Friday, January 07, 2022

The Feast of the Holy Family

Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato (1609-1685), La Sainte Famille
The following article appeared in the Christmas 2018 edition of The Latin Mass Magazine (27.4). Many thanks to the editors for allowing its republication here.

When I was growing up in the new rite, the Feast of the Holy Family seemed ideally located. After all, when the first child is born, are not a husband and wife turned into a father and mother, and is not a family created? It was only after attending the Latin Mass for several years that I came to appreciate a better alternative.

History of the Devotion
The cult of the Holy Family took time to develop. For the first thirteen hundred years of Christianity, the term “holy family” was used only in reference to Christ’s members rather than His kin; that is, the holy family was the Church. [1]  The same is true of “sacred family,” which has also been used for the household of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. During the first millennium, however, the expression appears only once: in a Lenten prayer over catechumens as a term for the Church’s extended family. [2]
And just as “holy family” has meant something different for most of Church history, so too has “family.” Strange as it is to say, there was no word for the familial unit prior to the modern period. From the pre-Christian beginnings of the language into the seventeenth century, the Latin familia did not signify a group of people related to each other by blood or marriage but a household, a group of people all living under the same roof under the authority of a paterfamilias: parents, children, and servants. By this definition, the mere act of growing up and moving out meant that you were no longer part of the family.
Another factor affecting devotion to the Holy Family is the need to venerate each member: one must love Jesus, Mary, and Joseph before one can love them as a team, so to speak. But to some extent, one cannot appreciate who Joseph is until one appreciates who Mary is, and one cannot appreciate who Mary is until one appreciates who Jesus is. It took the early Church several centuries and several ecumenical councils to clarify her doctrinal understanding of Jesus Christ, which only then enabled Christians to gain a deeper reverence for Mary His mother.
But even with the blossoming of Marian devotion, devotion to Saint Joseph was hindered by an added complication: lukewarm press. Apocryphal literature portrayed the foster-father of Jesus as aged, ineffective, and unremarkable in his doubts about his betrothed. Joseph was still honored as a saint, but as one can see from some medieval mystery plays, he was thought of more as a decent Everyman than a heroically virtuous patriarch.
It was the theologian Jean Gerson (1363-1429) who liberated Saint Joseph from his apocryphal doldrums. Gerson taught that the divinely-appointed guardian of Jesus and Mary was young, vigorous, and free from even venial sin because like the prophet Jeremiah and Saint John the Baptist, he was sanctified in the womb. [3] Gerson also promoted devotion to the Holy Family as a remedy for the acute personal and economic crises that families were facing at the time. In this endeavor he was joined by Saint Bernadine of Siena (1380-1444), who was probably the first person to use “Holy Family” for the union of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
During the Counter Reformation, the now-familiar depictions of the Holy Family of Nazareth became popular in Catholic countries. It may be that seeing Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as a “terrestrial trinity” safeguarded the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God from Protestants who contended that Jesus had siblings. It is also the case that devotion to the Holy Family was still seen as an aid to Christian families: it spread quickly in the New World, for example, in response to family breakdowns caused by colonization.[4] In any event, saints such as Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and Francis de Sales were instrumental in encouraging the devotion. [5]
In the seventeenth century, France gave the cult “its decisive impetus.” [6] The so-called French school of spirituality helped to form most of the devotion’s now familiar characteristics, including a focus on the hidden life of the Holy Family as a doorway into the interior life, an “entering into” the details of the Holy Family through the imagination, a respect for the Jewish traditions that the Holy Family faithfully kept, and a veneration of each member of the Holy Family as a teacher of particular virtues. [7]
For the next two centuries, the Holy Family lent its name and inspiration to a growing number of lay organizations and religious communities throughout Europe and eventually the U.S. But it is French Canada that can boast of having the first official association dedicated to the Holy Family as well as the first proper Masses in its honor. [8] Settlers to New France had brought their spirituality with them, and soon the cult of the Holy Family was taking on new life in the New World. In July 1663, the Confraternity of the Holy Family was founded in Montreal and by year’s end received the approval of Saint Francois-Xavier de Montmorency-Laval, Quebec’s first bishop.
Claude Francois, Portrait of Bishop Laval, ca. 1672
Laval proved to be an energetic supporter of the new association and the devotion. He procured indulgences from Rome for members of the Confraternity, and in 1690 he even successfully used an image of the Holy Family to ward off a British invasion of Canada by placing the image on the cathedral steeple when the enemy sailed into port.
