His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI has declared 28 June 2008 to 29 June 2009 as ‘Year of St Paul’. As a local Church, we in the Archdiocese of Kuching are obliged to the Great Apostle to the Gentiles. At the same time we are in the midst of our five-year pastoral programme, Focus on the Family. I see a feasible way of blending the focus of the universal Church and our pastoral focus on the family.
As a very well-educated and dedicated Jew, St Paul received much influence from the Jewish social and religious thought on the family. For the devout Jew, the family was a major feature of the world and even of one’s relationship with God. At the early stage of Israel’s history, the ‘family God’ played an important role in the life of individuals as much as in their respective families. He was called “the God of my father” as much as the family was called “the house of my father” (Jer 12:6). Key activities like the celebration of the Passover and circumcision took place in the family. The family became the common place in which faith was passed down and therefore preserved. Made up of such families, the whole people of Israel became known as “the family of Yahweh” (cf Jer 12:7).
In her early history, the family was also an important vehicle for the Church to operate and grow (cf Acts 5:43; 12:12). At the conversion of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, he and his whole family were baptised (cf Acts 10). Moved by his own Jewish upbringing and swept by this wave of influence from the early Church, St Paul paid much attention to the family in his missionary journeys. He accepted Lydia’s invitation to preach to her family (Acts 16:14-15). He insisted that the jailer and his whole household be baptised (Acts 16:31-34). In his greeting to an individual, he often included the latter’s family – as is clear from his greeting in 2 Timothy 4:19: “Prisca and Aquila” (husband and wife) and “the household of Onesiphorus”; and also in Philippians 4:22: “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household”.
The family ranked amongst the major criteria for St Paul’s choice of Church leadership. He insisted, “A bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife … He must manage his own household (=family) well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim 3:2,4-5). In the case of deacons, he stressed, “Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well” (1 Tim 3:12).
A well-known epistle in which St Paul addressed issues faced by a Christian community is 1 Corinthians. Among the issues addressed was an asceticism that advocated sexual abstinence through this slogan, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor 7:1). In his response which seemed to favour celibacy, the Apostle to the Gentiles clearly upheld marriage through an oblique reference to Genesis 1:28: “Each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Cor 7:2). In the context of marriage, mutual submission of the husband and wife is both a right and an obligation (1 Cor 7:3-4). Except by mutual agreement for a good reason, sexual intimacy is part of marital life (1 Cor 7:5). Spousal fidelity, even in a mixed marriage, is upheld (1 Cor 7:10-16, 36-40).
The family relationship provides a model for one’s attitudes towards others. “Do not rebuke an older man but exhort him as you would a father; treat younger men like brothers, older women like mothers, younger women like sisters, in all purity” (1 Tim 5:1-2). More than that, St Paul takes up the family relationship to explain one’s relationship with God. Going back to the story of Abraham’s two sons in the Scriptures, he seeks to explain between the son of promise and the son of slavery (Gal 4:21-31). This allegory supports the Apostle’s stand that those redeemed by Christ are God’s children. Filled with the Holy Spirit, they are able to call God “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:3-7). Like the people of Israel, the Church, made up of believing families, is the family of God.
I have barely scratched the surface of St Paul’s teaching on marriage and the family. I hope that in the Year of St Paul our pastoral focus on the family will delve deeper into it for the good of the faithful. In this way, the Archdiocese of Kuching will be totally in tandem with the Pope’s dedication of 28 June 2008 to 29 June 2009 to St Paul – the great Apostle of the Gentiles. May all our families follow in the footsteps of St Paul to proclaim the Gospel and God’s design for marriage and the family to the world.
Archbishop John Ha