The ritual of the family meal goes a long way in keeping families closer and its youth out of trouble, studies show. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

The Last Supper and the ritual of family meals

By 
  • April 3, 2015

During Holy Week, Catholics are called to reflect on the Last Supper, when the apostles came together like a family to break bread with Jesus for the final time. It was from that simple meal, with bread at its centre, that Christ gave mankind the Eucharist.

“Bread is an absolutely fundamental food stuff. Bread is an absolute staple of life,” said Christian McConnelly, director of basic degree programs at Toronto’s University of St. Michael’s College.

“Jesus takes an existing meal practice and imbues it with new meaning by the way He celebrates it. He takes this absolutely fundamental sustaining thing and He intertwines it with His reality. If you look at the entirety of the Last Supper narrative it is about Jesus’ own death and resurrection.

“This meals becomes how the participants unite themselves with Jesus.”

From this ritual meal, the Church was born.

“Ritual practices often create the social group,” said McConnelly. “They actually form the bonds between the members of the groups and create the reality of who is in the group and who is not in the group, and also establish the relationships.

“That applies to the Church as it does to any social group. Without some sort of ritual and symbolic means for a group to come into existence, then there just isn’t one. We’d be left in an individualistic kind of existence.”

The family unit is one such social group. Regardless of cultural background, families have gathered at the supper table throughout the ages. But it is a practice in decline, particularly in Western society. Andrea Mrozek, executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, would like to see a comeback of the family ritual of gathering together for a meal.

“You have to be very deliberate and intentional in creating the family time,” she said. “That is important, but that is something that is on the decline. Family meals are falling by the way side.”

There is evidence that a family that eats together, stays together. According to Statistics Canada, in 2008 there were more than 400 divorces for every 1,000 marriages. That’s up five per cent from a decade earlier. Divorce rates are on the rise as family mealtime is in decline.

Coincidence? Mrozek doesn’t attribute high divorce rates solely to declining family mealtime, but there seems to be some connection, she said.

“The general trends in society are towards pulling apart the family,” she said. “Families need to fight to maintain the togetherness.

“There is research available to prove what common sense already says is true — that a family dinner hour is conducive to good outcomes for your family.”

Among that research, Mrozek pointed to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, as well as a study in Child Development.

“In general, family meals are thought to present an opportunity space to promote the healthy development of children,” wrote Kelly Musick and Ann Meier in their research paper published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

“Family meals comprise both ritual (symbolic) and routine (activity) elements, each of which may be instruments to a child’s positive development outcomes. Routine and ritual practices can act as markers for healthy family functioning; respectively, they are indicative of greater organization and a greater sense of belonging and closeness for children.”  

Both studies made correlations between increased family mealtimes and reductions in substance abuse, delinquency and mental illness.

“Sixth- to 12th-grade students who ate 5-7 family dinners per week had significant lower odds of engaging in a number of high-risk behaviour patterns such as alcohol, drugs and tobacco use, depression-suicide, violence, antisocial behaviour and school problems compared to those who typically ate 0-1 (family) dinners,” noted the authors.

Mrozek said family mealtime provides parents with an opportunity to teach basic manners and healthy living.

“The idea of separate dinners on-the-go often doesn’t convey what it means to, for example, wait for everybody to be present,” she said. “It doesn’t allow for the ongoing correction of little kids, the kind of things that happen when you get together.”

In addition to learning the fundamentals of good manners and conversation, the family meal offers a unique opportunity for the faithful. Like Jesus and the apostles at the Last Supper, family meals can be a time of prayer.

“If you are a Christian family then it is also a time to instil your values, pray together before the meal; all that kind of good stuff,” Mrozek said.

“That is part of what is important with the family dinner hour. Look at the type of family that creates that space — they are obviously choosing to prioritize family time in a society that is very scheduled and busy.”

The Family Dinner Project is trying to put mealtime back into the centre of family life. A non-profit organization operating out of Harvard University, it draws on 15 years of research to “confirm what parents have known for a long time” — that sharing a meal together is important.

“Most American families are starved for time to spend together, and dinner may be the only time of the day when we can reconnect, leaving behind our individual pursuits like playing video games, e-mailing and doing work,” wrote Anne Fishel, the brain behind The Family Dinner Project.

“Dinner is a time to relax, recharge, laugh, tell stories and catch up on the day’s ups and downs, while developing a sense of who we are as a family. Sharing a meal is good for the spirit, the brain and the health of all family members.”

McConnelly says eating a meal together is a core element of being part of something universal, of being Catholic.

“There are a lot of aspects of culture of human existence that are not necessarily universal,” said the theologian. “Some cultures do some things, some cultures do other things, but everybody eats.

“There are other things that you could do and that cultures do do, but they are not as fundamental as food, because food by definition is universal to human existence. It is something that human beings can do together; it is fundamental to human experience.”

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