The following article is adapted from a talk given at an international conference on the family held at the Seimas, the National Parliament, in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius in April, 2002. The article was printed in the Winter, 2002 edition of Church Magazine, published by the National Pastoral Life Center in New York. In April of 2001 I was invited to give a talk on the future of family ministry at an international conference on the family held in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. The conference, sponsored jointly by the church and the government, was occasioned by the chaos in family life following upon the collapse of the Soviet system ten years ago. But it really was about family life and ministry in America. Because with the purchase of all of Eastern Europe’s film and TV distribution systems by American media moguls, what people here see, and what becomes the norm for life even here, is what Hollywood produces. And that means a life where relationships don’t last, where people are personally and spiritually mobile, where life is undependable, where most people are on the make, and where making commitments is probably not smart because nothing lasts long. This view supports what the people learned living for fifty years under the Soviets’ anti-family policies.
We don’t often think of California and the Baltic Republics having that much in common. But in the area of family life Eastern Europe and Middle America are in the very same place. We have each come to the point where our societies no longer need their families. In Russia that situation was imposed by Lenin. In America it evolved gradually. But the result is the same. Here in the United States, in order to maintain our military, economic, educational, scientific, political, medical and commercial leadership in the world we do not need families. The social tasks that families once performed in our society are now being performed by other, mostly new, social groups. And that means that our ideas on family ministry also need to change. And they need to change profoundly because the changes are so profound.
Families don’t just exist. They exist to do things. A hundred years ago nearly all important social functions — birth, education, employment, role-formation, care of the sick, economic and social security, instilling both faith and citizenship — all took place on the farm. With the coming of the Industrial Age many of these functions were moved from the family to new institutions. We saw the emergence of factories, hospitals, schools, police departments, food processors, insurance companies, banks, even funeral directors. In my great-grandparents’ world from birthing babies to burying the dead all was done by the family. But now, in a world where both parents work, social care from watching over pre-school children to taking care of the elderly and frail has been transferred into the hands of professional caregivers. A hundred years ago, if the family didn’t do it, it didn’t get done. Today it gets done whether we do or don’t have families. In fact, in some of these areas, the family is in the way. Some businesses prefer “unencumbered” employees, or single individuals, to married people with children.
Society may not need families but the Church does. We Catholics still need the family for religious reasons that go to the very heart of our faith. Catholic life is based on the sacraments, and the sacraments are rooted in family life. And that presents us with a major challenge. How do we relate to families and family life in a culture that no longer needs either? That is what I want to discuss here.
Now, to begin with, what I will be proposing here is not an attack on our new world. The world is not the enemy. There is no enemy here. What there is here is a history of great social change. And change is not an enemy. It is a reality. But like all people with beliefs, we have to ask ourselves how we deal with the realities in our world. And once again, as we’ve done for hundreds and hundreds of years, we have to figure out how we turn these realities into opportunities. Because within all these changes there are real opportunities. And they are to be found in the few social functions that are still performed within the family.
Even with the transfer of so many functions to new institutions there are three that have been left to the family. These are reproduction and the rearing of small children; forming a sense of personal identity; and providing a supportive context where we can give and receive love and affection. I believe that these three remaining functions are so religious and spiritual that we can build both family ministries and even our parish ministries around them. Earlier I wrote that the popular media presents the world as a place in which life is undependable, where people are on the make, commitments don’t work, and relationships don’t last. Most of us don’t have to look very far to see the chaos of undependability and the pain of broken relationships. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t hope for something better. In fact, if we were to ask what a parish should be like and do, I think that helping families fulfill these tasks would be a wonderful “job description.”
