In his column this week, Monsignor Campion writes, As we stagger amid reports of scandal…
What parish ministry gets wrong about the domestic Church
According to Dynamic Catholic, about 7% of parishioners are responsible for over 80% of the dollars and volunteer hours that keep an average parish functioning.
Sadly, this number appears to persist despite the number of excellent parish renewal programs on the market. Alpha-Catholic Context, Christ Renews His Parish, Why Catholic, ChristLife and a host of other ministries are doing excellent work helping Catholics have a more meaningful encounter with Christ and a deeper experience of their faith. Despite this, the percentage of parishioners contributing to overall vitality of the parish remains flat. More concerning, according to Pew Research, for every person who converts to Catholicism, six Catholics leave every year. That’s a higher loss rate than any other denomination.
Of course there are a million factors contributing to these numbers, but at the recent Symposium for Catholic Family Life and Spirituality, a gathering of over 30 internationally-recognized social scientists, theologians and pastoral ministry professionals focused on renewing Catholic family life, a new factor was identified that, until this point, has been hidden in plain site: Virtually every parish renewal effort completely ignores the family. Here’s why that matters.
Parish renewal efforts almost universally rely on some kind of small group experience. These small faith groups are both necessary and important. They provide a supportive community in that people can explore their relationship with Christ and their Catholic faith. But as helpful as these groups can be, they are also artificial and time-limited.
I do not use the word “artificial” in a pejorative way. I mean it as a simple fact. Parish renewal programs create groups made up of people who may belong to the same parish, but they may or may not ever have anything to do with each other in any other context. As a group, they often only share one real point of connection — the parish renewal program. Social psychology tells us that unless people share multiple points of connection (school, work, sports, other community activities) they tend not to form lasting personal relationships.
Likewise, these groups are time-limited because of two factors. First, every program ends at some point. Of course, once the program ends, the hope is that participants have created strong bonds that outlast the program. This may happen, but often it doesn’t.
Second, other groups — such as families — end up exerting a stronger pull. A child gets sick, another child has a game, someone has a birthday, etc. Suddenly a faith group member misses several weeks. If this happens to two or three members of the group at the same time, the whole group can collapse. Some groups may do a remarkable job surviving the inevitable entropy of small faith groups, but most don’t. A few years later, a new, wonderful program is produced and we start the cycle all over again.
But what if we could base our parish renewal efforts on a group that isn’t so easily extinguished? Imagine the long-term benefits this could produce. The family is that group. God literally designed the family to be his original small faith group — a school of love and virtue, as Pope St. John Paul II talked about in Familiaris Consortio (“On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World”). Despite the many problems affecting today’s families, they are still remarkably stable compared to any other social group that exists. Just imagine what could happen if every parish renewal effort dedicated several sessions to ways participants could evangelize and celebrate their faith with their spouse, children, grandchildren and/or extended family.
In Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), Pope Francis asserted that the “Church is a family of families” (No. 87). Would that this were so. In practice, the Church is largely a group of individuals who have no idea how to share and live their faith with their families. According to CARA, only 17% of Catholic families pray together. Seventy-two percent of Catholic families don’t even manage weekly conversations about the Faith.
What if parish renewal programs focused on helping participants gently overcome a spouse’s resistance to praying as a couple, or a family’s struggle to create a meaningful, shared prayer and spiritual life? What if small faith groups stopped effectively competing with family life and, instead, began serving as incubators for renewing domestic Church life?
Even a modest return on this investment of time and energy could produce tremendous fruit. Weekly Mass attendance would grow exponentially as families consistently attended Mass together. Families would have the skills to actively encourage each other’s faith development. Families could become the primary outposts of evangelization that they are meant to be.
As the family goes, so goes the Church. If we want to renew our parish churches, we need to start by renewing our domestic churches by enabling them to become the engines of spiritual growth that God created them to be.
Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books including, “Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids” (Sophia). Learn more at CatholicCounselors.com