Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sacramentalizing the "Casual Catholic" Family - or Evangelizing Them?

Most parish directors of religious education are actually pretty creative people. They are continually devising new strategies to try to get barely-connected families to be serious about their involvement in their children's faith formation. (Often against their will.) Many in our diocese make use of annual pre-sacrament  parent meetings to urge parents to get involved by bringing their children to Mass on a regular basis, praying and reading Scripture at home and talking about their faith with their children. They give inspiring talks, show videos, facilitate group process, and send home family projects. Some use various formats of intergenerational gatherings to involve the entire family on site at the parish.  They spend a huge amount of time and energy trying to get parents to step up to their responsibility for their children's faith formation.

While these are certainly good practices, and certainly they have some effect, how difficult it is to reach these folks meaningfully with the good news of Jesus Christ becomes painfully apparent when most of them disappear from the parish after the last child receives that all-important Confirmation certificate. They pretty much have what they came for. Now they can move on. They will come back to church for weddings, baptisms, and funerals, and perhaps on Christmas and Easter... or not. Some even blithely tell parish leaders that they promised their teen that after Confirmation they no longer have to come to Mass.  These are the "casual Catholic" families. They really only want to know how much the sacrament will "cost" them in terms of money and time. They will mostly give as little of both as possible.  A few may have enough good will to volunteer for ministries while their children are in formation, but even many of these do not remain after the Oil of Chrism is dry on their child's forehead.

What's missing and why don't these strategies work very well.? Simple. Many parents quite often don't have much faith themselves to share with their children. They may have a conventional sense that faith is important, but they really don't have a strong relationship with Jesus Christ.  While intergenerational programs offer more opportunity for engagement, they are missing something very important: opportunities for the parents to experience real and meaningful  conversion of their own. 

Enter Father James Mallon. Father Mallon, the Canadian priest behind Catholicism 201 (the follow up to Alpha for Catholics) and Dogmatic Theology. He is a man with a plan. When he spoke in our diocese on December 8, he described his method... and proposed some models.  (The full presentation can be heard HERE .)

What Father James proposes is that we stop spending the bulk of our energy on those who are not serious about their faith. Not that we abandon those barely-connected families, but that we no longer tolerate the status quo by enabling them to get those sacraments they want from us for a minimal temporary commitment.  He is convinced that people make lots of promises in the course of sacrament preparation they never intend to keep. He spoke of it as "ritualized lying".  We set people up for this when we allow them to celebrate sacraments and make promises within that celebration, knowing full well they are not really ready and have no sense of commitment to those promises.

Father Mallon explained, as an example, how when a couple comes to him seeking a church marriage, before he sets up the preparation and the wedding date, he first asks them to start coming to Mass on a regular basis to get to know him and the community, and to go through the Alpha Course for Catholics, a small-group evangelization process.  Some will balk at this, a few will go away, but many decide to go through this.  So do many parents who bring children for baptism, or children for other sacraments. Those who do engage in this process, apparently, stay and become a part of  St. Benedict in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a very growing and lively parish, which has been described as the "Willow Creek" of Canada.  Everyone in the parish is considered to be on an active faith journey... they are truly a parish that has become a "learning community." Everyone in the parish is asked in some way to participate in the stewardship of time and talent -  and time is not just time spent in service, it is also time spent in prayer and developing one's spiritual life.

What about the families who are already engaged and active and lifelong members of the parish?  Father Mallon says you need to stop lumping them in with the inactive people and treating them all the same. That might mean you offer something deeper for those who are ready - a separate track, as it were... small groups, perhaps, but using resources that acknowledge they are further along on their journey of faith.

So, what difference would it make in your parish if everyone were asked to become part of a small-group evangelizing process before they or their children receive sacraments? If they were helped to see why God and faith and the Church really matter (in a program such as Alpha for Catholics) If they were all expected to be and assisted to be on a faith journey? If they were all tapped for time and talent? 

Do you think parents might stop telling their kids that after Confirmation they never have to go to Mass again?  Do you think they would be more engaged and active in the parish?  What would YOU do if you could, to evangelize and engage the disconnected folks who only seek us out when they want sacraments?  Can you start thinking differently about the focus of your efforts with parents - to change from making it about their children's faith to making it about their own faith?


  1. Nice post Joyce. We've got to find ways of helping people out of their self-imposed spiritual malaise. That's an interesting approach of Fr. Mallon. What's even better is that it works! It would be awesome if everyone in the parish cared and everyone else just left. ;-) Great things to think about.

  2. Father Mallon has proposed a plan to his diocese.. with the hope they would all buy into it, so that people would not just leave and go to another parish. If they were all to do it, people would have to take us on our terms, not theirs.

  3. I really like this! It is so discouraging to me that of 10 teens confirmed in our parish two years ago, including our son, only two, including our son, still attend Mass. Sigh. Teens want to feel a sense of belonging, and when their peers don't show up, then they don't want to either. The nonparticipation has a really deleterious effect on us all.

  4. Re the lukewarm adults, I don't know. But you are right that "Many parents quite often don't have much faith themselves to share with their children." That's one reason that I want my students learn a sturdy and imaginative faith; and then go out and evangelize...their parents.

  5. True, Allison - and it really all goes back to the parents. You can always tell which parents take their role as first catechist of their children seriously. The Mass attendance thing is huge. A CARA poll a couple years back found that the single most important factor in whether a young adult stays Catholic was whether or not he/she attended Mass regularly as a child and youth. That tells me we need more and better liturgical catechesis, but more than that, we need to work harder to foster the conversion of our adults so they practice the faith and spread it by example to their children.

  6. kkollwitz, it's great to continue working with the kids, and we should not stop, but since kids tell you their biggest role models are their parents, I think that inactive parents can limit our effectiveness. If a parent does not want to drive the child to Mass, only a few of our kids are savvy enough to find another way to get there.

  7. Yeah you're right. I intend to make the Mass so interesting to such kids that they ask their parents to take them. I support the church getting slack parents to take their kids to Mass; in the meantime I get their kids for an hour each time they bring them to class.