Is your parish a good friend of the family?

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Article Marriage and Family Parish Life

When I wrote a column several years ago about our church's silence on wife and child abuse, I was stunned at the number of letters I received from ordinary faithful Catholics living in abusive families. One short letter summed up the many:

"My husband abuses us physically and verbally all week long, but is considered a pillar of the parish because he ushers, counts money, and receives Communion every Sunday. We've heard dozens of sermons on volunteering in the parish but not one on abuse as a sin. Does the church ever think of what the family's like outside the pew?"

Oh, yes, the church does, but many parishes do not. In these parishes, family needs and behaviors are judged by the quality of family participation in the parish. In other more family-friendly parishes, the emphasis is on the impact of the parish on the family. And it makes a huge difference in how families view both parish and God.

Ask a rhetorical question, "Does your parish support families?," and you'll get a rhetorical yes. Of course, the parish supports families. Ask the school parents, the childless couples, the retired, the elderly, the youth, the day-care parents, the handicapped, the gays, the family caregivers, and the pastoral staff, and they'll all answer with a resounding yes. Ask the singles out there in the pew, and they will tell you that's all the parish supports.

But ask the various parish groupings exactly how the parish supports families and you'll get the same rationale with opposing emotions. School parents and educational staff point to the school and the amount of resources devoted to religious education. The pastoral staff cites the number of marriages, Baptisms, First Communions, Confirmations, sick calls, and burials, as well as the number of children enrolled in religious education. Pride is their prevailing emotion.

While the remaining parish groups point to the same allocation of resources, resignation and even bitterness predominate. "Everything goes to the children. There's nothing left for us," parish groups say.

Or, "Why can't we have decent youth and young-adult ministry?" Or, as the parents of an unwed pregnant teenager say, "Our parish is so proud of its support to families, but there wasn't any help for us when we needed it." Or, the common wail of lifelong singles, "We aren't considered family. What's a family, anyway?"

That's the first problem, the one that splits both the nation and the church politically. Our church has traditionally defined families as those supporting the parish financially and therefore entitled to the sacraments and as those validly married couples with school-aged children. In other words, pastoral training on families dwelled on sacramental and educational ministries, and that was about it. Little attention was paid to pastoral counseling, singles, elderly, divorced, or other dimensions of family life in the first 80 years of this century's seminary curricula.

 Since the majority of clergy were trained during those years and have rarely updated themselves to meet the needs of very different families today, they are bewildered at the call for multiple parish ministries. Many clergy became indignant when asked by diocesan authorities to outline their pastoral response to "A Family Perspective in Church and Society: A Manual for All Pastoral Leaders," issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1987.

This document calls for a much broader definition of the family-friendly parish. It defines every person in (and even out of) the pew as family with family needs and family gifts, not just the traditional perspective of family as two parents with school-aged children. It poses uncomfortable questions like, How does your parish impede healthy family life? Ouch. Who wants to dabble in that?

Yet that is what the typical parish unintentionally achieves when it splits family activities into segments for children, women, men, and teens. More than one time-starved family has wailed over its inability to be together because of the many parish activities. We also impede when we impose our religious behavior on cultures unlike our own and ignore or demean those that are meaningful to parishioners.

Maybe we who serve as staff and programmers find the hoopla surrounding the Saint Joseph altars (Italian), the quinci§eras (Hispanic), and the various traveling statues theologically questionable and needlessly time-consuming, but if they touch the souls of individuals in the pew, who are we to criticize the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in religious experience unlike our own?

An excellent television documentary aired recently on a sect of Irish Catholic travelers, or tinkers, resettled a century ago in South Carolina. Much like the Amish, they have retained both a strong religious core and generally obsolete practices like arranged

marriages. Divorce is virtually unknown and families put a high priority on brothers and sisters in one family marrying brothers and sisters in another.

