By Brian Romer Niemiec
A few days into the Synod on the Family, and we have already seen a wide range of topics and opinions being presented and discussed in Rome. Any hesitation or passivity that may have been present at the beginning of the extraordinary synod last year has been thrown away. It is no secret that these upcoming conversations are going to be a conversion experience for all involved if the synod is to speak with one voice at the end of its time together (naïvely optimistic, I know).
These hot button issues are incredibly important subjects to discuss, and I am very gratified by many of the people present at the synod for wanting to work through these topics to find a life-giving truth for the betterment of Christian families. I was, however, even more delighted to hear some of the bishops request time to talk about less sexy, but no less important issues surrounding ways to support and strengthen family life within Church communities.
It is this question – one of many – that I am wrestling with now in my parish collaborative. I see families in both churches with various levels of need in the area of faith formation. There is the family that comes to mass every Sunday, volunteers in a number of parish activities, and prays as a family at home. There is also the family that shows up only to mass on weekends with Religious Education, and when asked why they attend class the oldest son responds, “Well, my grandmother thinks it is important, so my mom makes us all go.”
How do we support these families in their journey with Christ? How does Jesus become an increasingly central pillar of family life? How do we walk with individual families, when the sheer volume of parishioners far surpasses the resources of our staff?
I have been trying to situate this conversation in relation to the progression of conversion to committed discipleship that people seem to move through. Sherry Weddell, author of, “Forming Intentional Disciples,” has an outstanding five level description of individual conversion to discipleship. In the parish setting, I see this process being lived out in four main stages:
- First you have those who attend Mass for various reasons, but don’t think about religion outside of that. It can be a person who attends on Christmas and Easter, or someone who attends monthly, or even a frequent attendee that bounces around from church to church. Many of these people are not hostile to faith, and some are even curious about what it is all about. After all, they have walked in the door.
- Next, you have those in the parish looking for something more. They can’t always articulate what it is, but they want to explore this whole faith thing a bit, and see if it is worth investing time in. These people are looking for an encounter with Christ. They are looking for an experience that shows God is not some incomprehensible other (which God is), but is someone they can engage and begin to have a relationship with (which God also is through Jesus Christ).
- Then, there are those in the parish that are looking to dig deeper, and grow in their relationship with Christ and his Church. These individuals already have a prayer life, and are looking to strengthen that conversation with Jesus in order to lead to ever deeper conversion.
- Finally, a growing relationship with Christ moves people to action, sharing Christ’s love with the world through word and deed. These are individuals that live out their discipleship to Christ in various ways. In the parish, these parishioners are heavily involved in various groups and committees, and freely make Christ and the living out of Christ’s love the central focus of their lives.
Most parishioners are certainly in the first two stages of this progression, and people move back and forth along this path throughout their lives. I know there are times when I feel I need to encounter again the person of Jesus Christ, or recommit myself to deepening my relationship with him in order to better live out my discipleship in the world. In fact, these steps don’t always go in order. For some, service in the world (number four) is what leads people back to conversation with Christ. We never perfectly fit into one of these categories. Often people have one foot in a few of these stages, and no one gets to a perfect realization of number four. That comes at the eschaton.
Regardless of the number of times we move back and forth along this path or in what way these different stages manifest themselves in each of us, it is this journey of faith that parishes are meant to support. Families often journey on this path together as they raise kids and live into the Sacrament of Marriage. Supporting families in their faith journey also supports individual discipleship, since fruitful crops have much difficulty growing in hard and uncultivated soil.
As I struggle to provide fruitful support for families in these various stages, I pray that this synod will give us a framework and some tools to address these very real and concrete realities that parishes encounter on a daily basis. I also hope that other ministers out there are thinking about similar challenges, and we can help each other become more life-giving and faith centered ministers. So, if you have any ideas, please let me know. I need all the help I can get.