The Holy Family – “A Kind of School”


The Office of Readings for the Feast of the Holy Family includes a beautiful excerpt from an address given by Pope Paul VI in Nazareth in 1964: “Nazareth is a kind of school where we may begin to discover what Christ’s life was like.”

It is here that we get intimate knowledge of what made Jesus the person he was. It is in Nazareth that we learn about family life and about work and the discipline it entails.

When we reflect on our own upbringing, we discover that even our ordinary, but unholy, families can teach us significant things. I know with absolute certainty that my own family upbringing was a kind of school.

I can’t even begin to enumerate the many valuable life lessons I learned through my own upbringing, lessons that have allowed me to live a rich life and to thrive, even in the midst of personal health challenges and the ordinary challenges that are a part of family life in our culture.

Pope Paul VI laments on “how I would like to return to my childhood and attend the simple yet profound school that is Nazareth!” We cannot return, but we can continue to let our childhood educate us.


All recent Pontiffs have had a special concern for the family. Pope Francis released a major document in April 2016. Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love) is a warm and pastoral look at the family and offers encouragement to all who struggle to understand family and the issues in our culture that effect it.

One of my favourite aspects is its tone of welcome. For instance, the church should avoid judging people and imposing rules that don’t consider the very real struggles in family life. People are encouraged to live by the Gospel and to be welcomed into a church that appreciates their struggles and offers mercy.

The church cannot apply moral laws as if they were “stones to throw at people’s lives.” The approach preferred by Francis is one of understanding, compassion and accompaniment. He recognizes that a “one-size fits all” approach no longer works, if, indeed, it ever did.

Every family has its own particular situation, its joys and its challenges. It is influenced by culture, tradition, geographical location and the family’s specific history. It is a beautiful and challenging document. It’s worth a re-read as we search for the way in which the family educates us.


I’ve written of the Holy Family in relation to my own birth family. I grew up in a family that would be unusual in today’s world. I was the eldest of seven children, born to my mother and father. We were born in less than ten years, so the energy level in the house was very high. My parents were married 53 years. My maternal grandmother lived with us for the last six or seven years of her life.

Whenever I return to the house, I marvel that seven children and three adults could have managed to live there. For a start, it had just one bathroom. The boys shared a bedroom and the girls another. We were all getting ready for school or work at the same time.

The Loughrun Family. Source

Perhaps I have a selective memory, but I don’t recall any raging fights, just the usual squabbles. Needless to say, there was a lot of sharing and hand-me-downs. How is it that we still manage to get along and we are all healthy!

I deal with the political and social realities of life in Jesuit community and in any ministry, I am grateful that I grew up in a large energetic family where I had to let go of my own ego, because I was just one of seven children.

Did my family upbringing serve as a kind of school, to use the image from Paul VI? Without a doubt! Family is the basic social unit in our lives. Thus, its health or lack of health will affect us, usually in permanent ways.

Let’s pray, on this Feast of the Holy Family, for all families – that they may continue to serve as educators for all women and men who play a role in public life.

Philip Shano, SJ has many years of rich and varied experience working with Ignatian spirituality: teaching, writing and using it in his ministry. He resides in the Jesuit community in Pickering, Ontario.

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