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Family Life

Families seek the spirit


The nature of modern American culture makes it a challenge to raise children in the Catholic faith and hold together a sacramental marriage.

“It’s a lot of work,” said Mary Mulcaire-Jones, mother of six, in Butte, Mont. “But I’m really trying to raise my kids so they can be in the world, but not of the world.”

One challenge is the go-go-go mentality of modern society. As soon as children are potty-trained, parents feel pressure to get them busy. There’s preschool, sports, dance, music and art classes. Choices and expectations only increase with the age of the child.

The culture pulls adults in many directions, too. Besides long hours of work on the job and in the home, parents enjoy a fascinating array of leisure activities: the latest books and movies, TV, sports, concerts, restaurants, exercise, volunteer work, even church committees. None of these are bad things, but the expectation that our time and energy should somehow expand to fit our opportunities makes it hard to say no. Many Americans end up with little time or energy to reflect on spiritual issues.

Beverly Grigware, mother of three young daughters in Parker, Colo., said religious education becomes just one more thing on the list of things to do. “Maybe it should be more important than the other things on the list, and so far I’ve resisted lots of activities,” she said. “My daughters would be really thrilled if I signed them up for gymnastics, but of the Religious Ed class they’re just ‘yeah, whatever.’ That’s not what all their friends are doing.”

Hunger for connection

A mothers’ support group at Ave Maria Catholic Church helped Grigware feel part of a community. Huge suburban parishes sometimes feel impersonal, and the mobility of modern families often prevents people from having deep roots in a faith community. Young mothers, short on sleep and long on stress, hunger for meaningful connection. Simply recognizing a few other women’s faces at Mass makes a difference for Grigware.

Another front in the countercultural battle facing Catholic parents is the focus on consumption, material wealth and individual interests rather than community.

“You can go down the whole list -- you are what you look like, what you wear, what you do -- the assault on children in terms of forming their identity and relating to others on a material level is immense,” said Mulcaire-Jones. She put limits on video games and restrictions on movies, a difficult job as children navigate the teenage years.

“We talk about the entertainment culture and how it’s very passive. Some of my daughter’s friends go to the movies every Friday night regardless of what’s playing, so I’m trying to counter that, give them something more appealing,” said Mulcaire-Jones. “I’m trying to provide a community for my family.”

The Mulcaire-Joneses gather with other Catholic families for activities like sledding, potluck dinners, games and prayer. “That’s been very important for my kids, to see that there are other kids out there, and their families are weird like our family,” she said.

Support systems like this are crucial because many parents say they don’t get the backup they need from their local parish or the larger church. Vision and practical help for nurturing family spirituality differ, sometimes widely, depending on the parish, priest and diocese.

Some parishes are trying innovative ways to reach out to families, like St. Thomas More in Inglewood, Colo. Before and after each Mass, volunteers staff an information booth in the back of the church. It offers a convenient way for parishioners to ask questions and get plugged into programs.

In general, the focus of parish life tends to be on Sunday liturgy and sacramental preparation. But parents struggling day to day amid the demands of modern life want more.

Though rich with ritual, music, symbol and story, the Eucharist is often endured rather than celebrated by families. One mother who asked not to be identified described what many parents experience.

“It depends on the parish, but almost anywhere you go there’s this attitude that it’s OK for children to be seen, but not heard. They’re not really asked to participate in the Mass, but told to sit down and be quiet. Our priest doesn’t speak well to kids, unless they’re college kids,” she said.

Priests whose homilies connect well with people of all ages are rare. A popular way of dealing with the problem is the Children’s Liturgy of the Word. This program removes young children from the congregation during the readings and homily for a separate service. Harried parents find this preferable to chasing their toddlers around the vestibule, but some also find it troubling. They question whether it models unity in the church.

The desire for greater support for families extends beyond Mass. Catholic parents find themselves looking enviously at Protestant churches around town. Burgeoning Presbyterian youth groups, Four Square Bible studies for Moms, Lutheran summer camps and high quality child-care, ever present at Protestant events, tantalize them like a mirage on the horizon.

“We have found that though there are many young families, in general the church lacks the commitment and ideas to support them. We have not found the Catholic church to be family-friendly,” said Danny Gallagher.

Danny and his wife Doris have been members of St. Joseph Catholic Community Church in Eldersburg, Md., all their lives. They met as teenagers at a parish activity and started playing music together in the folk group. Soon they were also leading youth ministry in the parish. As any good story goes, they fell in love, married and had children.