As I watched it, I both envied and decried the group's religious behavior. Clearly, however, their brand of Catholicism gives deep and enduring meaning to the lives of this sect. I cheered inwardly when the pastor, not a member of the group, said, "I stay out of their way. I try not to do them any harm." A humble but wise technique in pastoring a flock where the leader is an outsider.

Differing cultural practices aside, the most fundamental understanding of a family ministry perspective centers on where the fruits of our ministry are eventually borne out. Most of our efforts to strengthen family life are judged by the behavior of individuals outside the home, usually in a church environment, while the needs and problems exist within the home. If parenting classes, family retreats, and homilies fail to produce improved behavior in the home, we have failed, regardless of a recharged enthusiasm in the pew. Longtimers in the field know that the fruits of good family ministry will not be borne out in front of us. We will never know how many marriages we have held together or how many children we've kept from being beaten. Effective family ministers learn to accept that they have to live on trust, not certifiable results.

Family support or family ministry beyond sacramental and educational ministry is barely 20 years old in our church. The initial "Plan of Pastoral Action for Family Ministry: A Vision and Strategy" was issued by the bishops in 1978 after hearing from thousands of Catholics in a widespread 1976 survey.

Respondents bewailed the lack of parish interest and support in other stages and areas of family life: divorce, alcoholism, interchurch marriage, day care, blended family, elderly, singlehood, miscarriage, depression, respite care, domestic violence, chronic illness, unemployment, parenting education, teen-parent relationships, family spirituality, media impact on morals, changing roles of women, working mothers, drug addiction, and marriage revitalization.

"Vocations and abortion-you'd think those are the only two issues in our church," one wrote at the bottom of the survey. If true, we haven't had spectacular success in dealing with either. I'd like to think that if we really fleshed out family ministry as the bishops envisioned 20 years ago, healthier families in the pew would have addressed those and other issues more effectively than we have.

Whatever happened, it is clear that the fastest-growing churches in the U.S. are those with the most comprehensive family supports. Some in fact resemble a combined human services agency and community center with a spiritual foundation.

When I mentioned this to a group of Catholic clergy, however, I sensed begrudging acceptance of the idea that we should get involved in what one called the "minutiae of daily family life." Another asked derisively if we were trying to out-Mormon the Mormons. This reaction did not surprise me. In attempting to project a broader perspective of family in our church, we've found the bottleneck is often at the top.

Overworked and under-affirmed aging celibate clergy feel overwhelmed by the needs in today's families, and it's easier to suggest we just model ourselves on the Holy Family-a celibate marriage, a God-filled child, and a submissive wife.

Lest reading laity become overly comfortable in my laying blame for inaction at clerical feet, I agree strongly with clergy who point with frustration at the pew-where resistance to change is manifest, where acceptance of any but the traditional family as worthy is rejected, and where laity may call for ministry but refuse to furnish it, even in the areas where they are most qualified. "They're better at moving their mouths than their feet," a pastor said after no volunteers came forward to give respite to caregivers of the elderly and chronically ill in his large parish.

A few years ago when I was asked to address the combined family ministry directors and volunteers in all the dioceses of Wisconsin, I asked the planners to survey attendees on the issues they wished addressed at the conference. Here are their questions:

  • What shifts in family call for changing ministry in the parish?
  • What can we do if our diocese isn't ready to respond to the National Council of Catholic Bishops' documents? (For example, in 1992 the NCCB issued an excellent booklet, When I Call for Help: A Pastoral Response to Domestic Violence against Women, to be distributed to Catholic families nationwide, but most Catholics remain unaware of it.)
  • How do we make Catholics aware that the parish and its families both need to be heard?
  • How do we create honest dialogue between families and parishes?
  • How do we get our people and our clergy to accept nonconformist families (cohabiting couples, addicted families, homosexual families, families of abortion) as worthy?
  • How do we fight inertia and resistance in both pew and pulpit?

A formidable agenda but clearly these were folk-some of whom had worked in family ministry since the early '80s-who recognized the futility of setting up programs and ministries before the ground is prepared in the parish and without support from either the pew or the pulpit.

