As the Church has always believed, strengthening communities begins with strengthening families. But what makes a parish truly family-friendly?
Is it the physical presence of a multitude of young parents with wiggly children in tow at Mass? Is it a calendar rich with mothers’ groups and teen Bible studies, Elizabeth ministries and NFP outreach? Is it a plush cry room and a diaper-supply table in the restroom?
According to those working in family ministry around the archdiocese, yes, it can be all that — but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it should be more. Being family-friendly goes deeper than being simply kid-friendly. The playgroups and outreach are really just physical manifestations of a parish-wide attitude of openness to the Catholic concept of family.
It’s the pastor who knows those large families by name, and Mass-goers who smile at them in welcome instead of judgment. It’s a balanced offering of ministries that serves the needs of the grandparents (or unmarried, childless aunts and uncles) alongside — not segregated from — the moms, dads and toddlers. It’s a message grounded in the Gospel truth about marriage and family, and a congregation that endeavors to live that truth in its daily life.
“We don’t want to create a subset of ministries that impact a small circle of families with kids of a certain age,” said Sara Larson, director of family ministry at Old St. Mary, Our Lady of Divine Providence, Saints Peter and Paul, and Three Holy Women parishes. “We want to do things that impact the whole community.”
Catechesis: All in the family
To strengthen the family, the natural place to start is with the parents. For many parishes, this means implementing strong adult catechesis.
“Evangelizing the parents is probably the most important thing we can do, because that flows through them to their children in a more effective way than just us reaching the children themselves,” said Larson. “That changes families’ lives more than anything we can do with the kids, is to have their parents be on fire for their faith.”
At St. Anthony on the Lake in Pewaukee, a family catechetical model has been in force for more than 20 years.
“That’s probably been the catalyst for all of our other family ministries,” said Dr. Kathie Amidei, pastoral associate at the parish. “We started with 20 families, and we have about 350 involved now.”
The thesis of the program is that parental involvement in the faith formation of the children must be a priority. “You don’t just drop your children off for an hour a week,” said Amidei. Instead, on Sunday mornings or Monday evenings (whatever is most convenient for the family), the family program involves moms, dads and kids in catechesis. The lesson begins with a family activity and breaks into a traditional family classroom learning where both parents and children receive instruction on the faith, covering the pillars of catechism and Scripture. “Children see that their parents aren’t finished growing in their faith,” said Amidei.
For St. Mary Parish in Menomonee Falls, it’s important to ensure that parents have a strong foundation in Catholic moral and sexual theology before they even become parents. Since October 2016, the parish has ensured that all couples united in marriage at the church have undergone instruction in Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning.
The class is run by Carmen Morgan and is open to both already-married and engaged couples.
“We want them to understand that they’re made body and soul in the image of God — that God came in the incarnation and thus our bodies are incarnational. The one-flesh union reveals God and it points to the ultimate goal, which is total unity with God,” she said.
Though their audience is typically engaged couples without children, Morgan and her instructors feel that the instruction they offer is laying a rich foundation of faith for the family the couple will later have. If parents are able to see themselves as a gift to their spouse, said Morgan, that mentality will translate to the children.
“John Paul II said, as the family goes, so goes the world,” she said. “Foundationally, if we have Catholic families, that also creates a Catholic community and a Catholic town and a Catholic nation — not in the sense of our religion, necessarily, but in the sense of respecting life, reverencing God, respecting women and men, respecting the body, and giving ourselves as a gift rather than taking and using people.”
A special place for moms (and all women)
For Larson and her parishes, the ever-growing Beacon Moms group provides a space for fellowship and community in a faith-filled setting. The program started with two sessions (one evening, one daytime) five years ago and has swelled to include about 65 women in five different groups (more than twice that on the Facebook group, said Larson). It’s a population that spans all ages, backgrounds and work situations.
“It’s not community for its own sake, it’s a community for a purpose — to encounter Christ and have spiritual growth,” she said.
At Sheboygan’s Holy Name, St. Dominic and St. Clement parishes, Olivia O’Keefe and Natalee Mueller are at the helm of a women’s group that includes not just moms but women of all walks of life. Though the majority of the roughly 60 participants at the Walking With Purpose group are wives and mothers, “all are welcome,” said Mueller. The inclusion of single women, childless women and women with grown children enriches the diversity of the group and is actually a boon to the attendees who are moms, said O’Keefe.
“The diversity is a tremendous blessing because we get perspective from everybody,” said O’Keefe. “The range is just unbelievable and beautiful.”
“There’s so much bonding because every woman carries her joy and her pains, no matter what your age, and that’s what breaks the bounds of age,” said Mueller. “You can look each other in the eye, and see each other’s joy and each other’s pain, and meet on that level.”
Creating a sense of belonging at church
The parish cluster also believes that family ministry should begin even before the birth of a child, and has instituted an Elizabeth Ministry to reach out to expectant parents. At the end of July, Holy Name hosted a blessing for expectant parents and plans to make it a regular event held every few months, to coincide with dates that are significant to the Blessed Mother, said Human Concerns chairperson Donna Karr. The parishes hope to keep in touch with the parents after the birth of their baby by bringing them a basket or a few meals and gifting a small crocheted Rosary.
Keeping up those ties with new and overwhelmed parents can help them to remember that they have an important place in the Church, Karr pointed out.
“Any time that you welcome somebody to a community, it just makes them feel much more like they belong,” she said. “My big thing is reaching out to people — that’s how you bring them closer to God.”
And ultimately, isn’t that the most family-friendly mentality there is?
“All the things we’re doing are aimed at building a culture that welcomes everyone — singles, elderly people, families,” said Larson. “We’re one community, one Church, and everyone has a place in it.”