What makes a family a family?

Maureen Pratt



Like many other clans this summer, part of my extended family will gather for a biannual reunion. Unfortunately, I cannot attend; but I have in the past. The events are always fun and impart a wonderful sense of belonging.

Learning about family history; discovering new members and connecting with people I already know; catching up and swapping stories perhaps no one except a family member will understand; there is no substitute for being there.

And yet….

Anyone who has experienced compassionate help extended by someone not related to us by name, or being adopted into enveloping love by people unrelated, know that there is more to belonging to a family than existing as a leaf on the branches of a family tree.

Another, more complex glue really unites far-flung kin, and extends and binds in fellowship people who are not genetically connected

Love is that glue.

There are many meanings to the word love today. The one active here is that connection of compassion and care that transcends societal bonds and prompts us with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to extend light far and wide.

In the presence of love, distance evaporates; isolation vanishes. Duty to one's kin is not a chore, but a joy. Arguments, squabbles, grudges -- when love is the glue for relationships, these might spark; but no bonfire ensues that destroys. Rather, when love is active even during conflict, the ties between people only strengthen.

A true family – of the kind our faith inspires – is not limited to those people with whom we share a name or a parentage. The more we recognize this and nurture a broad-based love, the more we open ourselves to God's graces that we might otherwise not experience. Some of these are:

  • The grace of forging relationships with neighbors, co-workers and other members of our communities, with whom we can work more harmoniously and effectively
  • The grace of being less fearful of isolation and more grateful for God's unexpected supports, provided by people we might not expect to be supportive, but who give and receive love as an extension of their compassion and joy
  • The grace of faith strengthened by our faith family, however near or distant, and the sense of belonging to a universal, wonderfully alive Church

Within our immediate families, where love is nurtured to grow boundlessly and bountifully, the grace of adopting or fostering a child, young or older, is one of the most awesome of God's blessings – an act that reverberates far beyond the people involved.

The day my parents adopted my brother Casey was one of the happiest of my life. And although he went home to Jesus very young, my love for him still has an effect, fueling my enthusiasm about others' adopting or fostering children so they, too, might experience that glue; that love.

As we age, we will lose family members through distance, lack of communication and death. Each family reunion is also a time to remember those who are not with us and to carry on in memory the ones we have held dear. Yet, our remembrance need not be limited to static snapshots.

Acting out of love, we can be mindful of the increased physical and emotional isolation of people who cannot travel or even move beyond where they live, and for whom our modern ways of communication might be utterly out of reach. Older adults can benefit from adoption, too – especially if their other family and friends have fallen away or passed on.

Deep within our own circle of relatives or beyond, where love abides, a family is truly a family.

Maureen Pratt writes for the Catholic News Service column “Living Well.” Her website is www.maureenpratt.com.