e- mail us

Special section: Family Life

Today’s family sets sail on stormy social waters, but the church can help

NCR Staff

Today’s Catholic families are being battered by modern society’s successive waves of trivial values and violence, insidious materialist preoccupations and blatant sex-as-a-social pastime ethos, vacuous media and vulgar language, and the national emphasis on the individual over family and community.

But just when families are most in danger of drowning, help is finally at hand.

The slow-but-steady U.S.S. Church has lately been throwing life preservers labeled “Family Friendly” to American parishes. Urged on by examples from family ministers and bishops, youth ministers and publishers, program developers and parish teams, the church as an entity has geared up for action.

“Life is tougher for families than 20 years ago,” says Winnie Honeywell, family life director for the Galveston-Houston diocese. “The context is so much more pressured and stressful. So many competing forces.

“The Internet is a scary, scary thing for parents. I could name names and tell tales of good, solid families having a terrifically hard time with preteens because of the Internet,” Honeywell said.

American families can no longer count on the social supports that once existed. Children come home to empty houses on empty streets where once, even when mothers worked outside the home, there were relatives and neighbors nearby. On top of this today are the tremendous pressures of the workplace. It is an enormously difficult struggle.

To gain a sense of how well Catholic parishes are doing in helping families cope, NCR talked to concerned and involved Catholics around the country, seeking out clues to the best that is going on.

Look at today’s Catholics, says pollster George Gallup, “and you’re looking at America.” Ask today’s Catholic families what they most want -- as the Christian Family Movement recently did -- and they reply “time.”

That’s Honeywell’s take, too. “Families today all need time,” she said. “It’s always at the top of the list -- more so than money. Time for family relationships, time for marriage relationships.”

To help with time management, she says, parishes ought to be asking Catholic families, “Are these the programs you need?” Good parishes, she said, try to make their programs “family friendly.” Because time is so precious, Catholic families have to create church in their home, racing against the clock.

There are forces working against this effort. Msgr. Arturo Banuelas of St. Pius X Parish in El Paso, Texas, explained, “Families are struggling because of globalization, which competes with gospel values. Globalization is telling families they need to be much more upwardly mobile. So the people are struggling, trying to keep the family together while society wants them to compartmentalize.”

Meanwhile, from a Hispanic perspective, he said, the Hispanic family has found in the church “a place of tremendous support that complements the home training in terms of their Catholic traditions and values, of seeing life as sacred, seeing the values in everyday relationships, in extended family relationships.”

“It’s why,” he said, “even though we’re on the border, we still have a somewhat lower rate of gangs than elsewhere. The church is a strong supporter of families.”

In the Catholic lexicon, “family life and ministry” includes young singles, like those at St. Jude Church, Boca Raton, Fla., who now have their own parish directory (the better to recognize and get to know one another). Family life and ministry includes young adult parents, said Paul Mach, youth and young adult minister at Holy Rosary Church, Redmond, Wash.

It includes toddlers in the Young Family Program at St. Joseph’s Parish, Manistee, Mich., the parish lending library at St. George’s Parish in Worcester, Mass., and programs for divorced and separated persons in many parishes.

Family life and ministry includes the elderly in Holy Family Parish in South Pasadena, Calif., which has a full-time gerontologist on staff. They, too, are welcomed and drawn together to ensure that the Catholic parish is intergenerational. It means the pregnant mom or the one who has had a miscarriage being visited by the “Elizabeth Ministers” of St. Cecilia’s Parish in Houston.

The social pressures on young families seem to worsen by the decade.

In the nuclear family, says Honeywell, a major stress for parents is that everything is competing for their children -- the media, school, church, sports, the computer. Compared to many other religious groups, the Catholic church is late into the fray.

Said Diana Gaillardetz, family life minister in St. Cecilia’s Parish -- one of only two parishes in the Galveston-Houston diocese with full-time family life ministers -- “I was not raised Catholic but in several Protestant denominations. I get frustrated because when I was a child many of these ‘new’ programs were already being offered by the Protestant churches.

“That’s how far behind we are as church,” she said, “though we’re going in the right direction.”

Learning from others

John Roberto of the Center for Ministry Development in Naugatuck, Conn., said, “The Protestant megachurches have responded to the needs. The Catholic church has a good track record. It just hasn’t been widespread.”

Increasingly, however, it is spreading widely indeed.

Catholics aren’t hesitant to learn from the rest -- the singles directory in St. Jude’s, Boca Raton, was an idea adopted from the synagogue down the road, said Fr. Mike Driscoll, the pastor.

