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Special section: Family Life

Couples help couples; movement grows again

Special Report Writer
Arlington Heights, Ill.

For most of their early married years, religion and church remained remote realities for Bill and Teri Brandt. “We had each other and we had our freedom,” said Bill, 34, an insurance broker.

“We traveled a lot, we didn’t really get involved in anything much outside of work,” said Teri, 30, a flight attendant. Both had been raised Catholic in the Midwest but drifted away from the church in their college years. They had no special problems with the faith and considered themselves Catholic, but church was not on their schedule.

Then in 1995, after they had moved to Arlington Heights, Ill., a large, bedroom suburb northwest of Chicago, Teri got pregnant for the first time and discovered she was about to become the mother of triplets.

Word spread around the neighborhood and reached Our Lady of the Wayside Parish, where the couple was hardly known. No matter. Suddenly the Brandts were embraced like long-lost relatives by a contingent of parishioners who just wanted to offer support. They were all members of something called the Christian Family Movement, better known as CFM.

“We had heard of it,” said Bill, “but we thought it was some kind of prayer and Bible thing for older people. But these people were all our age!”

For four months before the delivery, Teri needed almost full-time bed rest. Along with the parish nurse, the CFMers dropped in regularly to bring lunch, keep Teri company or chat about how great kids are. It wasn’t until the triplets, John, Jennifer and Joseph, were born in September 1995, however, that the CFMers really made a difference.

“With changing diapers and feeding times, life around here was a whirlwind,” said Teri. “I don’t think we could have survived without their help.”

These relative strangers got involved in all the aspects of baby care, including the messiest. One woman arrived several times a week and took over completely, insisting that Teri take a nap, have a long, hot bath or go for a walk. For four months after the births, a hot meal was delivered to the home every other evening by alternating CFM members from Our Lady of the Wayside.

“Can you believe it?” said Teri -- “salad, entree, desert, sometimes a bottle of wine, a couple of times a seven-course dinner!”

Today the Brandts are active members of the parish, attending the 9:45 family Mass with their children on Sundays. Teri is a eucharistic minister, and both are CFM members involved in the many activities connected with the super-active organization.

The welcoming CFM embrace “changed our lives,” said Bill. “It changed our minds about what Christianity and church are all about.”

Most Catholics over 55 remember the Christian Family Movement as a popular Catholic Action organization for couples back in the 1950s and ’60s that just disappeared.

Well, not quite. At one time CFM claimed more than 150,000 couples worldwide and was a major force in the pre-Vatican II church. For a variety of reasons, it began to shrink after the council (see sidebar), but in some places, as the Brandts discovered, it has not only survived, it’s in robust good health.

At Our Lady of the Wayside, one of the largest parishes in the Chicago archdiocese, 110 families are members of CFM. At St. James, a neighboring parish, also in Arlington Heights, some 75 families are involved. According to the CFM national office, about 2,000 families are currently members in the United States -- which means that close to 10 percent of the national total is in these two parishes in one Midwest suburb.

At Our Lady, the CFM operation has evolved into a self-sustaining, tightly organized, entirely lay-run organization, with 10 groups of couples who meet once a month in members’ homes and follow a set format of see-judge-act “inquiries” produced and published by the national steering committee. All groups meet at the same time on a predetermined Friday night. The leaders convene beforehand for preparation by the chaplain couple, Les and Kathleen Miller.

“We limit our contribution to the scripture reflection,” said Kathleen Miller. “We don’t try to direct groups in their conversations or the actions they decide. That’s up to them.”

In addition, the CFM couples plan six or seven joint activities each year like an evening of reflection, a picnic or a night of bowling.

Much valued is the involvement of some older couples and empty nesters.

“You can learn so much about family spirituality and sensible discipline,” said Kathleen Miller. “You discover things like the fact that good music can give more pleasure than a wide-screen TV.”

“I think CFM proves it takes a village to raise a child,” said Judy Pozdol, a Protestant who, with her husband, Andy, has been a CFM member for 16 years. “It keeps me grounded, gives me a faith perspective on the ordinary things I do every day.”

Each year the makeup of the groups is randomly juggled so individual groups, no matter how compatible, do not become permanent. Rose Marie Duffy, who, with her husband, Robert, has been in CFM groups since 1956, said she believes this innovation in the Our Lady format is one thing that keeps it vital.

“We were in a group in Milwaukee that was ruined by staying together too long,” she said.

All the groups at Our Lady adhere to the traditional format of evaluating situations, making judgments about them in the light of the gospel and then coming up with a specific task or action. But members are careful not to let varying conservative or liberal perspectives dictate activities or disrupt proceedings.

“We get into a little bit of everything,” said Jim McIlwee, who, with his wife, Mary, will be chaircouple of CFM in the coming year -- “AIDS, homosexuality, abortion, women priests, whatever. We’re not trying to reinvent Vatican II.”

Once in awhile, McIlwee added, when he hears a fellow CFMer articulating some pet view he himself agrees with, he is forced to take a second look and reconsider. “You know, it’s like you look in a mirror and don’t like what you see,” he said. “That’s what makes this so stimulating.”

Emphasis on family has pushed CFM into numberless joint projects and individual group ministries. For several years the groups in cooperation have provided food, clothing and household supplies for poor families who temporarily occupy a federally funded transitional apartment in Arlington Heights. They also gather and deliver food every month to a pantry in a black parish on Chicago’s west side, and they collect toys and food during the holiday season for the poor in their own region.

A major ongoing activity is supporting each other and anyone else they encounter (like the Brandts) during experiences of birth, death or other moments of significance, said Sue Szymczak. She and her husband, Jim, were last year’s chaircouple. “You could kind of call us one big extended family,” she explained.

The impact of this outreach on CFM children is an important -- and fully intended -- benefit, said Kathleen Miller. It’s a way to to resist the “materialism and consumerism” of society, she said.

“Like most couples, we’ve always given to charity,” she said. “We wrote out checks. But that means nothing to little children.” Her own two, ages 4 and 8, “had no idea we ever gave anything away,” until they began taking their part in buying food for an inner-city parish or carrying blankets and towels to the single-parent family in the transitional apartment. “They’re getting the idea early on that charity is more than writing checks,” she said.

No one at Our Lady of the Wayside could fully explain why the pre-Vatican II apostolate flourishes here. CFM didn’t even exist in the parish during CFM’s national heyday, said Fr. Vincent Costello, pastor. It was introduced in the mid-1970s under then-pastor John Mackin, just as U.S. membership was declining. Spurred by a coterie of enthusiasts, perhaps still too young to get disillusioned, it caught on and has prospered since.

“We were new in the area and got involved for social reasons,” said Joe Zimmerman, who has been a member with his wife, Sarah, for 11 years.

“The people who sold us our house recommended CFM,” said Jim McIlwee. “I thought it was some kind of right-wing, militant outfit or a bunch of people who spoke in tongues.” He’s since found out “it’s a way to immerse ourselves in the church and community.”

“I think it’s the beer [during the post-meeting socialization] that first gets the guys,” said Andy Pozdol. “Then they find there’s a lot more here than a good time and conversation.”

Though some in the parish may view CFM as an elite group, Andy Pozdol said, it is so deeply rooted now that the vast majority accept it, especially since the members are among the volunteer leaders in most other parish projects.

Mary Lou Gorman, who serves with her husband, Philip, as president couple of the Chicago CFM region, said the Arlington Heights experience demonstrates the validity of the movement even in this postmodern world. “I don’t know of any ministry in the church that can take care of young marrieds today like CFM can,” she said.

National Catholic Reporter, September 4, 1998