“Dear families, always live in faith and simplicity, like the Holy Family of Nazareth!” ~ Pope Francis

There’s nothing better than pulling into a restaurant for a buffet breakfast after eight hours of a 12-hour-drive with four adults and 11 children on the first day of vacation.

We would pile out of our nine-passenger station wagon and an old van with no air conditioning and make ourselves comfy in the back corner of the restaurant where anxious wait staff would hope to corral us. By the time we left, we had made friends and fans of our motley crew — a gang of youngsters from toddlers to teens who were so happy to be spending time together.

Our family vacations with our six sons and our closest friends and their five children stand out among our most treasured memories. The experience was always a gift, not because of the places we visited or the things we did but because of something Pope Francis described in his homily for Family Day during the Year of Faith:

“True joy comes from a profound harmony between persons, something which we all feel in our hearts and which makes us experience the beauty of togetherness, of mutual support along life’s journey. But the basis of this feeling of deep joy is the presence of God, the presence of God in the family and his love, which is welcoming, merciful and respectful towards all. And above all, a love which is patient. …”

Looking back, I am able to see how the faith with which our families were raised filled every day, most importantly in how we treated one another and those around us. Our prayers were not just a brief grace before meals but a powerful sense of gratitude for an abundance of God’s blessings, a gratitude, which permeates, to this day, our decisions and actions and treatment of others.

Our worship was not just in the local Catholic church which we searched out at the beginning of our trip, but in the wonder and awe and respect which marked our journey along camping trails and sandy beaches, down busy island roads and in moments of serene simplicity, roasting marshmallows over an open fire or making up new rules for mini-golf.

This is not to say we were without our challenges. Our faith in God and reliance on God for our strength was tested as we outran the blackest of storms and multiple tornadoes on our cross-country road trip; when we returned home at night after a day of sightseeing in Montana to find our camp sight destroyed by a hail storm; when we were evacuated from the Outer Banks only two days into our vacation because of a quickly evolving hurricane.

The days of dual family road trips are likely over, but the joy goes on, built on the three elements of Christian family life noted by Pope Francis:

The family prays: prayer that is authentic, humble, recognizing a need for God’s mercy and forgiveness.

The family keeps the faith: keeping it by giving it away, by being missionary families in everyday life.

The family experiences joy: the joy that comes from a “profound harmony of persons.”

Pope Francis reminds us, “God alone knows how to create harmony from differences. But if God’s love is lacking, the family loses its harmony, self-centeredness prevails and joy fades. But the family which experiences the joy of faith communicates it naturally. That family is the salt of the earth and the light of the world, it is the leaven of society as a whole.”