The first of the three tasks still being met by families is the rearing of young children. Our medical system probably provides the world’s best care for expectant mothers and young parents. But once they are outside the clinics they are often on their own. Given the mobility of many young people, their relatives who might help them are frequently states away. Where do young parents turn for emotional support, for parenting skills, and for common sense advice they need to raise children? Young parents need to know that they have allies. They need to know that there are people who are in their camp. Since many of these same young people have loosened or cut their ties with the church and all institutions in their young years they now don’t have ready-made support communities. But now that they are parents they will start looking for personally supportive and child-welcoming groups. And this is a need that a parish can respond to without stretching its mission at all.
Identity formation, the second task still left to families, is a technical-sounding phrase. But it looks at very human matters, ones that affect all of us. In effect, we look here at the heart of human life. Who I am, what do I want out of my life, what beliefs do I want to live by? These personal questions are all basically religious. And the relationship-focused questions that parallel them are equally spiritual. Who are my people, where do we belong, who do I want to be with as I go through life, what kind of life do I want us to have together? Our identity has to do with who and what I am both as an individual and in relation to the people around me. And these are the most important spiritual questions we can ask. The phrase “identity formation” is well chosen, for our sense of self is not something imposed on us from the outside. Our sense of self is something we ourselves form. That formation takes place by the choices we make about life’s important questions, and the ways we adapt to the great run of circumstances we all face in life. And it is on-going as we go through life. Again, that effort is essentially religious, involving all our beliefs and values.
And it really is on-going, and not a one-time task. It comes into play especially as we move from one life-stage to another. There really are different stages in life, each with its own agenda. How we respond to these agenda is both the effect of who we are, and it is also means to reshape that sense for the future. I know I am a very different person from the man I was when I was ordained forty years ago. And the issues I am dealing with now as I grow older are certainly different from the ones I faced as a young man. When adolescents move into young adulthood, for example, they have to learn how to live on their own, to take responsibility for their lives, and to learn from their inevitable mistakes. These all represent major advances in a person’s sense of self. And they are advances that can benefit from the support and wisdom of our rich religious tradition — providing our parishes can make those resources available to them.
How do I develop a sense of personal ethics that will help me live as the master of my own personal and spiritual household? How do I form humane and supportive relationships that can become lasting friendships? These questions are answered only in the living. They are also very spiritual questions. I would hope that they could be better answered by being lived out within a believing community. The formation of our sense of self also continues to the end of life. Now that so many of my people are gone how and where do I fit in? Who are my people now? Do I even belong here anymore? These are equally important spiritual questions.
Providing mutual support and affection, the third of the remaining family tasks, can also be on-going and dynamic. It sees the family as a place of healing, where we can cut loose from past and useless baggage and learn to become the masters in our own personal and spiritual households. Within the broader community the family can be a base for social benefit. For one of the goals of the family is to produce moral adults and responsible citizens.
No one, I suppose, will disagree with this. But to turn these tasks from semi-recognized realities into a plan for pastoral activity, which is what I am suggesting, will require a big change in attitudes. After all, these ideas have been around, and largely ignored, for a long time. But that change is necessary first of all to keep abreast of the fact that important transfers of social functions are still going on, this time affecting the church. Functions once transferred from the family to Catholic institutions are now again being transferred, this time from the church to the state. Catholic hospitals, colleges, charities and schools are either no longer Catholic or moving in that direction. Whether we see this as secularization or simply the realities of meeting federal funding standards the end result is the same. The state and large corporations have already taken over, or are taking over. Hospitals that were clearly Catholic when I was ordained are now often Catholic in name only. And in parish schools, the increased scrutiny by state educational and child-protective agencies is translating into more public control.
We also have to face what may be a humbling reality. The transferred tasks and the three that remain are not on the same level. From an institutional point of view the remaining family functions don’t rate high. They really are the left-overs. In America they take on a value only when viewed through a religious lens. And even on a purely pragmatic level, they may well become all we have left. Part of the shift in attitude I am proposing is that those of us in church ministries need to work harder to understand what is meant by the idea of the family as a domestic church. This is not poetry. It is a theological reality. Unfortunately, it is a theological reality that is almost wholly ignored by our theologians. The idea that the family is a true model of the church remains essentially unexplored. In a church with long and solid clerical tradition — recall that our important teachings on the role of the laity in the church are written by clerics — this will not be easy. We may say that parents are the principal educators of their children. But basic decisions about their sacramental formation and religious education are still made in parish staff meetings.
