How would a parish attract families to engage in service and to learn about social justice?
It would start with creating community. With lots of low-key events with free food where people can just get together. In today’s larger parishes we have to create smaller groups within the parish.
If you want your kids to care about parish, it has to be more than a one-stop deal. If they don’t know people there, if they don’t have fun there, if they don’t feel supported, they’re not going to feel connected there. They’re not going to want to invest in that later, either. It’s not going to feel like home if they’re never there.
A parish can begin to reflect on the things that are taking up parishioners’ time. Are we asking people to put a lot of time into special events that parallel those in the secular culture, like auctions and carnivals that take up a lot of volunteer hours and maybe don’t create the kind of community that parishes would really want to see?
Some suburban parishes actually have auctions where you pay different amounts of money to sit at different kinds of tables and receive different levels of drinks—beer versus top-shelf liquor. I can’t imagine sitting at another table and having a better drink than somebody else. The pastor says that we need the money to do the programs. But we have to think about what we need the money for and how else we might be able to raise it.
How can a parish help families get involved in service?
Start by asking: Are we making service a regular part of parish life for families? Is it a part of the religious education program, for example? In most parishes I’m familiar with in the Midwest, what’s really central to parish life is sports. But if that’s what we’re doing all weekend long, then how can we possibly have time to do other things? Could we come together to create community around a nursing home instead of the soccer field?
And then the parish should offer space for reflection. Could we host a session or two and ask parents to reflect on what they’re doing with their time and what they want to be doing? Parishes can give them suggestions, concrete proposals, and offer to partner with them to help make this possible. I’d love to see a panel of couples talking about how they’re trying to integrate their faith into their lives and then have people respond to that. I have never seen anything like that.
People would be reluctant to speak because nobody thinks they’ve got it down, that they’re doing it right. But even just to have a place for conversations like that would be important.
Some families are hesitant to do service with the poor because they think their kids won’t be safe.
One way to start is with children. We organized our parish youth group to take children who were staying at the Catholic Worker shelter to a park or to the zoo. I matched them up one to one with the youth group members, who then really felt like they had something to do. They were just talking to one kid, and that worked out well. And it didn’t feel like service because we were doing something fun.
The truth is that we don’t tend to live close to people who need us. This is where fear comes in: If we’re so worried about keeping our family safe, then we can’t cross those lines. And sometimes we just need to know that it’s an exaggerated fear. People are not often killed on the street.
The ideal is that we move from just helping the poor to actually trying to build some relationships. That would transform parishes and families.
In your recent book you say that service is one of five practices families should adopt if they want to live out their faith. What are the others?
One is sex, which originally I didn’t even consider, but then it became obvious to me. What would it mean to have a virtuous sex life?
Catholics tend not to talk about that because we’ve put so much energy into thinking about when sex isn’t appropriate. Popular women’s magazines talk about how keeping up a regular sexual practice is difficult to do; my concern is why would that be important in a Christian marriage.
When you think about sex as a practice, it has the potential to make people feel more vulnerable in each other’s presence, more united, more like they belong to each other.
Another practice involves eating. Jesus’ practice of eating with sinners is widely affirmed by New Testament scholars of every stripe. He did this before the sinners asked for forgiveness. It would have been considered one of the most radical things that he did, maybe among the issues leading to his execution. So that radical practice of sharing a table with sinners and not worrying about sending the wrong message or implying that you accept everything about that person—that’s a fundamental Christian practice.
Also food is second only to transportation in how we can reduce our impact on the planet. Eating is something you do every single day. You can choose to do it in a certain way that has implications for the world.
Surely this is working its way around to money, isn’t it?
You guessed it. Most Catholics believe that they should give some of their money away. The difficulty is figuring out when we have excess and how much we can really give.
That’s why I like tithing because it’s a regular practice—maybe not 10 percent, but a percentage that varies depending on your circumstances. Studies on charitable giving clearly state that families who give a fixed percentage every month give more than people who just give whenever they feel like it.
Let’s also ask whether we can live a bit out of step with our station in life. Can we live a step down in order to tithe? Families can decide together what might be good charities, which is another way of getting families to think, “What are we really about?”
Our kids, for example, know that there are things that we could buy but we don’t—an Xbox, for example—because we want to keep giving.
And that brings us to the last practice, prayer. When I first started talking about the importance of families doing service and social justice, another theologian said to me, “That’s all well and good, but other families do that, too. The really hard thing would be to actually pray with your kids.”
He had teenagers at the time, and that has proved to be a wise saying. It’s probably the most radical thing you can do. Aside from grace before meals, very few people are doing any prayer with their kids, especially once you move past the preschool years.
So what’s the secret?
You start by trying to at least create some quiet in the midst of all the busyness for reflection, connections, and centering yourself. Then bring in some text, prayers, music, images. So you end up with some gratitude, some readings, some reflection.
One of the things our family does during Advent is draw names: We’re supposed to pray for the person and do little things for them. On Christmas Eve we reveal who we had, and you’re supposed to say how the other person brings Christ to the world.
That has been a really beautiful thing; even my three young boys were able to do this beautifully. I’m there thinking, “Wow, are you really saying this about your brother? That’s amazing.” They never would be saying those things if we hadn’t created the space for that
Which leads me to think that if you can overcome your own embarrassment and discomfort and find your way towards something that feels comfortable and enriching, you might be surprised at what your family can do. Used with permission from U.S. Catholic, published by Claretian Publications.
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Filed under: Family spirituality, Handing on the faith | Tagged: create parish community, families and social justice, families engage in service, family service with the poor, Jesus eating with sinners, Julie Hanlon Rubio, parish help families get involved in service, pray with kids, prayer with kids, tithing |