The Catholic movement toward family gained its first major impetus from the top in 1979. That’s when the bishops issued a “Pastoral Plan for Family Ministry,” one of the 10 major topics of the Call to Action -- the 1976 U.S. bishops’ national “town meeting” -- explained Rick McCord, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat on the Family, Laity, Women and Youth.

With their plan, “The bishops for the first time took account of the vastness and complexity of family life in developmental terms,” said McCord. “They saw ministry to family as various life cycles and life stages, not as a generic lump.”

The 21st-century American Catholic family will be a multicultural, multiethnic congregation of the faithful. Its trials, tribulations and temptations mirror the difficulties of the U.S. family at large.

Catholic and other Christian churches, synagogues and mosques, facing a rising river of meaningless materialistic values and empty, insidious, sometimes evil forces, are desperately attempting to reinforce the levies with sandbags of support, love, morality, meaning, community and -- most difficult of all to sell in an affluent society -- sacrifice.

Dip into most dioceses and you come up with a variety of programs -- and much variation in what constitutes family.

As Burlington, Vt., diocesan family life director Ruth Charlesworth explains, it’s “the traditional family and the single family, single parents and single people -- more than in the past people are choosing not to marry or find no one. Or there is the mother and daughter living together after Father died, or fathers raising children, or aged brothers and sisters living after maybe a spouse died.”

“They’re all considered family and they’re all looking toward the parish for help and guidance,” she said. Parishes are deciding what they need through their parish councils, said Charlesworth, and the diocese responds, “with marriage prep and marriage enrichment, and Retrouvaille [a program for troubled marriages]; with parish workshops for single/blended families, trying to provide ways and skills to bring children into new relationships from previous relationships.”

For the 21- to 40-year-old unmarrieds, there’s Vermont Catholic Singles --“Some marriages come out of that,” Charlesworth said. “The singles are active in the community teaching religious ed. and mentoring, taking on big brother and big sister roles.”

Giving parents a break

“Family friendly” at St. Joseph’s Parish in Manistee, Mich., means giving parents a break. Director of religious formation Shirley Skiera gets the word out with colorful Good Newsletters that particularly highlight the Young Family Program after Sunday Mass, lunch provided.

“We keep telling the parents, ‘It’s fun for you, not just the kids.’ ” To prove it, there are simultaneous programs for children of various ages: nursery care (newborn to 2), sessions for children from kindergarten through third grade, and supervised activities at the Catholic Teen Center for children in fourth grade and above.

Parents, meanwhile, are having sessions on “prayer, or on death and dying. One day grandma’s going to die, what are you going to do? Or we bring in speakers to talk about what to do when kids are driving you crazy,” said Skiera.

Gaillardetz, family life minister at St. Cecilia’s, Houston, understands young families’ struggles. She and her husband, Rick, are employed outside the home while raising their four sons, 7-year-old twins, Andrew and David, Brian, 4, and Gregory, 2.

In parish programs, she said, “We say we’re rooted in a faith that balances character and values -- values that are contrary to what is taught and what the children see in society, consumerism. We say there is no break between life and spirituality, and we want that to be the core.”

“That’s what we try to do in our home,” she said, “but as both working parents it’s hard to influence. We try a lot of rituals and traditions based on the liturgical cycle -- little children things -- and try to do it in a way not just importing what’s being done in the church, but more truly family.”

Instead of having an Advent wreath, which the church does, they have a creche. Each time one of the boys does something good for a member of the family, or another, they add another little piece of paper to the creche to make it softer for the baby.

The dynamic in the parish, said Gaillardetz, has to do with letting parents see the compassionate face of the church. “Then they’re going to start to feel a connection, and once the connection’s made there’s more of a community.”

“St. Cecelia’s is moving toward small Christian communities by entering into Renew 2000,” he said. “For parishes like mine -- and there are larger parishes -- it’s a community of strangers.” So the move is to more closely integrate the parishioners in by bringing them together in small groups in the homes once a month and, using the church or secular calendar “highlight gatherings with meals, games, a little catechesis and prayer.”

Unless “we find ways to help them feel included,” said Gaillardetz, “they’re going to come to Mass on Sunday but with no real heart to it. We stress that we’re not teaching anything new,” she said, “nothing elaborate, just all learning to see God in life’s ordinary experiences.”

The word is getting around that Catholics are getting better at “family friendly” outreach. Parishes are polishing their skills at helping families help themselves and their children.

Society’s harmful waves are still buffeting, but parishes and families increasingly have the tools at hand to withstand the onslaught. The big plus, of course, is that life preservers turn into soul preservers.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998