But Laval’s most important contribution to the devotion was to put it on the calendar. In 1665 he gave the Confraternity permission to celebrate the Feast of the Holy Family on either the Feast of the Espousals of Joseph and Mary (January 22) or the Second Sunday after Epiphany (the Sunday closest to the Espousals) by using the propers for the Feast of the Annunciation. Later he asked four of his diocesan priests to compose a Mass and Office in honor of the Holy Family, which were then edited by Father Jean-Baptiste Santeul, a poet and renowned liturgist in Paris. In November 1684, Laval elevated the feast to the rank of double first class with an octave and commanded that it henceforth be celebrated throughout his diocese on the Third Sunday after Easter to circumvent Quebec’s harsh winters and facilitate a greater celebration. [9]
During this period, the word familia gradually came to take on its current meaning. Could devotion to the Holy Family have given us the notion of the nuclear family as we know it today?
Pope Leo XIII
Papal Promotions
In the nineteenth century, Pope Leo XIII considered the cult of the Holy Family an antidote to the troubles plaguing the family in the industrialized world. One on hand, Leo worried that capitalist employers might not keep in mind the good of the working man’s soul and might facilitate his neglect of home and family. [10] On the other, the Pope saw that socialists “act against natural justice and destroy the structure of the home” when they replace parents with the State. [11] Leo XIII deplored any power that tried to take away a parent’s right to educate his children:
It is, then, incumbent on parents to strain every nerve to ward off such an outrage, and to strive manfully to have and to hold exclusive authority to direct the education of their offspring, as is fitting, in a Christian manner, and first and foremost to keep them away from schools where there is risk of their drinking in the poison of impiety. [12]
To counteract these destructive trends, in June 1892 the Holy Father consolidated the various pious associations dedicated to the Holy Family with the Apostolic Letter Neminem fugit, and a year later he instituted a Feast of the Holy Family on the Third Sunday after Epiphany for any diocese that petitioned for it. Leo even composed part of the Mass and Divine Office himself, including the hymns for Vespers, Matins, and Lauds. Passages from Neminem fugit were later included as readings in the Office of Matins that show how there is a lesson in the Holy Family for everyone: for fathers, mothers, children, workers, the poor, and even royalty.
Pope Benedict XV shared Leo’s conviction that devotion to the Holy Family leads to familial and social renewal. In 1921, after the ravages of the first World War, he placed the feast on the universal calendar, assigning it to the Sunday within the Octave of Epiphany. Although no reason was given for the new date, it is, as we shall soon argue, optimally placed.
Subsequent Popes, such as Paul VI, Benedict XVI, and especially John Paul II, have continued to develop the theme of the Holy Family as a model for all.
Both in content and in placement, the Feast of the Holy Family in the 1962 calendar captures all of the aforementioned meanings and purposes of the devotion.
In content, the Mass gives us various glimpses into the life of the Holy Family, including their hidden life of “teaching and admonishing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles” (Epistle), the Finding in the Temple (Gospel), and the Presentation (Offertory). The Mass’s proper prayers, on the other hand, join with the Office hymns and readings to depict the Holy Family as an exemplum of domestic life and a powerful intercessor for all families.
In placement, by falling on the Sunday after Epiphany the Feast has just the right distance from Christmas. It is far enough away to allow the faithful to take in the early life of the Holy Family: Christ’s birth (December 25), the Flight into Egypt (December 28), the Presentation in the Temple (Sunday after Christmas), the Circumcision (January 1), the Holy Nam[ing] (January 2), and the visit of the Magi (January 6). These foundational events of the Holy Family set the stage for, and enable us to enter into imaginatively, their quiet years together in Nazareth.
On the other hand, the feast is not too far away from Christmas. It takes place before the Commemoration of the Baptism of our Lord (January 13) and the liturgical proclamation of the wedding of Cana (Second Sunday after Epiphany), biblical events that take place after the death of Saint Joseph.
Leo XIII also wanted Christian families to consecrate themselves to the Holy Family. Three years before instituting the Feast, he approved a formula for consecration entitled “O Jesus, our most loving Redeemer.” [13]  Prior to Vatican II, a partial indulgence was granted for this beautiful prayer’s recital and a plenary indulgence for its recital “with devotion every day for a month.” [14]  In the latest edition of the Enchiridion (1999), a plenary indulgence is granted to the family that consecrates itself to the Holy Family for the first time in front of an image of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and a partial indulgence to the family that recites the prayer on the anniversary of their consecration. [15] Consecrating one’s family on the Feast of the Holy Family is not required, but it certainly is fitting.
