Is the Holy Family a Realistic Model for Ordinary Families?

In this time of troubled marriages and beleaguered families, a renewed focus on the Holy Family, and what it teaches us, can act as a bracing support. Dr. Mary Shivanandan’s new book, The Holy Family, Model Not Exception, provides just such a support. The mystery of our redemption is particularly lived out in the Holy Family, according to Shivanandan and, therefore, it is a guide for all families called to God’s redeeming love. Her book is rich in well-developed teachings that are valuable for strengthening marriage and family life. It will not be possible to capture it all in this short review, so I will touch on just a few topics.

The Family as a Communion of Persons
A key emphasis in the book is the understanding of the family as a communion of persons, grounded in the family’s imaging the Trinity. This is important in our current culture that emphasizes individualism, to the point of losing the sense of commitment to community in the family. Since the term “person” means being in relationship, and the Trinity is the prime analog for persons in relationship, the human person as image of God has come to be seen specifically as image of the Trinity, reflecting the relationships with other human persons, as well as with God. The Persons in the Trinity are Gift in their relationships. As the Vatican Council II document, Gaudium et Spes, states, man is enabled to “find himself through a sincere gift of self” which is the “whole of Christian anthropology.”(14) In the family as a communion of persons, each person is a gift to the other members. The human subjectivity of each is not lessened but rather strengthened through their participation in the communion of the family. The example of Joseph and Mary who gave themselves totally to the person of Jesus, as well as to each other in the spiritual bond of their marriage, can raise our awareness of this particular calling of the family.

Conjugal Love
Shivanandan does not shy away from the question one may raise about how the virginal lives of Joseph and Mary can relate to the ordinary family, based on conjugal sexual relations. The establishment of consent as the essential element in marriage was both validated by the marriage of Joseph and Mary, and validated it. For this reason, Shivanandan’s detailed treatment of the history of the Church’s view of Joseph is particularly helpful. She says of her chapter on “Joseph and the Holy Family” that “it condenses a thousand years of salvation history in order to show the trends that have affected the family since the Middle Ages with special emphasis on the emergence of Joseph, and a theology of the Holy Family.” (52) As she says, initially, the Church was most concerned to protect the divinity of Jesus, so that the fatherly role of Joseph was not emphasized. It came to be seen that Joseph’s consent was an essential element, not only in the marriage with Mary, but also as a shared cause of the Incarnation, in union with Mary’s fiat. In our contemporary culture, Mary is sometimes proposed as an example of pregnancy in an unwed mother, but this is false as she was betrothed to Joseph at the time of the conception of Jesus, so that as the spouse of Mary he had an important part to play in the Incarnation. It was a crucial part of God’s plan that His son be born within a marriage, and raised in a family. “God chose a properly constituted Israelite family for his Son, with two loving parents united in the bond of marriage.” (143) Joseph’s role as husband to Mary, and human father for Jesus, provides an important link between divine fatherhood, and human fatherhood. Next to Mary, his role in the plan of Redemption is critical. He has a prophetic role as a perpetuator of the line of David into the New Covenant, and as the Jewish father responsible for living out with Jesus the whole inheritance of the Old Testament.

Shivanandan points out that chastity is a necessary element in all marriages, and allows the interior value of the person to come into greater focus, which is essential for a communion of persons. Since our natures are prone to sin, the redemption of sexual love through the practice of chastity at appropriate times, can bring a greater fullness of human goodness into the marriage, which will be greatly aided by the example of Mary and Joseph, whose faith in God’s providence was lived out daily. Marital chastity means choosing the Father’s fecundity as central to the conjugal act. All couples can imitate the chastity of Mary and Joseph by putting their faith in God’s plan above their own desires. Joseph and Mary did not know what the future had in store for them any more than other couples. Yet, they responded in obedience. This commitment to God’s plan requires the couple to listen to each other, to practice self-control, and be in dialogue with God. Shivanandan’s chapter, entitled “Humanae Vitae, the Communion of Persons and the Holy Family,” treats this question in detail. It shows how the larger question of spousal love, lived with redemptive grace, is greatly enhanced by natural family planning (NFP) as responsible parenthood.

