.
In my ministry I have encountered the horror of domestic violence, sometimes the darkest of secrets perhaps to do with rape or incest. Often families have been torn apart by the tragedy of addiction which in itself is an illness and very often does not manifest itself in any of the aforementioned horrors. The truth is we never know what people may be dealing with or carrying. In most families it’s not necessarily a big secret, horror or otherwise, it is more often the daily grind of life. Indeed the daily grind can often be most challenging of all.
Now whilst I have seen plenty of this, the truth is what is truly remarkable is the extraordinarily heroic way in which many people live their lives. I have repeatedly encountered the most amazing courage, sometimes in men, but more often than not in women, as they tackle the most difficult of circumstances. I have learned that so often, blood is in fact, thicker than water. That there is no unforgivable sin in family. That in family there is always a way back. When you are trusted by a family you discover that even where there is the greatest of messes, there is incredible compassion. In family we go the extra mile. In so many of the families I know and work with I am amazed at their ability to make excuses, to see the good, even, no especially, in those who have engaged in truly reprehensible behavior. In family we are accepted, we have a deep sense of belonging, we know it’s safe to be me.
I am delighted to be able to say that the more I hear about the WMF the more hopeful I become. Only in the past few days there are signs that there is a genuine effort being made to ensure that this an inclusive accessible hospitable event. The clear message is that all our welcome. I am increasingly positive about this wonderful good news story about the Church. The clear sense I am getting is that it is accepted that there are as many ways of being family as there are people. The most important message, and one that we should be sharing with everybody, is that everyone is welcome.
I am thrilled to be able to say that WMF is emerging as a beautiful opportunity to simply enjoy being family, both in the microcosmic and the macrocosmic expressions of that. We are invited to come together without judgement or competition to celebrate that we are family and to rejoice in all the beautiful things there are about that. It is of course a Christian gathering and we are so excited to be welcoming such a beautiful Pope, the humble and truly inspirational Pope Francis amongst us.