Family life is formed by the decisions made in the first years. Will we use NFP? How many children will we have? How will we educate our children? Will we pray daily? Will we go to Mass every Sunday, no matter how difficult it is? What will be first priority: sports, activities, vacation, a successful career, or something else? What movies will we watch? What will be the place of technology in our home? What kinds of lifelong friends do we want our children to have?
We believe that a life in Catholic community with other families is necessary today. We want to share with you a few insights from our own experience of helping form a strong Catholic community within our parish.
A Child’s Genuflection
How much can be known by watching a child genuflect before Mass? As a fresh-out-of-college, newly married couple with a baby, we felt that you could tell a substantial amount by this very simple action. Sunday after Sunday, we would notice a handful of families who guided their young children in the loving act of greeting their Heavenly Father with a reverent sign of the cross and knee to the ground. After a few months we summoned the courage to invite these families to our small home for a potluck dinner and a walking rosary on a warm spring Thursday evening. Over the following few months, these original six families invited others, and we became a group of twelve.
In our naiveté, we assumed these couples were more or less at the same spiritual place that we were, but looking back, the chasm was much wider. Some were still using birth control. Others were willing to skip Mass when it was not convenient. Only a few prayed every day or regularly studied their faith. Most would not say that their Catholic faith was the deciding factor in how they lived, and nearly all had never witnessed or been part of authentic Catholic community life. But all of them were showing up to Mass with their small children. They were desiring something more and were willing to say yes. Within the next couple of years, this group of twelve families eventually multiplied to over thirty families and included almost every young, regularly attending family in the parish. What began as a family potluck dinner and prayer at our house two Thursday evenings a month has grown over the past eight years into a yearly marriage retreat, men’s and women’s Saturday retreats three times a year, a Tuesday night study group, two yearly cocktail parties for adults, and many other events. What began as a few families who genuflected turned into a thriving active group of families who pray daily, live an authentic Catholic faith, and now cannot imagine turning their back on what they have experienced.
We Are Made for a Life in Communion with Others
The Catechism tells us that “There is a certain resemblance between the unity of the divine persons and the fraternity that men are able to establish among themselves in truth and love. Love of neighbor is inseparable from love for God” (CCC 1878). God created us to live in community, just as God continually lives within the community of the Holy Trinity. We need others in order to love and be encouraged, but also to be stretched and grow.
Families need each other to raise children well. When a Catholic community culture is formed, a norm of life that includes daily prayer, growth in virtue, and liturgical living permeates the day. A parent can answer a child in truth: “we are not the only ones; we are all living this way.”
With strong Catholic community, we can know those with whom our children are playing. We know who to vacation with and to choose as godparents. As married couples, when things are difficult, we know that we will be encouraged by other families to push through, to forgive, and to grow. When we are sick, a job is lost, or tragedy strikes, we have a community to surround us, pray for us, feed us, and help us in bearing our burdens.
Building Community: Where to Start?
Over the years, we have been asked many times, “How can we start a similar young family’s group?” We do not have an elaborate plan or magical program. Instead, we followed some simple steps that anyone can do.
The first step is to pray for community. God desires to send friends into our lives—and he wants us to invest in others so that we might form community in our ministries and parishes. Often those he sends are not the people we would assume he would send, and they don’t frequently show up the way we thought. If we would have had a checklist of the “perfect” Catholic family, very few of the families who are now our friends would have made the cut. Of course, we wouldn’t have made the cut, either!
The second step is to edge out of your comfort zone and invite. Friendship begins with an invitation. After all, Christ called to the disciples with words of invitation: “Follow me” (Mt 4:19). Doing this ourselves will require a leap of faith and a willingness to live uncomfortably. But just as with the disciples, the rewards are eternal and worth the difficulty. Consider first inviting the natural leaders in your community or those who are asking for more community. They can help make a list with you of people to invite. You will see that this approach will draw more people than you ever could with a flier or email blast.
Third, create a joyful atmosphere and eat together. There is power in sharing a meal. After all, Christ ate with his disciples, and he gives us the Eucharistic Meal to participate in with others. Each of us has a different personality and gifts to share. For us, it was fancy cocktail parties for the parents, liturgically themed food for the family dinners (Mexican for Our Lady of Guadalupe, etc.), beautiful touches like flowers and tablecloths, and a walking rosary. But your choices and stories will be unique, and so will the people you help form into community.
The crucial fourth step for community life to be authentic is that we always include prayer. This is a non-negotiable. There will be times it feels awkward to pause for a time of substantial prayer (at least fifteen to twenty minutes) in the middle of a cocktail party or with screaming kids running underfoot. But this time of prayer is essential. Praying together is what sets our time as a community apart from all the other meetings and gatherings. It bonds us and is the real purpose of our community. In our group, we began with a walking rosary and, over time, each family took a turn leading, sharing their specific spiritual life with others. Each family can be asked how they feel most called to lead prayer. We can offer them ideas, resources, and locations for prayer.
The final step is that there is always room for another person. This group generosity and openness can be a hard principle when things are going well. We selfishly want to keep it for ourselves. And, when things are difficult, we feel we can’t bear the burden of one more new person. But it’s important to always maintain an atmosphere of welcoming whomever God sends. An open heart is important.
Once you experience full Catholic community, it is hard to imagine life without it. From this small group of six families, many other communities have been formed. Some people had to move away and have found new families to form community with. Others came to our events and then started groups in their own parish. One of the couples who was using contraception went on to have three more children. The wife even changed practices as a nurse practitioner after taking a stance to no longer prescribe birth control. We know that the human heart longs to walk this journey with others. Helping others form community in which they can thrive, grow, and from whom they can receive support is one of the greatest gifts we can help give to those we serve in ministry. Community life is always possible. There is someone out there who lives nearby and who is willing to take the next step if asked. Open your home, open your heart, and ask.
Andrew and Coreen Wagenbach have served in ministry for the past twelve years in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Both graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2009 with degrees in Theology and Catechetics, Andrew with an emphasis in Youth Ministry and Coreen with an additional degree in Humanities and Catholic Culture. They live in Minnesota with their four young sons.
This article originally appeared on pages 28-29 in the print edition.
Art credit: Public domain photo of family gathering and hugging by Askar Abayev from Pexels.com.