Maternity and Paternity
The gift of motherhood and fatherhood is an awesome power: one’s genealogy is shared with another person who has an eternal destiny in God. Parenthood transcends biology for it has the privilege of being an analogy of the Trinity in its fruitfulness, and a communion of persons. According to Shivanandan, there is “no true communion of persons if both paternity and maternity are not fully taken into account.” (252) The gift of procreation increases the depth and breadth of marital communion. The question of patriarchy has haunted modern families. Thus, it is important to recall that the loving fatherhood of God, revealed in the Scriptures, points to the true nature of fatherhood. St. Joseph’s virtues are an antidote to the male tendencies toward concupiscence, arrogance, possessiveness, and weak religious devotion. Some men can be content to remain in a sexual relationship and avoid fatherhood, but Joseph’s courageous obedience to God’s call to participate in God’s redemptive mission, and protection of the Child Jesus, is an important example for men. Every father has a religious obligation, in his marriage and family, that will strengthen him in his other roles.

Motherhood and the child are other important topics treated. Mary models union with God as virgin, and motherhood as Theotokos. Both roles restore the dignity of woman, and of the whole personhood of body, nature, spirit, and grace, which have been at risk from sin. After the Reformation, the feminine role in salvation was obscured. But Christ’s work of salvation began in the womb of Mary. Mary offered her virginal womb for the Incarnate Presence, which foreshadows the Eucharistic Presence, and confirms the goodness of the body, and its role in salvation. Every pregnant woman who is baptized, and receives the Eucharist, brings Christ into her womb, and to the child. Mary’s example in breastfeeding Jesus was highlighted in much of early Christian art, and throughout the Middle Ages. Shivanandan describes the history of the use of wet nurses, which created a separation in the communion between mother and child, a communion which psychological research has confirmed as being critical for the child’s development. If this loving care by the parents or their unity is absent, the child is disturbed, fractured, with deep wounds that may never fully heal.

All Are Called to Holiness
Shivanandan shows how the universal call to holiness, as stressed during Vatican II, is particularly relevant to family life. The realization that the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are also meant for families, according to their circumstances, can be a fruitful challenge. While this is a high standard for ordinary Christian families, it is good to remember that the married love of Christian couples participates in the union between Christ and His Bride, the Church, between humanity and the Word. Sinful man cannot live holiness without the grace to face the suffering involved, but Christ’s grace is always sufficient. Moreover, holiness makes possible a more human manner of living in earthly society.

Awareness of sin is needed to pursue virtue, which is not an easy task, and is a narrow path. But through baptism, the couple is incorporated into the mission of Christ and the Church. By living family life in the presence of Christ as a domestic church, they carry out what the Holy Family initiated in their dedication to Christ and His mission: “Jesus, Mary and Joseph are the summit from which holiness spreads all over the earth.” (203) Mary is “the one who has the deepest knowledge of God’s mercy. She knows its price.” (245) Separations and conflicts within families leave wounds in need of healing. But despite the defects of our environment and our lives, the vocation to love within sacramental grace is possible.
Shivanandan’s careful study of the Holy Family comes at a time of urgent need for the restoration of wholeness and virtue in families, struggling under many contrary pressures. It deserves attention by all those who minister to Christian families.
The Holy Family Model Not Exception is available from Amazon: paperback, $21.99 and Kindle, $14:99. More details of the book and author available at

Kathleen Curran Sweeney About Kathleen Curran Sweeney

Kathleen Curran Sweeney holds a Master's degree in Theological Studies in Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute in Washington, D.C., an MA in History from the University of Washington, and a BA from Seattle University. She has worked for several years in the pro-life arena. She has published articles on pro-life topics, bioethics, theology, education, and history. She is a member of both St. Agnes Church in the Catholic Diocese of Arlington, and the People of Praise Ecumenical Community.


