The family, local community and land that I am a part of are what bring me back to what matters.

For years the advice to always put family first seemed to me like just a cordial expression that reminded people of good childhood memories with mom, dad, brothers and sisters. Little did I know that staying true to family played a small but important role in a much larger picture, a patchwork of other families that were the building blocks of civilization itself.  Like most quintessential things in life, though family was such a vital part of growing up, I didn’t see its importance.

Standing for family means a little more than defining marriage as between a man and a woman. It is what Pope Leo XIII called “the ‘society’ of a man’s house – a society very small, one must admit, but none the less a true society, and one older than any State.” 

What naturally follows is the local community where the family is raised. Everyone should take pride in where they’re from, and make that place everything it can be.  In recent years I’ve seen people, at least in my area of central New Jersey, slowly returning to a love for where they live. Local farmers are building fresh produce stands, and local businesses are setting up shop down the road. They’re putting up signs for scenic routes to remind others about the importance of the land.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of a lifestyle we’ve only seen glimpses of in the modern world, but it works. Cherishing family and the local community isn’t just a way of holding onto the past. It is the most tried and true way of life.

Those from my grandfather’s generation often say that, when they were young, at least every corner had a general store, deli, restaurant, barber shop, hardware store, or a local business of some sort, and everyone in the neighborhood knew the shop owner. That kind of community, where everything is done on the local level, has a great deal in common with Catholic social teaching.   

With the rise of socialism and capitalism in the mid 19th century, the Church saw the need to remind people that we were doing just fine before the modern world changed everything. In his encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII found himself defending the way people were living for centuries and explaining the importance of subsidiarity: the teaching that human affairs are best handled at the closest possible level, nearest to the affected persons – in the family and local communities within which the people live.

During the first half of the 20th century, this way of life came to be known as distributism since it advocated a wider distribution of wealth. For many it became the viable alternative for, and the virtuous mean between, socialism and capitalism. In a changing world, great Catholic writers like G.K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc, and Father Vincent McNabb heralded distributism as a practical implementation of Pope Leo XIII’s classic encyclical.

An essential part of distributism was a connection – in fact, a working relationship – with the land. Working the land gives people a stronger sense of place. For a long time, this has also been at the heart of the Church’s approach to evangelization through a parish. A local parish assimilates itself into the culture of the people who live there. It adopts their way of life, illuminating their best qualities, thus becoming inseparable from them.

 Government and economic systems fluctuate and fade away; and meanwhile the land, local communities and family we encounter every day carry on because they are wrought from the blood and soil that make us who we are.

Kilby is a freelance writer for The Monitor, editor of Rambling Spirit magazine, and parishioner in St. Vincent de Paul Parish, Yardville.