In His great wisdom, God has created the human family as the first school to form the minds, hearts, souls, and consciences of children. In God’s plan, a child needs both a mother and a father, not two mothers or two fathers. Orphans and children who are fatherless or motherless suffer and struggle more than children who enjoy normal family life. The influence of a good father and mother balances a child and teaches the young to be both strong and gentle, to appreciate both justice and mercy, to know both unconditional and conditional love, to have both a kind, sensitive heart and and fearless moral courage. From a mother a child learns the meaning of thoughtfulness and kindness, compassion for the sufferings and needs of others. From a father, a child learns the meaning of strength, the virtue of determination and perseverance to accomplish difficult tasks.
From a mother, a child learns unconditional love. Her constant love does not depend on the child’s talent, virtue, or success, but flows from a mother’s natural instinct to care and love for her children as gifts from God. From a father, a child learns the meaning of conditional love, the praise of an honest man who approves and compliments his children for living up to his ideals and expectations. From a mother, a child learns the nature of mercy. There is no limit to a mother’s forgiveness and willingness to pardon her children. From a father, a child learns the importance of justice, the need to fulfill obligations and to perform one’s duties or suffer the consequences. While a mother’s love is always welcoming and giving, a father’s love is more demanding and expects good performances before he offers compliments.
From a mother, a son understands the qualities of a good woman and a virtuous wife that influence his choice in marriage as he judges other women by the standard of excellence set by his mother. When he thinks of the true wife described in Proverbs 31, he will see in this woman many qualities of his mother: “A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her . . . . She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.” From a father, a daughter recognizes the virtues of a noble man who sacrifices for his family and honors his wife. She sees the beauty of a man’s devotion to those he loves and admires the generosity of a man who makes a gift of self to his wife and children. When a daughter learns of the greatness of St. Joseph, “a just man,” hopefully she will also think of her father.
God’s plan for the family educates boys and girls to learn from both their fathers and mothers—to be gentle but not soft or sentimental, to be strong but not hardhearted or cruel, to be sensitive but not sentimental, to think with the head and also listen to the heart. The education a child receives from the example and virtues of a father and mother make him a whole, balanced human being in touch with reality, knowledgeable about the duties of manhood and womanhood, and in wonder at the beauty of God’s design of uniting two people to become one and to share their love for one another by being generous with life as they give to others what they have received from God.
Homer’s Odyssey offers special insight into these self-evident truths about the family. The epic depicts two conflicting ways of life, identified as barbarism and civilization. Barbarians like the Suitors destroy the home and family by their practice of avarice, gluttony, and lust as they plunder Odysseus’ estate, harass his wife Penelope to marry one of them, and attempt to ambush his son Telemachus. The family as the center of civilization forms its strength from both the virtues of Odysseus, who defends his family from barbarians, and the virtues of Penelope, who provides the home a sense of permanence and stability during her husband’s absence. A family governed by a devoted father and husband who exemplifies moral courage and a loyal mother who embodies fidelity to her marriage and to the preservation of her home, form children like their son Telemachus, who is a civilized human being because of the culture of the family. Telemachus is both strong and kind, brave in battle and sensitive to the beautiful, a speaker of words and a doer of deeds—a balanced human being who illustrates the Greek ideal of balance—a sound mind in a sound body, neither the brutal soldier nor the tender artist.
As Saint John Paul II wrote, “Civilization passes by way of the family.” Without men and women who center their lives upon the preservation of the home and defend it from the ravages of barbarians who attack or deconstruct it by divorce, abortion, contraception, population control, or same-sex “marriage”, civilization is not passed down from one generation to the next. As Homer shows, civilization demands the transmission of manners, morals, culture, and a way of life that unites the generations and completes the circle of life—sons and daughters repaying their elderly parents with loving care in the natural rhythm of giving and receiving, sowing and reaping, working and playing that defines the meaning of family and civilization.
In the final scenes of the book, Odysseus returns from the Trojan War after an absence of twenty years to be reunited with wife, son, and aged father. The bed Odysseus built with his own hands from a sturdy olive tree symbolizes the strength of his marriage, a bed firmly rooted and immovable and made from “a long-leaved olive tree, which had grown to full height with a stem as thick as a pillar.” The memory Odysseus recalls from his childhood that convinces his father Laertes that he has truly returned and is alive summarizes the story of civilization– parents blessing children and children returning love to their parents. Odysseus remembers the sowing in the orchard with his father: “I was only a little boy at the time . . . and as we wound our way through these very trees you told me all their names. You gave me thirteen pear-, ten apple-, and forty fig trees . . . .” This image of the strength of marriage and the harvest of the field capture the continuity of tradition and a civilized way of life in which human beings live well because of the fruitfulness of their lives and because the wisdom they inherit from the family, they transmit to the next generation.