Welcome the marginalized at Christmas

Recently at my parish, I met with some young families to discuss ways to retain the spiritual side of Christmas in the midst of the secular frenzy so common in our society.

Three themes were woven into the discussion. The first was that at home these parents tried to emphasize the Christmas story over the more secular aspects of the holiday. A few focused on the story of St. Nicholas instead of Santa Claus.

A second theme common to all was their emphasis on family. Being with extended family for Christmas helped them focus on the love at the center of their celebrations. Finally, they discussed their families’ efforts to give to others less fortunate.

It was heartening to hear their thoughts on maintaining the spirit of the season. However, one aspect of the discussion was surprising. I was disconcerted by how little these parents understood Advent.

They knew that Advent had something to do with candles, but they weren’t sure what the season was all about. These are parents committed to participating in our parish faith formation, which is centered on adults.

They seemed almost sheepish admitting their lack of understanding of Advent. When one admitted to not knowing something, others seemed relieved that someone had broken the ice. A discussion of the liturgical cycle seemed brand-new information for most of them.

Working in parish religious education, I’ve come to understand that many parents in their 20s, 30s and 40s have very little intellectual understanding of the faith. In addition to being unaware of the importance of Advent, this group confirmed that most couldn’t define the word “incarnation.” An adult understanding of the faith has never really been imparted to them.

While I have no evidence to prove it, I believe the traditional CCD model failed these parents. They may have sporadically attended classes, but not much can be taught in a traditional CCD model as it’s been offered over the last few decades. That’s why our parish focuses on adult formation.

Even though they have little understanding of the faith, many of these parents have a strong spirituality and are committed to passing along their faith to their children. Of course, it’s hard to share the faith when they feel ill-equipped.

On the one hand, it can be discouraging to recognize how little knowledge of the faith so many of our young parents have. But what’s encouraging is that, in spite of inadequate catechetical preparation, they are drawn to the faith, not only for their children but for themselves. The spiritual longing they experience is real, and they are searching for the best way to express it and share it with their children.

I’m convinced that these families must first be shown the holiness already present in their lives. They must be encouraged to trust their instincts to seek out a spiritual path, and they must be guided along that path with discussions that relate to the questions they find relevant. They must also be encouraged to voice even the most basic questions in an environment of acceptance.

What we once took for granted, that every adult Catholic was literate in the faith, can no longer be assumed. But that’s not a cause for despair, as long as parish ministers and all who wish to offer instruction, recognize and respect the inherent dignity of seekers who may be unfamiliar with doctrine but who already have a relationship with God and their community and a desire to find an even deeper connection to both.

When Christ was born, we’re told that shepherds, not priests or scribes, were among the first to be aware of his presence. Those considered the most lowly and marginalized were recognized and worshipped him. Jesus gave no exams to determine who could follow him. What seemed to matter most to him was what is in the heart, not the head.

This Christmas those of us who are active parishioners will have opportunities to worship with those who come to church irregularly, who stay on the margins of the faith. How accepting and welcoming we are to them may influence how likely they are to come back.