Family Meals

In yesterday’s audience Pope Francis continued his catechesis on the family by talking about family meals where, he said, people share not only food but affection, stories, events. He regards this element of life-together as a reliable thermometer by which to measure the health of relationships: if something’s going wrong, if there’s some hidden wound, this is quickly recognized at the table. “A family that hardly ever eats together, or in which people don’t talk but watch television or a smartphone, is not much of a family.” We are in danger of losing an important Christian symbol. 

"Christianity has a special vocation to life-together, everybody knows that. The Lord Jesus liked to teach at table, and he sometimes represented the Kingdom of God as a festive banquet. He also chose the table to leave the disciples his spiritual testament–he did this at supper–concentrated in the memorial of his Sacrifice, the gift of his Body and his Blood as the food and drink of salvation, which nourish true and lasting love.

"In this perspective we can say that the family is “at home” at Mass, precisely because it brings its own experience of life-together and opens it up to the grace of a universal life-together, of God’s love for the world. Sharing in the Eucharist, the family is purified of the temptation to close in upon itself; strengthened in love and fidelity, it broadens the boundaries of its own fellowship according to the heart of Christ."

It is hard today to recover the value of family meals. “People talk at table; people listen at table.” There’s no egoistic silence–everybody doing his own thing, watching TV or on the computer, and people aren’t talking.

I grew up in a large family, and it was rare when there were fewer than ten people around our dining room table. And, God knows, we talked!

A friend of mine came to dinner one night. He came from a family with only his parents and his brother. He told me later that there were five or six conversations going on at the same table, and he was astonished to see that we all had an ear out for each of the other conversations and could at any moment break off from one in order to jump into another. Maybe that’s why we all tend to be voluble, and also have still the irritating habit of cutting a person off in mid-thought in order to contribute our indispensable comment. 

But our evening meal was a sort of sacred thing, a sacrament of our family life, and it was taken for granted that we’d all be there for it. When we put together a little book of memories of my mother for her 90th birthday, almost everyone referred to those meals and to her heroic efforts to feed us all every night. Even more sacred was the mid-day Sunday meal, around 1:00 in the afternoon. The food would be special–more of it, and of higher quality, especially the meat! And I loved it when my elder sisters, off and married, would come back for that meal.

My married siblings have told me that it was much more difficult to preserve the tradition of a daily evening family meal–the kids often had things to do at school, etc.; and the custom of a big mid-day Sunday meal has gone for good, except for the big banquets on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Is this a common experience?

When I was still teaching at Dunwoodie, several of us were asked to go to a parish in the far suburbs to help train lay people to teach catechism–the nuns who had done this there had suddenly moved. After one of my talks, a woman said that she loved teaching the faith to her children, who were preparing for First Communion. She had learned so much from the guide that had been provided. One of the things she was delighted to discover was the idea of the Mass as a joyful family meal, but she was surprised and disappointed that her children did not seem to be buying the notion. I asked her if the way the Mass was celebrated in her parish at all resembled a joyful family meal. “Of course not!”, she replied. “Well, then,” I commented, perhaps a little cynically, “you have to realize that these children haven’t yet learned that theological talk isn’t meant to refer to anything real.” 

It was a moment that brought home so clearly to me that if I was to teach a course on the Church, to propose a theology of the Church, I’d better make sure that what I was talking about referred to actual communities of women and men believers. 

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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