Parish staff members are welcoming and know the seven Gallagher children by name. Danny and Doris are grateful for their parish community, and committed to continuing to invest themselves at St. Joseph’s. But, like many Catholic parents, they feel frustrated when their parish schedules events at times that are not convenient for families with children, and when babysitting is not provided. Parents in some parishes feel pressure to volunteer when they would rather the church recognize and support the idea that family life is parents’ primary ministry.

Danny suggests parish staff could identify middle-aged or older people who have gifts and are willing to minister to young families. They could provide child-care, workshops in family spirituality, parenting skills and marriage enrichment, seasonal liturgical events like Advent wreath making, Children’s Way of the Cross and an All Saints party.

“The feeling of support that families experienced would cause them to be open to ministering in a like manner when their children are grown,” said Danny. Likewise, parents with young children could befriend older parishioners.

Parenting: an ascetic undertaking

Another thing that would help Catholic families is more role models of lay spirituality. Though Pope John Paul II has proclaimed 468 new saints, the most of any pope, he has elevated only one married couple to the level of Blessed. The church honors Italians Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi for their life of holiness as a modern couple. Unfortunately, their model is not one to which most parents can relate. After having four children -- three of whom later entered religious life -- the Quattrocchi’s practiced celibacy for the rest of their married life.

“That doesn’t quite do it for me,” said Mulcaire-Jones. “There is just a lot of room for development of what a lay spirituality looks like. It would be a much more everyday spirituality, and in the context of loving connectedness.”

She has turned to her own friends, other married women and mothers, as models of what a holistic life might look life. “There are certainly saints, women like Julian of Norwich, Edith Stein, Teresa and Thérèse, that I’ve learned a lot from. When I was younger I tried to fast and follow a typical model of asceticism, then at some point I just decided I’m living it here, day-to-day. I have come to believe that being a parent is a very ascetic undertaking,” said Mulcaire-Jones. “It would be nice to have some institutional acknowledgement of that.”

Many parents succeed in nourishing a vibrant Catholic spirituality in their families by taking the responsibility into their own hands and looking outside the institution for support. They maintain a thriving prayer life, concern for social justice and strong Catholic identity.

Time in the vestibule

Take one couple for example: Robert and Lori Fontana of Yakima, Wash., who inspired hundreds of other families while raising their six children. They founded Catholic Life Ministries, an organization promoting holiness in everyday life.

“Faith was such an integral part of our lives. We just couldn’t set it aside while we raised our kids and then come back to it,” said Lori. “We often found parish life a desert. We formed CLM to stay within the church, but to bring faith activities to a level where people can participate as a family, and so we didn’t have to shove one age group off to minister to another.”

Perhaps the seeds of their ministry were planted 20 years ago the day Lori was asked to leave a parish mission because she brought along her one-month-old baby.

“I wanted to say, ‘Look, I need this mission,’ ” said Lori. “Even liturgy was hard to participate in with children in tow, and I spent a lot of my time in the vestibule of the church.”

Robert added: “What couples and families need are opportunities to build deeper friendships where prayer, study, service and faith-sharing abound, and children are welcome. In the context of this community, reflection on marriage, sexuality and couple unity needs to happen, as well as conversation about how people can live the gospel in the midst of everyday life. That’s what we try to offer.”

Catholic Life Ministries offers two retreats each summer geared specifically to families and people of all ages and gathers families once a month for prayer, a meal and fun. A newsletter connects families and offers resources, inspiration and encouragement.

“Faith isn’t just one hour on Sunday. Our faith can help us Monday through Saturday. It can carry and support us in our parenting and in our family life,” said Lori.

Catholic Life Ministries retreats demonstrate it is possible to celebrate Mass family-style. The priest wears vestments colored with the children’s artwork. Toddlers wander and babies cry. Music features hand movements and the gospel reading plays out in a skit. The homily captivates adults and little ones alike. If the service runs long, nobody leaves early.

Bob and Ginny Kane’s four children have grown up attending the retreats. “Very few families we know even go to church together on Sunday,” said Ginny. “The retreats are a place my kids can see other families trying to live out their faith, praying together, and having fun doing faith-related things.”