Novus Ordo
In 1969, the Feast of the Holy Family was moved from the Sunday after Epiphany to the Sunday after Christmas according to a somewhat complicated rationale. In 1955, the octave of Epiphany had been suppressed, but in 1960 a commemoration of the Baptism of the Lord was assigned to January 13, thereby restoring some semblance of an octave. Epiphany technically celebrates three “epiphanies”—our Lord’s revelation to the Magi, His first miracle at the wedding of Cana, and His baptism in the River Jordan—but the feast on January 6 understandably tends to be dominated by the visit of the Magi. It was thus appropriate that eight days later the faithful would have the opportunity to meditate more on the Lord’s baptism. The miracle at Cana, on the other hand, is the Gospel for the nearby Second Sunday after Epiphany.
But the subcommittee responsible for reforming the calendar was not impressed. Father Pierre Jounel, the relator of the group, writes that the Commemoration of the Baptism had been “timidly” established and should be celebrated on a Sunday and in imitation of Eastern rather than Roman tradition. The subcommittee decided to assign the baptismal feast to the Sunday after Epiphany and to move the Feast of the Holy Family to the Sunday after Christmas, “where it will appear more in the radiance of the Nativity.” [16] 
The transferred feast does indeed bask in the Nativity’s radiance, although it does so at the expense of the now suppressed Mass for the Sunday after Christmas, the importance of which I have defended elsewhere. [17] Its prayers and readings also maintain a focus on the entire life of the Holy Family but, it seems to me, less effectively.
First, the feast’s proximity to Christmas Day makes it difficult to concentrate on all thirty years of our Lord’s hidden life, as it is only natural then to continue to be filled with affection for Him as a Babe in the manger. The feast is supposed to recall the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth, yet by placing the feast within the octave of Christmas, that Family is still narratively stuck in a stable in Bethlehem.
Second, the faithful have not yet had the benefit of liturgically celebrating the various events in the life of the Holy Family that infuse the devotion with so much meaning and that shape our understanding of their life together. The New Lectionary’s three-year Gospel cycle attempts to compensate for this deficiency with alternate readings on the Flight into Egypt (Year A), the Presentation (B), and the Finding in the Temple (C); but every time one event is proclaimed, two are left out. It is also disconcerting having a rotation of Gospels for a feast.
Third, although the new Liturgy of the Hours contains a lovely reading by Pope Paul VI on Nazareth as a “school” for understanding the Gospel, the theme of the Holy Family as a relevant model of virtue is weakened by the omission of Leo XIII’s magnificent hymns and Matin readings.
But perhaps the chief oddity of the Feast’s new location is that it occurs prior to a commemoration of our Lord’s circumcision. January 1 had been the Feast of the Circumcision for centuries; in 1960, Pope John XXIII dropped the name but kept the proper prayers and readings. Pope Paul VI made January 1 the Solemnity of the Mother of God but likewise retained the Gospel reading of Jesus’ circumcision. (Luke 2,21)
The Circumcision is an important event because it is a crucial symbol of the Holy Family’s “arrival.” Genesis 17 ominously states a male infant who is not circumcised “shall be destroyed out of [cut off from] his people because he hath broken my covenant.” (Gen. 17,14) Circumcision is what initiated a newborn male into the Chosen People, and thus in a certain way it solidifies the family bond (at the time of Jesus, a pious Jewish family with an uncircumcised male was unthinkable). The mysteries of Christmastide cannot always be celebrated in chronological order, but the traditional arrangement of celebrating the Holy Family after the Circumcision is a chronology worth preserving. With the new dating, the Church celebrates the Holy Family before it has fully come into its own, at least in terms of the Law. (see Ex. 12,48-49) And by downplaying the Mosaic Law, the Church fails to show respect for the Holy Family’s meticulous observance of it, which as we have already noted is a hallmark of this devotion. For Joseph and Mary did everything for their divine Son “according to the custom of the law.” (Lk. 2,27) [18]
Likewise, with the new dating the Church celebrates the Holy Family before Jesus is called Jesus. As Saint Luke makes clear, a child was named only at his circumcision; as if to underscore this point, Luke does not directly call Mary’s newborn child Jesus until after his narration of the Circumcision even though the angel Gabriel had foretold the name. (see Luke 2,6-21) I am not suggesting that we adhere to an excessive literalism and start calling the new solemnity the Feast of X, Mary, and Joseph, but respecting the natural unfolding of the Christmas narrative encourages the faithful to engage it imaginatively—again, another hallmark of the devotion.