  1. Avatar Florence Sundberg says:

    June 17, 2018: Perhaps the Holy Family is the model – the perfect model of perfect human beings, one who was conceived without sin, one who was the Son of the living God and the other, St. Joseph, chosen by God Himself to watch over Mary and Jesus. They were poor but it was a clean and healthy poverty not a poverty lived in a broken neighborhood or in the slimy mud of Calcutta. Mary was fully graced by God, Jesus was God – Joseph was graced to care for God’s family. A different world, a different time… I love the Holy Family but it seems unreal to expect many families of today to follow that model… where the Holy Family lived, angels dwelt – sure they had hardships – did they ever find their Son doing drugs? Jesus was God…the family was not dysfunctional nor were they in the midst of an overwhelming culture that was drugged out and promiscuous – sure there were orgies and murders and the bestial games in the arenas of the times … but today many live in areas where there are no role models, no way out. Even ordinary families are breaking up, kids left on their own, Priests abusing kids, homosexuality in the Priesthood (which is another type of ‘family’ – hostility among some Bishops, Priests who teach what is contrary to the teaching of the Church…people are lost – many have never heard of Christ, many who go through life without purpose or understanding. Yes, the Holy Family knew some suffering – and yes, Mary lost her Son in a horrendous way – but all had a deep relationship with God, Mary was told she was to be the Mother of God’s Son – Joseph knew that he was to be the guardian of Mary and Jesus…I don’t know how to explain all this. I worked in Haiti among the poorest of the poor and with Mother Teresa in Calcutta – perhaps the Holy Family is a model for well put together families but for the majority of families – I honestly don’t believe so.

    • Avatar Ted Heywood says:

      What a sad and ultimately cynical commentary from one who has apparently lost all Hope and belief in the presence of God amongst us, the power of His Grace and our prayer. We have sanitized the story and you have forgotten the real humanity lived by Christ, Mary and Joseph in times that reflected all the disfunction and violence of our time, if not even worse. The Middle East today, with all its violence, intolerance, suffering and death in horrible ways (and Haiti with all its self inflicted pathologies) is probably a good reflection of life in the same area in Christ’s time on earth. As it was then, the Holy Families way of life is the solution not an unattainable perfection.

      • Avatar Florence Sundberg says:

        No Ted…I am not sad and cynical for I have great hope in God – but I am a realist – the real ‘humanity’ lived by Christ reflects the times He lived in to be sure but – not the times of today where violence and deceit and oppression and persecution are far more rampant and made worse by modern communitations where violence is seen and promoted through mass media. Although the times were hard when Jesus lived, once He stepped inside His home I believe there was peace. We live in a drugged out society, a society, a culture, that has rejected God, where billions of human babies have been slaughtered in the womb, where millions and millions of little children are sold as sex slaves to be raped over and over and over by perverted men. Today there are so many ‘fatherless’ families…the Holy Family may have been poor but St. Joseph never abandoned them and provided for them as best he could. I have not ‘forgotten’ – as you judged me to have done, the humanity of Christ – but in all He suffered, in all He bore – His Mother was there – not so for families today. I have lived and worked among the poorest of the poor for many years – have you. For a while in Calcutta my hope and belief were shattered but by God’s grace, He got me through that – God, for the most part, will do nothing without man’s cooperation for He will not take away our free will. He could stop the killing of babies, He could stop the sex trafficking of children, He could stop fathers abandoning their families, or kids doing drugs and so many engaged in a promiscuous lifestyle. Did these things exist in the time of Christ – sure, but not on the massive scale as we who are aware, see today. But no matter what happened in those times, when Jesus was growing up He knew peace in His own home. As an adult, He would often return to the home of Mary for peace and comfort with His mother. The Holy Family’s way of life is, without a miracle, unattainable for many today.

      • Ms Sundberg, you say “I have great hope in God – but I am a realist…” If your hope is the theological virtue – truly hope in God and not man – then “realism” only amplifies the Good News of Jesus who is the hope of the poor. Man’s failures and inability to establish a civilization worthy of human persons, only prove that Jesus did not die in vain: His Kingdom alone, in the New Heaven and the New Earth, will bring the beatitude which for now is (“only”) a hope. But that hope is powerful, empowering, and encouraging.

        As the Catechism affirms:
        1817 Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” “The Holy Spirit . . . he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”