They realized that, in spite of several excellent documents calling for family support in the parish, only 48 percent of our parishes have anything resembling family support. They acknowledged ruefully that they were often hired to pay lip service to the national episcopal call, but that their bishop and most of the clergy obstructed their efforts in achieving anything practical.

They knew deep in their souls that you can't have family values without family support. In spite of these realities, they were heroically dedicated because they were committed to the vision of the parish as the primary support system of families.

I find such people and supports in the most surprising places: a families-with-cancer support group in a small Mississippi parish, for example. It's based on the idea that when an individual is diagnosed with cancer, the whole family suffers. And that the best support is other families who have experienced life with cancer. How did it begin? When the pastor asked a couple of cancer-experienced families to be available to a family with a member who was recently diagnosed with cancer. Since cancer seems unremitting in our midst, the group simply remains intact to be there for others. They don't hold weekly meetings, have officers, pay dues, or take minutes. They just act when there's a need.

Similar support groups exist in parishes all over the country. A smattering include those individuals or families who experience unwed motherhood, abortion, depression, drug-addicted children, abuse, unemployment, miscarriage, and other circumstances. I found an intriguing one in Colorado: a support group for the traditionalist-renewalist Catholic marriage. It consists of just a few renewalist spouses who find religion divisive and depressing in their marriage instead of healing and spiritual. "We call ourselves 'Help?Mate,'" one spouse quips. "We get together and pray when we want to scream. It helps to know we aren't alone. Our spouses have their group, too, only they call it the Tridentine Church."

Psychologists tell us that only 40 percent of us are abstract thinkers. The rest of us think concretely-that is, we cannot envision what doesn't already exist. This means all change must emanate from this 40 percent. The bad news is that the 60 percent of concrete thinkers will reject an idea on the basis that it hasn't been tried. These are the ones who subscribe to those Seven Last Words of the Church: "We've never done it that way before."

But the good news is that once something new is put into action, the other 60 percent are then able to envision and, perhaps, endorse it. So, if we want to broaden our family support beyond education, sacraments, and a hand-wringing call for a return to family values, we first have to put support systems into place. We can't just discuss them ad nauseam.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said, "A mind stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimension." Sociologists estimate that it takes 35 years for a new idea to take hold from inception to acceptance. If true, we're heading toward the day in which the bishops' vision of family ministry will begin to bloom in parishes. Oh, happy day. But we can't just sit and wait for the 35 years to end. That's not the way change works.

I've offered a little self-test on how supportive your parish is to family ministry. I offer no scores or grades, just an opportunity to examine your awareness of what your parish does and does not offer. Often there is help beyond simply "going to Father," but parishioners aren't aware of this help until they need it. If this is the case in your parish, perhaps you need to take the initiative in publicizing available support in the weekly bulletin or monthly newsletter. Family ministers say that when they print the phone number of support groups, they always get calls from parishioners who had no idea support existed for them.

While no single parish can offer all of the supports I list, the reality remains that most parishes offer few and some none. Parishes who care about the lives of individuals outside of Mass, meetings, and school broadcast that message by offering information on how families can find the help they need, even if the parish itself is not furnishing it. Every parish doesn't have to offer everything. It just needs to make people in need aware of what's available in the diocese, other churches, and the wider community.

It would be foolish, for example, for a parish to offer its own AA or Al-Anon groups if there are already several available in the area. This parish might better devote its resources to developing a support group for those suffering from depression and those who care about them.

Parishes who care have bulletins filled with phone numbers of individuals and groups who can help. These parishes are announcing loud and clear, "We care. We care beyond the wedding to the quality of your marriage and beyond Baptism to the quality of your parenting. We care about those of you struggling with 'shameful' situations. Like God's, our love is unconditional. We welcome you and want to help you in your struggle to achieve a meaningful and peace-filled life even if you don't fit the image of the Holy Family." Oh, to be blessed with such a parish. 


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