Several weeks ago, I attended a Mass ordaining eight Jesuits to the priesthood. It was an exceedingly beautiful ceremony, from the litany of the saints to the seemingly endless row of priests filing past each ordinand, placing their hands on their Jesuit brothers' heads and blessing them.
One of the most moving moments occurred when each ordinand posed for photos with their families. To see parents and siblings beaming with pride as they surrounded their sons and brothers gave a visual of how crucial a place others' love, encouragement and support hold in one's ability to pursue the life to which she or he is called.
The last ordinand's family photo was particularly emotional. Raised by a single mother, he stood at the center of the altar with his arm around her, while 80 or so people surrounded them. It was an eclectic assortment of friends, family, mentors and fellow Jesuits, all of whom had apparently played a pivotal role in his formation. A friend of mine compared it to the cover of "Sgt. Pepper." For me, it was an important reminder of how fluid family can be.
But how? How can scores of people, most of whom are not related, constitute a family? Blood may run thicker than water, but if the notion of family is broader than blood, what is required for a group of people who do not share a last name to be a family?
I come from a relatively "traditional" Catholic family. My parents have been married for more than 30 years, my brothers and I come home for Christmas, and we all attend Mass together when we are in the same city. We could probably stand in for a World Meeting of Families stock photo.
Explore this NCR special report with recent articles on the topic of immigration and family separation.
My parents and siblings do not leave me wanting. And yet...
There are people outside my family who have played an integral and indispensable role in my formation. Many of us have these figures in our lives: some are teachers; others, neighbors; most, friends. While any of these titles should be enough in and of themselves, there are a few people for whom it feels inadequate to use any less of a word than "family." These are the people without whom it is hard to imagine posing for a photo on ordination day.
I have thought a lot about why these people feel like family in light of recent social discussions about the very nature of family. There have been vocal arguments about the proper makeup of a family or which types of relationships qualify as the right kind. Without wading far into well-tread territory, my reflections have left me with the impression that every family is an idiosyncratic web of characters and influences, even the ones with both a loving mother and a loving father. What seems to distinguish the good ones from those that are lacking is not so much the presence or absence of specific roles, but another quality altogether.
In his book Seeds of Faith, Jeremy Langford* differentiates between traditional friendship (philia), which is "to prefer one type of person over another," and agape, which "is universal, unconditional, and open to all."
Perhaps it is our diluting the idea of "friendship" (think of how many Facebook "friends" you actually speak with) that makes agape sound closer to the no-expectations-or-requirements love of a family, but it is certainly the defining characteristic that makes my family my family. It not only describes my relationship with my parents, brothers and extended family, but also explains how people who are not my parents' siblings can feel like aunts and uncles or how friends can feel like brothers or sisters.
Fr. Mychal Judge, a Franciscan friar and Catholic priest who gave his life ministering to rescue workers on Sept. 11, 2001, was known to ask, "Is there so much love in the world that we can afford to discriminate against any kind of love?"
We would do well to bear this question in mind as we look to build better families, to provide the kind of support that would help a child raised by a single mother to one day stand with 80 loved ones as he prepares for a life of giving that love back to others.
In the end, that is what family is about: a generous, unending outpouring of love. And as Langford's explanation of agape indicates, it is about a love that is neither earned nor even deserved but that is nevertheless readily available to anyone. It is the love that led Jesus to call his students his brothers, and it is the love not only of family but also the love that encourages us to strive to be family to anyone we meet.
*Disclosure: In addition to being an author of note published in both English and Korean, Jeremy Langford happens to be the boss of the author of this article. If Langford is reading this, the author would like his boss to remember that he quoted Seeds of Faith when it comes time for promotions, reviews and raises.
[Brian Harper is a communications specialist for the Midwest Jesuits. You can read his work and listen to his music at brianharper.net.]
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