I do not have to demonstrate to any keen observer of current affairs that families today look a lot different than those of our forebears. If you doubt it, ask your parents or grandparents. To use a few examples, many families today are having fewer children but living in bigger homes; marriages are breaking apart at a rate higher than ever before, posing numerous challenges for both parents and children. In a few years we might altogether forget what a stable family of mother, father and children looked like. The various step-situations—step-child, step-father, step-mother, step-brother/sister—will soon be the norm, and indicate family units ripped apart. Families rarely eat dinner together, owing to the enormity of activities outside the home to which each individual member is drawn. Don’t even get me talking about technology and its lure to isolated living: one watching the TV, another on the computer, and the other listening to their iPod or texting or sexting or playing one video-game or the other. You name it, family life has changed strikingly in less than a decade.
Perhaps the most significant change in families might be one that we rarely think or talk about anymore, namely, our extended families. The young lacks this picture; but even the older generation might also be suffering from amnesia of extended family living. Yes, there was a time, and I mean a few decades ago, when extended families all lived together under the same roof or in the immediate vicinity of one another. It was not uncommon to have households consisting of three to four generations of grandparents, aunts, and uncles living together in a single family dwelling or adjacent houses, or separate floors of the same building. As you can imagine, this wasn’t all rosy and dandy. But family closeness ignited a feeling that was not just emotional but also tactile. Everyone knew and believed this great truth about the family—that WE’RE ALL IN IT TOGETHER. Anecdotally, one can say that family closeness was a contributing factor to less cases of divorce in societies of the past.
What has this to do with the feast of today? On this feast of All Saints, we can recognize the importance of our extended family of faith. The saints are men and women who shared the same faith with us. Now they’re experiencing fullness of life with God. Unmistakably, the saints, as members of our extended family live with us under the same roof—the roof of God’s love, mercy, and providence. This family is so extended and diverse that it makes us forget any form of differences that even the highest stretch of the critical race theory can adduce. St. Martin de Porres could be a slave but has no less glory than St. Louis, who was a king. In this family, Perpetua and her slave Felicity are commemorated the same day, with equal dignity. Together with them, we worship the great king of the universe and Lord of all.
In the past, when extended families all lived together, they provided many different things to family members, especially the young. Two things seem very paramount. First, extended families provided children with many examples of aptitude and industry. This certainly was done imperfectly, and sometimes in messy ways; yet, children had many examples after which to focus their skills and ability. Growing up, I remember that while I wanted to be a priest, my immediate older brother wanted to be like our uncle Stanley, who was a successful business man —whatever that meant for him then. For the most part, children got a sense of what to do, what choices to make. Secondly, and more importantly, extended families modeled for children right conduct and what wasn’t good or healthy for their moral flourishing. The name of the family could be at stake if one deviated from family norms, and maybe stole or acted indecently.
The same is applicable in our family of faith. We, the younger folks of this family, learn from the saints what works and what contradicts our ethos. If we follow their footsteps, we shall arrive at the place they are now. But most importantly, their presence assures us that we’re not alone. We’re in it together.
Fr. Jo Chukwudi Okonkwo