Catholic Life Ministries inspired the Kanes to work toward putting the gospel to action in their lives. This summer the Seattle couple took their children, ages 7 through 13, on a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico. For a week, they stayed at an orphanage where they played with the children, worked on a construction project and visited homes inviting kids to a Bible study.

Bob said the idea was to be missionaries, but instead they discovered the people of Tijuana witnessed faith to them.

“They showed us how to be happy with what we have,” said Bob. “They were not worried that the floor of their home was dirt, or that their cars had dents or that their clothes were worn and unlaundered. They reminded us that we are all children of God, one big family.”

“They were genuine in a way I rarely see at home,” said Ginny.

The Kane children all want to go back next year. The oldest, Shannon, said, “Little things didn’t bother them like they would me. They acted like they had everything they needed, and when I think about it, maybe they did.”

When families feel supported by a community, it’s easier for their faith to take form and flesh in service to others. Marian and Bob Beaumier found an opportunity for their three children to help feed the hungry in their inner-city parish in Spokane. The church staff handed out bologna sandwiches to anyone who came knocking on the door.

“I just called up and said would you mind if instead of having the cook make the sandwiches could we just make them ourselves,” said Marian. “My kids would help make them, bag them, put the mustard on, whatever.”

Families need ways they can serve together, just as they need parish activities that draw them together. In a world that tends to pull family members in different directions, Catholics yearn for the unity of the body of Christ.

Relationship challenges

The same challenges that trouble Catholic parents in their efforts to nourish family spirituality confront them in their marriage relationships as well. There never seem to be enough hours in the day, and couples see their own needs slipping to the bottom of the list. The prevailing culture doesn’t model the commitment, work and hard choices required for men and women to sustain long-lasting and intimate unions. Many Catholic marriages are floundering, and even couples with good marriages say they could use more help.

“I was having some problems in my marriage and I went to a couple of priests for counseling,” said Mulcaire-Jones. “Oh, my gosh, for one priest, it was way over his head.” Some priests are trained or have a knack for marriage counseling, but many do not. Especially in small town or rural America, it can be difficult to find institutional church representatives with lived experience and an understanding of the challenges of married life.

“There are some unique challenges in making a marriage work and in the intimacy that arises over time, like communication, healthy sexuality, conflict resolution, generosity,” said Mulcaire-Jones. “The church should teach about marriage as a process of spiritual formation and that you can achieve wholeness and holiness in marriage.”

Seldom in parish life will Catholics hear a discussion or homily on the topic of sexuality or birth control. But these are ever-present realities in the daily life of married couples. The church’s prohibition on artificial birth control and sterilization is virtually ignored by many people.

“I’ve talked to people who use Natural Family Planning, and their reasoning doesn’t make any sense to me. I just don’t get it,” said Grigware. She believes she and her husband’s use of artificial birth control is no reflection on their deep reverence for human life. “Any person who has ever brought a child into this world knows what a huge responsibility it is,” said Grigware.

Even some couples who faithfully follow the church’s teaching struggle with it, and hope for more open dialogue. Church leaders have consulted businessmen on matters of the economy, and soldiers on issues of war. But married couples are asked to bow to the authority of celibates in the area of sexuality.

Nevertheless, married Catholics are increasingly seeing a spiritual dynamic in their physical relationships. The way spouses are with each other -- open, vulnerable and surrendering -- models how to be with God in prayer.

“Sexual intimacy is a tremendous source of healing and union, as well as a celebration of forgiveness,” said Marian Beaumier, married 20 years. “Bob and I have traveled down a few very difficult roads in our relationship. Sexual intimacy sustains us and also illuminates the need for greater communication, dialogue and growth.”

Despite uneven support from the church, the Spirit is alive and flourishing among Catholic marriages and families today. Many Catholics are optimistic about their spiritual journey into the third millennium.

“My hope for the church is that as a family we can be open to dialogue in resolving some of the controversial issues,” said Mulcaire-Jones. “I sometimes feel that the Catholic church is a big dysfunctional family. You can’t do without your family, but they drive you crazy sometimes.”

At its best the church holds a vision of justice, love, faith and hope that continues to beckon despite the messiness of its daily work in the world.

That’s something families understand.

Mary Cronk Farrell writes “Everyday Grace,” a regular column on Catholic family spirituality. Her book Daughters of the Desert: Tales of Remarkable Women of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic Traditions, published by SkyLight Paths is due out in February. She lives in Spokane, Wash., with her husband and three children.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002