Ironically, the power of the feast’s original location is testified by the Pontiff who took it away. In 1974, Pope Paul VI issued Marialis Cultus, a document that attempted to bolster flagging Marian devotion after Vatican II. In it he writes:
The Christmas season is a prolonged commemoration of the divine, virginal and salvific motherhood of her whose "inviolate virginity brought the Saviour into the world." In fact, on the Solemnity of the Birth of Christ the Church both adores the Savior and venerates His glorious Mother. On the Epiphany… the Church contemplates the Blessed Virgin… who presents to the Wise Men, for their adoration, the Redeemer of all peoples... On the Feast of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph (the Sunday within the octave of Christmas) the Church meditates with profound reverence upon the holy life led in the house at Nazareth by Jesus… Mary His Mother, and Joseph the just man (5).
What is noteworthy about this statement is its sequence. Paul VI is promoting the changes that Archbishop Bugnini had convinced him to make five years earlier, but the Pope’s narration follows the traditional arrangement of holy days. Even when the beleaguered Pope is trying to justify the new order he is still thinking in terms of the old, so much has it shaped his spiritual imagination.
Pope St. Paul VI
Moreover, the Holy Father’s explanation only begs the question: If the point of the feast is to contemplate the “holy life led in the house at Nazareth,” then why was it parachuted in so close to the birthday of the Infant Jesus in Bethlehem? It seems much more suitably placed after the Church has implicitly commemorated the return of the Holy Family to their hometown and as a capstone closer to the end of the Christmas cycle.
In its 2015 “Homiletic Directory,” the Congregation for Divine Worship soberly notes that “the institution of the family faces great challenges in various parts of the world today” (121). We may even say that the meaning of the word “family,” which devotion to the Holy Family helped to change from a household to the nuclear parent-child bond, is now being changed back to a more amorphous “household” in the wake of the Sexual Revolution and related ideological movements. The new modern “family” is based not on nature or grace but the will of its participants to define their own concept of existence, [19] and it is gaining support not only from secular society but from forces within the Church. Now more than ever, we need the beacon from Nazareth to show us who we are and what we should be as a family.

[1] See Augustine, Enarratio in Psalmos, Ps. 118, sermo 2, 1.
[2] See Sacramentarium Gelasianum 1.26.199 et al. Catechumens are part of the Church’s sacred family because they have been consecrated for baptism but are not yet sanctified members of the Church’s holy family.
[3] See Fr. Joseph F. Chorpenning, The Holy Family Devotion: A Brief History (Centre de recherche et de documentation Oratoire Saint-Joseph, 1997), 5.
[4] E.g., most mestizos did not know their Spanish fathers. See Chorpenning, Holy Family Devotion, 43.
[5] The Holy Family in Art and Devotion, ed. Fr. Joseph F. Chorpenning, OSFS (Saint Joseph’s University Press, 1998), 18-52.
[6] John Saward, “‘The Early Home of the Eternal Father’: The Holy Family in the Spirituality of the French School,” in Holy Family in Art, 55.
[7] Saward, 55-6.
[8] The following three paragraphs are based on Roland Gauthier’s “Devotion to the Holy Family in Seventeenth-Century Canada,” in Holy Family in Art, 68-76.
[9] Chorpenning, Holy Family Devotion, 53.
[10] Rerum Novarum, 20.
[11] Rerum Novarum, 14.
[12] Sapientiae Christianae, 42.
[13] Acta Sanctae Sedis 23 (1890-91): 318-20.
[14] Raccolta or Manual of Indulgences (Benziger Bros, 1957), no. 706.
[15] Apostolic Penitentiary, Manual of Indulgences (United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, 2006),, retrieved October 29, 2018.
[16] Pierre Jounel, “L’organisation de l’année liturgique,” La Maison-Dieu 100 (1969), 148, trans. mine.
[17] Michael P. Foley, “Divine Adoption Sunday,” TLM 25:4 (Christmas 2016), 52-56.
[18] Pope St. John Paul II writes: “The birth of the Child in the night at Bethlehem started the Family. For this reason, the Sunday during the octave of Christmas is the feast of the Family of Nazareth” (General Audience, 3 January 1979). The only problem with this statement is that it overlooks circumcision as the signature celebration of the new family.
[19] A paraphrase of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s postmodern rendering of liberty in the 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

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