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Millennium reunion fo faded movement


Not long ago, my wife Jean and I went to the Kliers for a reunion of a now-defunct parish cell of the Christian Family Movement. It has been some 30 years since Jean and I moved north. About that time, the CFM group at St. Barnabas Parish had begun to fade.

There were a lot of reasons, not just Humanae Vitae in 1968, the so-called birth control encyclical that dried up the hearts of millions of believers. Integration in the upscale neighborhood caused some to relocate lest they lose money on their homes. Home values have actually increased dramatically in that tree-lined neighborhood. For some, their prejudices were stronger than their faith, but most remained in their neighborhood, and the Beverly area was quietly integrated.

Women went to work in much greater numbers and had less time for church concerns. Cars multiplied like rabbits, blurring parish boundaries and giving greater range to searching Catholics. As their children grew and acquired a quality education, largely in Catholic schools, parents no longer felt the need to seek adult conversation outside the home. Finally, CFM was forced to make way for aspects of the “me generation” that clogged spiritual arteries.

Gradually, all but the most focused fell victim to volunteer fatigue. Although CFM groups are still active at St. Barnabas, like the Holy Name Society and the parish bowling team, they gradually became relics of another time.

Some things hadn’t changed. At the reunion, there were enough covered dishes on the table to feed the Romanian Olympic weight-lifting team. But we had all gotten older, and much of the talk had to do with worn and torn body parts -- and that had a lot to do with church involvement, since few of these good Christians had the energy to take on the sometimes-difficult action required of the CFM.

Forty-six showed up for the millennium reunion. At least 11 of the CFMers, who met in five to seven-couple groups -- the basic limit of the living room’s capacity -- had died since the booming ’50s and ’60s, and there were others who just faded into the increasingly mobile population.

CFMers strove to lessen the distance between reality and the gospel ideal. It was no discussion group. Observations were translated into action. It was based on the model developed by Belgian Cardinal Joseph Cardijn: “observe, judge and act.” CFM was practiced family to family.

By any measure, the CFM vaccination took and its social action movement worked. My research was softer than a baby’s bottom, but conversations revealed that some 90 percent were still practicing their faith. About 85 percent of the marriages were still intact -- a much higher rate than perseverance in the priesthood -- and much higher than for other Catholic marriages.

CFM couples appear to have had more children than other Catholic couples, and there were more grandchildren than indulgences at a Vatican audience. Yet, following the release of Humanae Vitae, CFM was targeted as pro-birth control and abortion, even though the latter was never even mentioned.

The Christian Family Movement grew out of a number of Catholic action groups in the Midwest in the 1940s. By 1949, it was a national organization with the late Pat Crowley and his wife, Patty, who would become known as Mr. and Mrs. CFM, as the president couple. It continued to grow until the mid-1960s when its numbers began to wane. It still flourishes in some parishes. St. James, a megaparish in Arlington Heights, Ill., for example, has 121 families involved in a fix-up project for low-income families.

Although one couple was morally certain that all seven of their children were at Mass on Sunday, most regretted that theirs had drifted away. Jack Sullivan thought that the number of offspring at Mass each Sunday might be as low as 10 percent. “But they’re really good kids,” Sullivan said. CFMers had given their children roots. Now, they gave them wings.

At least one family was praying fervently to St. Monica in the hope that their children would imitate St. Augustine and return to active practice. They had even baptized their own grandchildren and their kids were not upset. Most of those I talked with seemed to believe that the deposit of faith was up there in the attic and that their kids would go up and claim it someday.

Luckily, someone had made copies of the CFM prayer -- not a long one, but after 30 years, only fragments could be found in our brains. We prayed through our bifocals.

For the rest, we talked families, politics and church. Social action wasn’t a thing of the past. There was a basket there, appealing for a few bucks to cover what the casseroles didn’t. The excess money went to help the local community.

CFM has gone international and has promoted other movements, especially Cana Conferences and Marriage Encounter. They were proud of that, but they had done their work and now would be pleased if the institutional church just installed rockers.

They now held onto the church with a much longer leash. Now, for most, their church kind of ends at the curb in their parish. There was little interest in episcopal or papal pronouncements that seem to be aimed at rolling the stone back over the door of the tomb so that Jesus could not get out. But, if he does, the Christian Family Movement alumni will be there with a casserole and a social action plan.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he carves reproductions of Aaron’s rod. Contact him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, November 3, 2000