Another change in attitude would involve a new role for parish personnel. And that is serving as public advocates in support of family life — and not just in our society. It is needed in the church as well. The United States used to have an important body of family law, granting families privileges and exemptions in recognition of their importance to society. Little by little this is being dismantled. But little though it may be it is still more than we have in church law. For in church law, by contrast, the family has never had significant legal standing as a moral person with rights. So we need to preserve what remains of the family’s civil standing and promote it in church law.
The needed advocacy also extends to our American social services. Having developed using 19th century, individualist views of pathology they see families only through their individual members, and often their sick members. We can adopt and promote the views that see families as socially valid and necessary systems. In other words, we can take the idea of the family as a domestic church and translate it into social practice.
None of this, obviously, addresses questions about how to put these ideas to work. That is my final point. What can a parish do? The first involves an essential change in attitude. But to understand it requires a bit of context. As Andrew Greeley has so well described, in the course of the last hundred years America’s European-rooted Catholics have gone from being poor immigrants to becoming America’s most prosperous and successful citizens. This has come about largely through the efforts of Catholic schools and colleges. In effect, with parishes often leading the way, our Catholic communities became schools for success.
But so did our families — and that’s a problem. The Christian life is not about success. It is about healing, being healed from the worst in us. But if our families and parishes are about winning what place is there in them for the wounded and the lost? So the first requirement is a shift from the trophy-conscious, success-oriented mentality to one that sees the family as a place of healing. And if you want an example of trophy-consciousness look in the glass cases in the hall next to the principal’s office in nearly every Catholic school. You cannot form a Christian identity and you cannot learn to share love and affection in a relationship built on competitiveness and the desire to beat out others and win.
With regard to nurturing the young, make sure that little kids are welcome, and that everyone knows it. Parishes can be ambivalent about having kids at the liturgies. Don’t be. We baptize infants — and nothing in the rite says that they are to be kept at home for the next three or four years. The sound of little kids is the sound of the future. Equally important, many women are also ambivalent about becoming mothers. Their choice is a gift to all of us. So say so. Thank them for their gift to all of us. Programs in support of parents and parenting should rank high on our priorities. Whatever the parental situation or family make-up, and they are very varied today, we need to be clear that they are all welcome.
With regard to identity formation, our theological tradition tells us very clearly that we become the people we are through our choices. So helping people learn the human art of making good ethical and moral choices is helping them form their identities. Conscience formation and identity formation are much the same thing. But telling people what to do is not what I mean. Identity formation involves interiorizing, it is the process of becoming the masters in our own personal and spiritual households. From a young age on up learning how to make good choices is the number one Christian art. And orienting our preaching toward helping people learn how to make their own, good, reasonable, moral and ethical choices is key here. I, for one, believe that concrete and appealing pictures of people making good choices in difficult situations is the best way to make the principles understandable.
Finally, how do we support families in showing love and affection? The kind of family I am talking about forming here is the first place you want to go for comfort and support and when you screw up badly or blow it big. It is not the last place you go to, in fear and trembling, because of the emotional trouncing you know you are going to get. People who are in trouble need an ear to hear their pain, not a mouth to inflict even more. When, for example, people who were once in love do not love each other anymore there is enough pain to go around for a long time. The last thing they need to hear is, “I told you never to marry that woman!” And for that supportive mindset to come about we need a shift from the success mentality to a healing mentality.
The family as a human and religious institution is drifting. But the tasks that the family still fulfils — rearing and forming children, helping form personal identity, and being a refuge when life beats up on us — can give the contemporary family a religious and social charter. They can also be the bases for a soundly spiritual parish life and ministry.
David K. O’Rourke, OP