A good story well told is difficult to set aside. Just such a story is what Chantal Howard
has offered to the reader of The School of the Family: A Renaissance in Catholic Formation
. But to be more precise, this is a story that is good in its intention and its effect; not simply described as a ‘good story’ for its entertainment value. Indeed, the many-layered retelling of her own adventurous upbringing in a loving home with its particular set of complications and challenges makes for engaging reading – particularly for young adult Catholics and other likeminded Christians who are currently raising children or preparing to set our on that course. However, as the title and subtitle of the book suggest the narrative aspect of the work is not its main point. Rather, Howard has assembled autobiographical content, theological insight, cultural critique, parental inspiration, and a large measure of hope for the rearing of our children and the renewal of our society.
The author comes by her insight and expertise honestly. She lauds her own mother for her counter-cultural vision of the Catholic family and her sacrifices to raise the author and her four siblings – the youngest two of which are twin boys having severe special needs from birth. And now Mrs. Howard is herself a wife and a mother, raising a family with her husband Peter who is a theologian and Director of Faith Formation at the small Catholic parish of St. Mary in Aspen, Colorado.
The book traces an arc from Mrs. Howard’s not-always-easy childhood, through the loss of her father, key episodes in her formation as an adolescent and young-adult Catholic, an authentic vocational discernment process, her experience of courtship with her now-husband, an honest portrait of their difficult first years of marriage, and how that ship has been righted with sails now fully unfurled.
As mentioned above, the story makes for compelling reading all by itself – especially so for younger Catholics who have come to maturity as part of the so-called ‘JPII Generation.’ For the reader, the reminiscences develop a clear picture of a child and young woman blessed with an eye that readily discovers deep meaning in the world around her – what might be termed "the sacramental worldview." This blessing was multiplied by the faithful witness of her mother and father and other key individuals who spoke into her life.
However the real substance of the book – that is, the exhortation of the reader toward a zealous pursuit of the high calling of Catholic family life in our day and time – is woven quite seamlessly into the structure of the story.
From one angle, the book is a "gathering up" of the fruits of grace that have grown in the places in which others have planted seeds. From a very young age Mrs. Howard seems to have possessed a temperament which understands the ways in which God reveals Himself in and through his Creation. Here is an extended excerpt that follows a childhood remembrance of splashing through puddles and considering God’s mercy - at age nine.
“I can chuckle at some memories now that I am far removed from them and, yet, the lessons persist to this day. However, the greater reality of my childhood was being overwhelmingly blessed with diverse and holistic encounters of the presence of God. My eyes were trained from my earliest days to see Him in the Eucharist, in my family, and in those around me.
Obviously this is not something I can take credit for as it was a gift that was given to me through my family. I had no idea at my tender age of the magnitude of this blessing. Yet I knew that I was at peace when I chose to do what was right: when I offered up little sacrifices, when I willingly obeyed my parents, when I apologized to my siblings and above all when I was in church. I certainly didn’t understand completely why, but I knew that the more I turned away from “the enemy” (self) and turned toward Jesus, the more joy would fill my life. Thankfully, I was given this foundation so that as I grew and encountered more of life’s struggles my gaze naturally was drawn back to Christ.”
As happens throughout the book, Howard then easily switches gears to expand her thesis - that the family is the central place of learning, practicing, and perfecting the faith and virtues that conspire toward the flourishing of each individual and the life of community.
“There is no doubt in my mind that if I had not had a zealous family life beginning when I was young, I would not be writing this story of my faith journey today. The Faith must be transmitted from the beginning if we want our children to grow in wisdom and continue to choose the good and true when they are older. We cannot start too early in helping to form their little hearts for Jesus.
I know that many do not know when to begin of if they want to begin. Fear is sweeping through families today – a fear of giving our children too much and a fear of forming them. Satan wants to destroy the family, as it is the essential way to break down society. If we do not begin to overcome our fears of communicating the truth to our children Satan will conquer us...
(Deut 6:6) And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to you children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
Parents should seek to embody this type of priority with regard to communicating the Faith in their parenting; it is fundamental to giving our children the true light of the Church.” (45-46)
What the reader receives from this book is deep encouragement and inspiration to live out a family life zealous for the Gospel, committed to the propagation of the Faith through our families, and fully invested in our mission as parents to form well-rooted young Catholics in an ever-more tumultuous world that is openly hostile to the Church and the basic truths of the Faith.
Mrs. Howard's personal journey – the story of her yet-young but full life – is the book's structure, upon which is hung many warnings, exhortations, encouragements, and pertinent kernels of wisdom.
“Deuteronomy 6:5 and the following verses imply another important dimension that is critical in the rearing of our little ones to know, love, and serve God. It is our obligation as parents to discipline with love and have expectations of them that surpass the mediocrity of our times. We don’t need to be strict for perfection’s sake, but we need to teach our children the value of obedience in relation to the happiness. ...Our intention should not be to place needless boundaries upon them, or impinge upon their free will. We should help them understand that if the learn as children to obey ‘right away, all the way, with a joyful heart’ ...then they will learn that obedience is always the precursor to freedom.” (47)
Throughout the book Mrs. Howard draws upon Holy Scripture, the writings of Chesterton
, Blessed John Paul II
, Therese of Lisieux
, The Catechism
, and Fulton Sheen
Mrs. Howard has taken up the challenge put forth by Blessed John Paul II on many occasions to renew the family, to “be not afraid” but rather embark on the journey with confidence in God’s grace, and hope in his divine providence and ultimate mercy. She touches on all of the important challenges to contemporary family life in ways that inspire the reader to accept the challenge.
In my own estimation and from my perspective as a thirty-something cradle-Catholic, father of a home schooling family with five little ones of our own, this book is truly excellent. I have strongly recommended it to several friends already, and intend to keep it close at hand to share with other young families. If we take the Faith seriously we will be both convicted and inspired in reading The School of the Family – we will be moved to “put out into the deep.” Perhaps the best conclusion is taken from Mrs. Howard’s introduction to the book:
“I now reflect with joy and gratitude upon the many lessons I have learned and continue to learn about the priceless refining nature of the family. Nothing else can compare to the school of the family. Nothing reveals better who we really are; nothing illuminates more perfectly our divine calling to be “children of God” and nothing prunes us and perfects us like the family. The apprenticeship of family life is, then, the testing ground and the novitiate of wisdom and truth; it is the channel of love and the wellspring of new life.”