Challenges of the American Catholic family

Father John A. Kiley

The nurse at the head desk at an area hospital said that there was a young lady who wanted to see a priest should one pass by. The young woman was not seriously ill, but rather somewhat apprehensive about a procedure that she was to undergo the following day.

The best assurance that could be given to her was that as scary as it might seem to have an important limb undergo the surgeon’s knife, such an operation is fairly routine nowadays. Although she was from a nationality that is usually Catholic, she told me that she belonged to the local Episcopal Church – because it was the nearest to her former home. She informed me further that she was somewhat angry with God because her grandfather who had raised her had died two years ago and her own father had died eight months ago. She volunteered that she really did not have a mother; her grandmother was her real mother. There was no mention of a husband, but she did have two children; one an adult and one an older teenager. The adult son lived with her, but did not have a job since he was liable to seizures. He was planning to move in with his girlfriend in the near future. She spoke of a Catholic church near her home and remarked that she had heard the pastor was friendly and kind. She also spoke affectionately of the Catholic parish of her youth, quickly recognizing the names of priests who had served there over the years. Although she was the picture of health and surprisingly older than her face would indicate, she told me that she did not work and that she was on some kind of disability. She appreciated the prayers that were offered for her successful surgery the next day, signing herself as the blessing was bestowed.

This scenario is repeated over and over again, especially in the urban areas of our diocese. Grandpa and grandma were born and remained more or less practicing Catholics. They had received their sacraments, possibly attended Catholic school, were married in the Church, and had their own children baptized. The next generation might have made Holy Communion but skipped Confirmation or stopped going to Mass shortly after making Confirmation. The local Catholic school had long closed and attendance at religious education was a chore. This middle generation moved in with or married in a civil ceremony a non-Catholic or non-practicing Catholic. The relationship was short-lived, but long enough to produce a child or two. Jobs were mostly menial or non-existent. Drugs and alcohol were often part of their lifestyle. With baggage like co-habitation, divorce, illegitimacy, and a civil marriage, the thought of approaching the Church for the sacraments for their own children was faint. As religion faded out of the American cultural milieu that surrounded them, religion receded from their own personal lives as well. Now a third generation is growing up that will hardly know the Church at all.

Pope Francis has convoked a general synod of Church leaders precisely to address the dire situation of family life, or the lack thereof, with the Catholic Church and throughout the modern world in general. Marriage preparation, marriage counselling, single parenthood, cohabitation, family planning, fertility issues, divorce, attempted re-marriage, the legal re-definition of marriage, the availability of the sacraments to those who find themselves in unique circumstances, as well as the welcoming or non-welcoming attitude encountered when persons in such circumstances approach the church are some of the topics that the Pope has asked not only the bishops, but the Catholic community at large to survey and address. There is not a single American Catholic family that does not face some aspect of this list of challenges every day. Older family members politely ignore the changed circumstances of modern times. Fear of alienation has replaced admonishing the sinner as a work of mercy. Younger family members are totally unaware that some ethical situations are completely at odds with Christian morality and Church teaching. Clear papal teachings rarely trickle down to religious education classes.

It goes without saying that the Holy Father is correct in calling for a thorough examination of family life and values as well as the means that families, parishes and dioceses employ to convey to the faithful the doctrines, teachings and practices on which Christian family life is based. His Holiness knows that the health of the Catholic family, the domestic church, is critical for strengthening the whole people of God, the one, holy Catholic and apostolic Church.