A partnership for the future


COLUMBIA  An opportunity to learn more about how the policies, programs and services of the Church impact families and to explore the Christian vision of family life was offered last Saturday as the diocesan Office of Social Ministry hosted its annual Social Ministry Conference, themed “A Family Perspective in Church and Society.”

In welcoming remarks, Bishop Robert J. Baker called the family a “vital, important topic for reflection.” The bishop also referred to Pope John Paul II’s recent letter to the elderly, which is a subject of examination at this week’s conference of Catholic prelates from the United States in Washington. In the pope’s letter, Bishop Baker said, the pontiff stresses that “the service of the Gospel has nothing to do with age,” and the Holy Father emphasized that the Church must do more to welcome the elderly and help them.

In his keynote address, H. Richard McCord, executive director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women, and Youth, described the term “family” as “an emotionally laden, complex word.” Using language from the 1994 U.S. bishops’ document, Follow the Way of Love, McCord said family life is a mosaic of bright areas and dark shadows. Family, he continued, is a primary community of relationships that is being challenged by the complexity and diversity of society today.

These current pressures are also necessitating new avenues for bringing the Church and families together, said McCord, who holds a doctorate in adult education policy and master’s degrees in divinity and Christian education.

He quoted from Pope John Paul II’s 1980 papal letter, On The Family, in which the Holy Father wrote that, “No plan for organized pastoral work at any level must ever fail to take into consideration … the family.”

That approach, said McCord, calls for thinking and acting in new ways when it comes to ministry. He then spoke of seeing families through a lens of four different elements: a relational system, a diverse reality, a fundamental church, and as a partner with institutions.

McCord, who has served the Church professionally since 1972, said some transitions occurring between families and their relationships to institutions, such as churches, education, and health care, include moving from one expression to diversity, from individuals to systems, from belonging to Church to being Church, from passive recipients to active agents, and from clients to partners.

Implications for ministry from these changes, he said, are shifts from the parish being at the center to the family at the center, from doing service for families to empowering families with service, and from professional work to peer relationships.

“A common effect of this is to bring families and the Church into more effective partnership,” McCord said. “As you move into the model of being a partner, you build on your strengths to accomplish what you need.”

Cited were both sociological and theological explanations for this evolution, as families find themselves in different places today as compared to past generations, and the Church’s understanding of families has moved to a different level. McCord then charted the reduction of family responsibilities through the agricultural, industrial and technological ages to illustrate the monumental shifts experienced in society.

He said the Church’s role now stresses concrete ways to be partners with families in faith formation, as well as deepening the Church teaching about marriage and family life. The U.S. bishops define family as “an intimate community of persons bound together by blood marriage, or adoption for the whole of life.”

Family has an importance in its own right, explained McCord. “That’s the reason the family is the fundamental unit of the Church. Family activities are a pathway to holiness. The work of parenting is a ministry in the home. We can’t engage in new ways of thinking if we don’t understand who families are.”

Three essential elements are needed to make this partnership work, according to McCord. They consist of a shared goal, mutual respect, and effective channels of communication.

“These changes don’t have to be radical,” he concluded. “Just a commitment to continually make a series of small adjustments in programs.”

Following McCord’s talk, Franciscan Sister Margie Hosch, regional coordinator of Catholic Charities of the Piedmont Deanery, spoke on “Family Systems: How Families Interact.” As a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and a former marriage and family therapist, Sister Hosch said the Church still has a long way to go before it moves families into the center of ministry.

She described the family system as a cluster of highly related parts that acts as a whole even with continual change. “What impacts one family member has an effect on all family members. The whole family must be ministered to.”

The various styles of communication used by families were also examined by the Franciscan nun. These include dictatorial, collaborative, compromise, submissive, and avoidance. She called for families to encourage autonomy — which allows mistakes — however, she also acknowledged that “it’s difficult to act independently in a system.”

Among activities churches could offer to assist parents, Sister Hosch said, are family retreats, parenting workshops, marriage enrichment weekends, and letting families get involved in programs such as the Poverella Ministry, an effort to mentor families out of poverty.

In the afternoon session, family diversity was examined through two panel presentations on structure and culture.

The family structure panel was represented by a single parent; a couple in which one spouse has been divorced, had the marriage annulled, and was remarried; a single young adult; a married couple with seven children; a Catholic married to a non-Catholic; a divorced Catholic; and aged Catholics.

The cultural diversity panel speakers consisted of an African-American; an Anglo and Hispanic couple; and Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese Catholics.

All discussed their feelings about what the Catholicism has meant to them personally and in their faith life, and well as challenges they have experienced in the Church.

From the family structure panel, some positive experiences recounted were the Church being a source of consistency in today’s society; of relationships with parishioners who have had a great impact on lives and been a source of support; of the Church as an alternative to the world’s materialistic values; and of the change in parishes where family activities are encouraged rather than just individual groups for men, women, and children, as had been prevalent in the past.

Some challenges listed were the annulment process, joining a new parish after involvement in campus ministry while in college, helping children to counter proselytization by their Protestant friends, and overcoming misconceptions about the Church that still linger among some older Catholics.

Among the cultural diversity panel speakers, activities that keep various cultural customs alive, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations and Las Posadas, were highlighted as examples of the Church welcoming various ethnic groups. Inclusiveness, obtaining priests who speak native languages, and aggressive outreach from Protestant groups were difficulties cited by the representatives.