Making room for Uncle Bobbie



First in a series of monthly columns by different writers on the Year of the Family.

Uncle Bobbie was the life of the party, quick with a joke or a story on the commuter rail bar car, a man who when he entered a room became the focus of attention. He had fought in the South Pacific during the war, brought home all kinds of souvenirs, worked in sales when he did work and, if he were alive today, had enough charm that he could succeed in selling 76er season tickets.

He was a fantastic uncle, always taking us to fun places, but a less than sterling father and husband. Uncle Bobbie and his demons were on intimate terms.

Every six months or so, he would land at our front door. My mother would have a scolding look at her wayward older brother for getting into yet another mess, and my father would roll his eyes at the prospect of an uninvited visitor to our six-children household.

And then a cot was prepared in the basement.

I recall that nobody ever took out a Church document extolling the virtues of natural law, of our obligations to each other as a community. But 50 years later it’s a clear lesson in hospitality and generosity.

We weren’t a perfect family for sure. But we had good instincts, like many of the families I have known and been a part of ever since, who regularly instilled lessons in:

— Forgiveness and reconciliation, lived out when a young adult son after a painful argument with his mother finds a place at the table, and no one ever thinks of settling accounts;

— Or the father I knew, a traditional Catholic, whose son came down with AIDS at the dawn of the epidemic. The son found a place where he was supported and nurtured to his death, even if the father found the homosexual lifestyle unfathomable;

— Perseverance of an undocumented immigrant couple whose only contact with their young children remains a regular Skype session from the children’s grandparents in Latin America, their longing as intense as can be, even if, because of immigration restrictions, they have been unable to touch for years;

— The dedication of two adult children in their early 30s, both with busy careers and starting families of their own, who make a point to spend weeks each year with both their parents, separated by a divorce and thousands of miles.

These are the stories of family life, often taken for granted.

In Catholic circles there is frequent talk of the “domestic church,” a way of seeing families as both social and spiritual entities. In well-intentioned ways, there are discussions about how the wider Church can warn the “domestic churches” against the depravations of modern society and offer support to the troubled. There is often the world-is-going-to-hell tone about such discussions on family life.

Yet the domestic Church has much to teach the wider Church, a concept which is bubbling around the talks of Pope Francis and the recent synod on the family.

At that synod, Ron and Mavis Pirola, an Australian couple married 55 years, spoke with what was perceived as shocking candor about married life, at least in the context of a solemn international Church gathering. They talked about the central role of sex in marriage, lying awake with worry about their four children, and the inspiration they have found among their friends who struggle with Church teaching, including the couple who offered a place at the table for their homosexual son and his partner.

The press was abuzz with their candor, a part of Pope Francis’ insistence that this synod would deal with issues forthrightly.

Making the teaching of the Church on family life welcoming and inviting has been part of this pope’s public charm. Pope Francis has reminded us that no families are perfect and that “living together is an art, it’s a patient art, it’s fascinating,” a place where patience, forgiveness and generosity are practiced every day.

Both the synod presentations and the pope’s statements are helpful, reflecting the vitality and basic goodness of family life. They point to a wider truth: The best presentation on family spirituality is available every day if we are attuned to those families who have made room for the Uncle Bobbies at the front door.

Peter Feuerherd is director of Communications, Diocese of Camden.