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Special section: Family Life

Lemay’s family-friendly parish goes slowly

NCR Staff

Sunday morning Mass. The pastor kneels before the altar, stands, turns and looks at the congregation in an ordinary, middle-class parish. What does he see? A mix of faith, hope and anxiety.

The sensible pastor knows that despite the urgency, helping a faith community combat the detrimental aspects of a culture is accomplished only slowly.

Which is why, at Most Precious Blood Parish in Lemay, Mo., after five years of nonstop process and experimentation, Fr. Patrick Ryan takes heart from small signals from this 735-family parish, where about a third of the families are blended families.

One good sign is that the number of little kids marching off at Mass for their own Liturgy of the Word has trebled to about 60.

“I think the young families are beginning to see there is a family spirituality,” said Ryan.

The neighborhood, in a suburb south of St. Louis, is changing. The initial residents, the grandparent generation, are retiring, dying or in nursing homes. Younger families are moving in.

Ryan said the parish staff tries to give young families “things to do at home. We bring in programs, this fall -- in conjunction with the parish faculty -- there’s one on discipline.”

But while Ryan worries about the younger families, he knows they can’t be rushed.

“They are very influenced by the culture,” he said. “The economy in particular determines a lot of their lives. Work is the biggest influence and consumerism. They evaluate whether they are even successful parents by how much they and the family consume and by what they provide for their kids. And I’m not sure that that’s healthy.”

To help create a healthier perspective, the parish has experimented with ideas stemming from the U.S. bishops’ “Family Perspectives” letter, the goal of which was to ensure that “all parish programs are family sensitive.”

At Most Precious Blood Parish they’ve tried:

  • Workshops after Sunday Mass for age-specific groups;
  • A Mass-based program with follow-up things to do at home; and
  • Parish missions, family-style.

Of the missions, Ryan said, “We had various age groups, seniors, young adults: 18-35-year-olds in one, teens in another, junior high in another, primary in another -- plus baby-sitting. We brought in specific speakers from around the metro area to do the mission every night of the week and then we all came together for a ritual conclusion.”

The work goes on, sometimes hammer in hand. Parishioners are rehabbing two houses for immigrant families. A less tangible but no less important project is also underway -- opening communication across generations.

“The older people’s memories are invaluable,” said Ryan. “The values they’re trying to pass on to their grandchildren are real to these younger families,” he said.

Families need to recover a sense of being the church at home, Ryan said. “The challenge comes in making meaning -- challenging and directing people to [discern] where God is revealing himself in their lives, to finding the meaning in their families.”

That’s an abstract idea, but it can lead to some very concrete steps. For example, families in the parish are using red plates to mark special occasions -- everything from celebrating retirement to a good test grade or a raise at work. Whoever is being honored has a red celebration plate at the family dinner that night.

“Everyone knows a particular person is being honored at this particular meal,” said Ryan.

(The celebration plate idea is widespread. In Houston’s St. Cecelia’s Parish recently there was one at the Diana and Rick Gaillardetz house for the son who was moving on from pull-ups to big-boy underpants.)

Ryan said the parish gathers its ideas from many sources, including Family Works by John Roberto of the Center for Ministry Development, “a monumental work, a 1,000-page manual. Indispensable,” Ryan said.

The desire of families to meet the needs of others nudged the parish toward social justice efforts, mainly through some hunger-awareness meals.

“Compared to 25 years ago and couples then,” Ryan said, “today’s couples are more conscious of their own needs and operate primarily on that basis. I don’t think they’re as aware of other people as the older generation was.”

Inevitably, putting “family” and “values” into the same sentence steers a conversation into questions of morality. But Ryan said that the parish has tried to low-key any sense of moral judgment, exposing people to what’s good rather than haranguing them about what’s bad.

“We didn’t really want to get into the moral questions until we looked first at lifestyle questions. Our goal became just getting them to pay attention to the lifestyle question, to try to understand it,” he said, “not to try to judge what’s right or wrong about it yet, but just to try to understand what’s happening to you, and some of the implications of that for the family.

“We thought,” said Ryan, “if we could spend a sufficient period of time to get them to pay attention and understand, then we could try to eventually get to a judgment on what is right or wrong or growth-producing. I don’t think most people reflect.”

At Most Precious Blood Parish they also connect.

There’s a parish school. Each Thanksgiving Day after Mass there’s a breakfast for graduates in town for the holiday. Some 50 to 60 graduates turn up to reconnect and look at their grade school pictures. The parish maintains contact through parents. Graduates receive a letter at Christmas.

“It’s a lot of work, but I don’t do it all,” said Ryan. “There’s our [director of religious education], Most Precious Blood Sr. Rose Dobleman, principal Roseanne Burgoon, the Heines (Ardell and Jean) in the grandparent generation, and Sharon and Jeff Gambaro.”

The Gambaros may be the ultimate returnees. Sharon grew up in the parish and attended the school. The couple now lives in her late grandparents’ home with their children, Colin, 7, and Emma, 3.

They’re a Catholic educated couple (“until graduate school,” said Sharon). Both are employed, and they became involved in parish when they realized what a tremendous “connection” gap existed for young families after their children’s baptisms.

“Until they start school,” said Sharon Gambaro, “there’s nothing to particularly to tie you to the parish.”

They’ve worked to change that. First by enrolling in the archdiocese’s three-year Catholic Leadership Development program, which they’re just finishing, and next by involving themselves in the Perspectives Program.

They do a workshop on enriching family relationships. “Jeff and I tell them, ‘Gee, we’re not experts.’ We open workshops with that. ‘We have an interest in learning and a willingness to share and facilitate discussion and we’re coming up from among you.’ ”

The Gambaros -- she’s in communications; he’s a research chemist -- are cradle Catholics. They know what makes neighborhood and community work. The benefit of intergenerational gatherings, she said, “is that younger couples are hearing and learning from people who’ve raised one generation and are very interested in the welfare of the next. They gain reassurance in these conversations.”

“The grandparent generation is responsible for practically everything that’s happening in this parish. Without them we couldn’t have the school,” said Sharon Gambaro, “and their ongoing willingness is a model for all of us. A model for when we’re grandparents -- still caring about the education and faith of a younger generation.”

For Ryan at the altar, looking out and seeing that white and silver hair sprinkled around the congregation, it’s a reassuring resource.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998