by Kelly Phelan Powell
In decades past, the word ‚Äúfamily,‚ÄĚ especially within the context of the Church, referred almost exclusively to the traditional nuclear family: mom, dad and a larger-than-average number of children. These days, however, there are many different iterations of ‚Äúfamily‚ÄĚ in parish life. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has recently launched an initiative in support of traditional Christian marriage, and the Diocese of Shreveport has followed suit with a renewed focus on Marriage and Family Life Ministries. And thankfully, some of these programs address aspects of the family that have been largely overlooked until now.
In a culture in which the significance of marriage is continuously and insidiously eroded, the USCCB holds fast in its insistence that marriage is and has always been ‚Äúthe ‚Äėcradle‚Äô of life and of every vocation.‚ÄĚ The bishops go on to say, ‚ÄúWe are well aware that the family founded on marriage is the natural environment in which to bear and raise children and thereby guarantee the future of all humanity. However, we also know that marriage is going through a deep crisis and today must face numerous challenges. It is consequently necessary to defend, help, safeguard and value it in its unrepeatable uniqueness. If this commitment is in the first place the duty of spouses, it is also a priority duty of the Church and of every public institution to support the family by means of pastoral and political initiatives that take into account the real needs of married couples, of the elderly and of the new generations.‚ÄĚ (Angelus Talk, February 4, 2007)
But while marriage is inarguably the foundation of the family, the reality of life in the 21st Century is that not every family includes a marriage. Dotye Sue Stanford, Director of Family Life Ministries at St. Joseph Church in Shreveport, said this fact is due to our God-given freedom of choice. ‚ÄúGod asks very little of us,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúHe asks us to love one another and to help each other get to heaven‚Ä¶but because He gave us free will, we have divorce, we have singleness and we have death.‚ÄĚ She further emphasized that even in these states, the family still exists, even if that family includes only one person. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôre still a part of God‚Äôs family and the Church‚Äôs family,‚ÄĚ she said.
Programs throughout the diocese address the specific needs of different kinds of families ‚Äď single life as a vocation, marriage as a vocation, family life and children, empty nesters, widows and widowers and divorce and annulment. You may be aware of some of these programs in your home parish, but others are less well known. The Marriage and Family Life Ministries page on the diocese‚Äôs website has contact information for each of these programs. Go to www.dioshpt.org and click on ‚ÄúMarriage and Family Life‚ÄĚ under ‚ÄúMinistries.‚ÄĚ
This past spring, the parishes of the diocese sponsored a six-session Divorce Recovery Program at the Catholic Center. Utilizing tools such as group discussion as well as a video series, the course helped people come to terms with their divorces and begin to heal their emotional wounds. The program was successful, so new dates will be announced soon.
Coming up in June is a two-day marriage intensive, with topics including ‚ÄúThe Fight-Free Marriage‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúContraception: What‚Äôs the Big Deal?‚ÄĚ Presented by Timothy and Kristin Putnam of the Tulsa Diocese, this free event will be held June 10 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. and June 11 from 5:30 to 7:00 p.m. at the Cathedral of St. John Berchmans in the St. Michael the Archangel Chapel. For more information, visit www.sjbcathedral.org.
Aside from addressing the needs of the faithful, these programs help bring non-practicing Catholics back to the Church. ‚ÄúPeople who may have felt shunned or like they didn‚Äôt belong since they weren‚Äôt married or didn‚Äôt have children feel important and included,‚ÄĚ Stanford said. ‚ÄúThere‚Äôs a place for everyone in the Church.‚ÄĚ They also make the parish feel more like a home and encourage people to get involved at both a parish and a diocesan level.
As a director of Family Life Ministries, Stanford said this work is, for her, a calling. ‚ÄúI feel like this is what God wants me to do in Family Life, is go out and get these programs started at all the other parishes,‚ÄĚ she said. She also pointed out that although their work may not have the ‚ÄúFamily Life‚ÄĚ title, all those involved with baptism, faith formation, engaged couples, weddings, divorce survival groups and grief processing are all part of family life. ‚ÄúThere are so many doing the same thing,‚ÄĚ she said. ‚ÄúCathy Cobb [at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church]‚Ä¶Carol Gates [at the Cathedral]‚Ä¶I want them to see, ‚ÄėYou‚Äôre doing family life, too. This is the divorce part of family life, this is the singles part of family life, these are the elderly, these are the empty-nesters.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Stanford urges all those within the diocese who are involved in some way with formation of the family to join the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers (www.nacflm.org). It‚Äôs a great resource for education, mutual support, networking and advocacy.
In fact, she‚Äôs trying to get as many as possible of the 18 couples who are involved in marriage ministry to attend the 2012 international conference of the NACFLM, ‚ÄúStrengthening Marriages and Families in Today‚Äôs Culture,‚ÄĚ held this year in Dallas July 25 through 28. There are a number of ‚Äútracts‚ÄĚ available for attendees, depending on the individual needs of their parishes, including a Hispanic/Latino tract and an after-divorce tract. Stanford is seeking sponsors to help offset the cost of the conference; if you know of a business or individual who might like to contribute, please contact her at (318) 865-3581, extension 23, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The best ways to strengthen the family in all its forms, Stanford feels, are often the simplest. A good example she gave is the ‚ÄúGet Back to the Table‚ÄĚ movement, where families make a concerted effort to sit down at the dinner table and eat at least one meal together each day without television, computers, homework or other distractions. Another way is to keep the Sabbath sacred and uphold the Sunday Mass obligation by removing activities that may come before or detract from God and the Church.
The diocese recognizes not only the importance of family, but the many forms that a Catholic Christian family can take. Family in all its configurations is a treasured part of parish life. Every parish has ways to offer ministry, fellowship and resources to help every family grow in faith. To take part in any of these valuable programs or to learn how you can help, visit your parish‚Äôs website or www.dioshpt.org.