The family is central to our Catholic faith. God reveals himelf as a “family” — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — a communion of persons. God created us, male and female, in His image and likeness (Gn 1:26-27; Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2205). We are created to be in communion with one another. Jesus reveals God as a Father who loves and cares for his children. The Church is revealed to us as a family into which we are adopted by God and become brothers and sisters to one another (Gal 4:4-5). Jesus’ relationship with the Church is presented in Scripture as a marriage, with Jesus as the groom and the Church His Bride.
The family also has a privileged place in catechesis. The Catechism states that “parents receive the responsibility of evangelizing their children” and calls them the “First heralds” of the faith (No. 2225). The family is called “domestic church” — the church of the home (No. 2224).
Today, pastoral leaders face several challenges with regard to engaging the family. These challenges include hectic schedules and divided attention. One study from the University of Michigan showed a shocking decrease in the amount of time devoted solely to family conversation, a 33 percent decrease in families eating dinner together, and a 28 percent drop in family vacations. In the same period, the time children spent in structured sports doubled, and passive spectator leisure time increased five-fold. More recently, a study by the Annenberg Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California showed that 28 percent of Americans say they are spending less time with their families than in the previous year and this rise appears to be related to more time on digital media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Internet websites.
Another challenge to engaging the family is the increasing secularization of modern society, which can lead to a compartmentalization of faith so that it is seen as an extracurricular activity rather than a central aspect of one’s life that impacts all others. A third challenge is the fact that many adults are poorly formed in their faith, due to incomplete or inadequate catechesis or a “Confirmation as graduation” mentality that precluded continuing faith formation as an adult. Consequently, these adults may lack the confidence and/or knowledge to guide their families in the faith. Finally, there exists a cultural fear of commitment, likely due to the busyness of modern life — a struggle with taking on additional responsibilities.
Supporting And Reaching Families: Some First Steps
Making the parish a place that reflects the importance of families starts with family-sensitive parish leadership. Is the parish staff a collaborative team? Do we help one another? Are our roles flexible enough to allow for working together? A silo mentality can undermine a family-sensitive environment, both philosophically and practically speaking. For example, collaboration between the parish catechetical leader and other ministry leaders can help to make other aspects of parish life, such as liturgy and service, more inclusive of all ages and family configurations, but failure to collaborate in this way can sometimes limit participation by families in parish events and ministries.
The changing family brings a new moment in catechesis that requires from us as pastoral leaders a fresh and creative approach. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, this approach should follow the example of God who, rather than waiting for us to find Him, reaches out to us, meeting us where we are. We must look for the evangelizing moments we have with families, and capitalize on these moments to the greatest extent possible.
When are the evangelizing moments? They are the times when families are naturally more open to the Church and what she can give. In the usual family life cycle, these moments may include developmental milestones of family life, such as a wedding, the birth of a new child, a child’s entry into school, the death of a family member, and other important times.
Evangelizing moments might also be spiritual or religious milestones in the life of a family, such as Baptism, First Eucharist, or Confirmation. Special circumstances that could be evangelizing moments might also arise the life of a family. These include a severe illness or unexpected death of a family member, a separation or divorce, a time of financial need, or another family crisis.
When pastoral ministers welcome families warmly and reach out to families in need, they can make the most of these evangelizing moments to let the family know that they are part of a larger Christian community that seeks their presence.
Family-Friendly Grade-Level Catechetical Programs
Parish-based grade-level catechesis can be made more family-friendly by choosing texts that provide practical and creative ways to involve families and by using the programs in a manner that is responsive to the needs of today’s families.
• Choose a grade-level textbook series with a strong family component, for example, a section written specifically for families as part of each lesson. At minimum, this should include information about the doctrinal material the child has learned, developmental information about how children this age understand the topic, adult-level catechesis for the parents, and practical ways families can share the message at home.
These pages can and should be perforated, so they can be sent home each week if the textbooks stay at the parish. Other strong family components, such as online resources for families and materials to assist in family prayer, would be helpful as well.
• Involve parents as volunteers, and give them plenty of options with respect to roles. Sometimes parents may be left to feel as if they can help with the parish catechetical program only if they feel called and equipped to be catechists, but parents could also volunteer as classroom assistants, helpers with special events, or “guest speakers” to discuss other areas of ministry in which they are involved.
For example, parents who serve as extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion could help instruct the children preparing for First Communion on the proper way to receive. In this model, the director or coordinator of religious education becomes more a coordinator and facilitator of adult volunteers, so it’s essential to have someone in this role who can work effectively with adults and offer them appropriate formation.
• Where possible, order lessons so that multiple children from the same family are working on the same themes at the same times of the year. This makes it easier for families to learn together.
• Provide intergenerational experiences. Many parishes have found a transition to a program of intergenerational catechesis alone to be impractical or imprudent, but a traditional grade-level program can be greatly enhanced by adding intergenerational events and experiences.
Consider adding seasonal celebrations for All Saints Day, the feast day of your parish’s patron saint, and perhaps for Advent and Lent. For children preparing for the sacraments, host day retreats that are designed for the whole family, with perhaps some time for parents and children separately and some opportunities for experiences together.
Family-Sensitive Adult Formation
We can increase participation in adult formation as well when we take some steps to be more family-sensitive:
• Offer a variety of adult-formation classes and experiences that allow adults to choose based on their interests and phase of life. Many Protestant churches offer adult classes for various groups, such as singles, young professionals, older adults, etc.
• Make adult formation practical. Offer topics that intersect with the dally life of the adult learner, such as being a faithful Catholic in the workplace, raising Catholic kids and teens, and other real-life concerns.
• Make adult formation available and practical for families. Consider offering adult classes at the same time as children’s classes, when adults are already coming to the parish. Offer childcare for younger children.
Pope John Paul II famously said, “As the family goes, so goes society, and so goes the world in which we live.” We could just as easily say, “As the family goes, so goes the parish, and so goes the Church in which we live,” for our parishes are made up of families, and every child with a vocation to the priesthood and religious life is born within a family. For this reason, Pope Benedict has said, “The family…is the cradle of life and of every vocation” (Angelus talk, Feb. 4, 2007). Let us renew our commitment to place families at the center of our catechetical efforts. TP
Dr. White, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and former parish director of religious education, is the author of several books on catechesis. He is currently a National Catechetical Consultant for Our Sunday Visitor.