By Frank Wessling
A New Year’s resolution to improve something in our lives, anything at all, is good. The beginning of a calendar year is useful as a reminder that new beginnings of all kinds are possible.
Christians celebrating the new life opened to us in the birth of Jesus will naturally be feeling the attraction of “higher things,” as St. Paul expresses it, and want to do something about that: maybe resolve to give time every day for personal prayer, or pledge an extra moment of attention to the person at work who most needs that, or practice being alert for any of the personal and social needs that exist all around and respond in some practical way each week.
Young candidates for the sacrament of confirmation, generally high school and junior high students, are asked to complete a certain number of “service” hours or projects as part of learning what it means to be an adult, response-able member of the Church. The hope is that a spirit of active compassion will grow in these young people.
But they deserve models to imitate. They should not feel that what they’re asked to do is out of the ordinary. They should be able to see this as the normal behavior of adults in their parish communities.
The point for the young confirmation candidates should not be to merely do something required for “getting” the sacrament. It is to become the kind of person who sees with the eyes of Christ, noticing where the world needs uplifting and healing. That is what the community confirms in celebrating the sacrament: a newly mature, adult Christian aware of being active in the new creation begun with Jesus.
For the year 2012 we might want to look to marriage, and the marriage based family, as a focus for our resolutions. The news coming from analysis of the 2010 U.S. census and other recent surveys is not good. Only 51 percent of Americans 18 and older were married last year. Fifty years ago, nearly three-fourths of us were married.
Most of this change has occurred among less educated and poorer Americans. College graduates still marry at a two-thirds rate. Fewer than half of us marry if our education stopped with a high school diploma or less. It hasn’t always been this way, but a loss of job opportunities for less educated seekers has made it harder to reach the economic stability that supports stable marriage.
Growing acceptance of unmarried couples living together has also weakened the place of marriage in society and in common perceptions of its value. Among less educated and poorer Americans, 45 percent consider marriage “obsolete,” according to a Pew Research Center survey. This compares with 27 percent of people with college degrees who have the same view.
This pessimistic or dismissive attitude about marriage is especially disturbing because of what it implies for the children born to unmarried and poorer parents. Another study has found that, by the age of 12, more than 60 percent of children born to cohabiting parents will see them split. With parents who are married, only about 25 percent of the children have to go through a divorce.
A New Year’s resolution won’t magically stop or reverse these trends. They are part of deeper movements of human autonomy that strain traditional bonds of social life. But we can vow to do well at strengthening the bonds of our own marriages.
There is a Catholic and catholic vision of marriage and the marriage-based family. It sees this little community as the basis for a healthy social consciousness of global reach. A first experience of the common good is felt in that family, where self-transcendence has made its bedrock in the marriage vows. Mutual and shared goals, with sacrifice for their achievement, are absorbed as a natural way of life.
When difficulty comes, the community does not break up. Rather, it looks to the deepest desires which formed it, gains strength from renewed consciousness of that love, and finds creative energy for the future.
There is hardly a more important resolution we can make than one focused on strengthening our marriages and families — not simply for our own personal benefit but to build up a strong model of what marriage is meant to do. Try such a resolution for 2012. In time it could change the world.