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The Art of Accompaniment in Faith Formation
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Four Trends that will Shape the Future of Catechesis in 2017 and Beyond

Catechesis has always been a dynamic field. While the core content remains the same, our methodology evolves as technology advances and events and circumstances shape the needs of our church. If we consider what we are hearing today about the hopes, challenges, and frustrations of catechetical leaders and reflect upon this in light of current trends in general education, several key themes emerge. Here are four trends that I believe will change catechesis in 2017 and beyond.
 
1.     Differentiated instruction/multisensory methodology. In general education over the past 20 years, there has been an increasing recognition that not everyone learns in the same way. Advances in neurocognitive research have helped us understand this better and to adopt a prescriptive approach to different learning styles. Consequently, in a modern classroom, we see various multisensory strategies at work. Learning activities and materials incorporate various senses – there are auditory and visual stimuli as well as hands-on approaches for kinesthetic learners. Learners are working not only individually, but also in pairs and small groups to complete learning tasks. The days of lectures and discussions are largely gone, and texts are increasingly replaced by audiovisual technology. These approaches help to keep learners engaged, they speak to the unique learning style of each individual, and they help to meet special learning needs.
 
2.     Enhanced reality. The ubiquity of smartphones, tablets and other devices and the development of enhanced reality technologies (e.g. “Pokémon Go”) have tremendous implications for catechesis. Imagine a church in which point-of-use catechesis was available through enhanced reality. For example, when aiming the camera on their device at the holy water font, a learner could see video- or text-based catechesis on holy water and why Catholics bless themselves when entering a church. Churches could also customize the enhanced reality experience to use their own stained glass windows, icons, and other objects as teaching tools.
 
3.    Virtual reality. Virtual reality technology has become inexpensive and portable. This will mean that in the very near future, nearly everyone will have access to virtual reality technology in the same way the majority of the population has access to smartphone technology today. The implications here for religious education are enormous. Just to cite one example: Imagine that instead of hearing or reading a Scripture account, we could step inside a portrayal of that account – actually being present as Jesus calls his disciples or preaches the Sermon on the Mount.
 
4.    Virtual classrooms and social media integration. For good or for ill, people are meeting less in person and more virtually. Educational technology companies have revolutionized university classes and created virtual classrooms that integrate with social media so people can “gather” for learning sessions in a more natural way and continue the discussion on social media. This has great implications for catechist and catechetical leader training and perhaps eventually for younger learners or their families in catechetical sessions.
 

We share a timeless message, but in a changing word, we must be willing to constantly re-envision our methodology. Here’s to an exciting future in catechesis!

Sandy Hook: Fourth Anniversary

Today is the fourth anniversary of the Sandy Hook tragedy. Having visited Newtown and spoken with some of those connected with this event, I am resolved to do what I can to keep this from happening again. I wonder what wonderful things our world missed out on because the following lives were cut short:

Charlotte Bacon, 6
Daniel Barden, 7
Olivia Engel, 6
Josephine Gay, 7
Ana M. Marquez-Greene, 6
Dylan Hockley, 6
Madeleine F. Hsu, 6
Catherine V. Hubbard, 6
Chase Kowalski, 7
Jesse Lewis, 6
James Mattioli, 6
Grace McDonnell, 7
Emilie Parker, 6
Jack Pinto, 6
Noah Pozner, 6
Caroline Previdi, 6
Jessica Rekos, 6
Avielle Richman, 6
Benjamin Wheeler, 6
Allison N. Wyatt, 6
Mary Sherlach, 56
Victoria Soto, 27
Anne Marie Murphy, 52
Lauren Rousseau, 30
Dawn Hochsprung, 47
Rachel Davino, 29

May we never forget the precious lives lost, and may we each strive to bring peace to our little corner of the world. 

Click here to see my post from two years ago, where I told how one of these little victims is an inspiration for all of us.

Waiting Room

It’s that time of year again. That holiday time when everything seems to go a little faster. Signs in stores announce the number of shopping days until Christmas, television commercials announce the new items the family “must have” this year, and the kids are full of energy in anticipation of their favorite holiday. When all this happens within the context of a culture that is driven by efficiency, immediacy, and newness, parents can go into high gear – the holidays can be stressful.

Contrast this with what is happening in our Church year. We have reached the end of Ordinary Time and have come to a period of quiet. We hear Scriptures about being prepared, not materially, but spiritually. We sing songs about waiting in darkness and longing for the light. Could it be that the antidote for holiday stress may be as close as our Catholic faith?

St. Paul tells us in Galatians 5:22 that patience is a “fruit” of the Spirit. Patience is difficult in a culture of instant gratification. We catch ourselves honking the horn when the light has been green for three seconds and the car in front of us hasn’t moved. We sigh and roll our eyes when were in line and the person behind the counter has to go to the back to get something. We even rush to end mealtime conversations with friends and family so we can check more items off the list. Could it be that in our rush to get things done, we are forgetting to really live? Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10, RSV). How can we make our hearts and homes open to the life that only Christ can bring as we prepare to celebrate his coming into the world?

Perhaps this year, it’s time to truly celebrate Advent. Place an advent wreath in a prominent place. Make a special effort to have meals together, and light the candles, praying together at these times. Be conscious of, and participate in, parish observances of  St. Nicholas Day (Dec. 6), the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (December 12), and (if you are in an Hispanic parish) Las Posadas. Keep an advent calendar, and keep Christmas decorations to a minimum until Christmas arrives. You may even wish to save at least some Christmas gifts for Epiphany, when gifts are exchanged in many other countries. Consider doing good works as a family for the poor in your community, or help out a little extra at your parish. Spend some time making gifts for one another.

Being deliberate about our observance of Advent can send a powerful message to our children: This is not just a time to “wait it out,” but a time to grow.
When Christmas finally arrives, make it a point to share that the greatest gift of all was God’s gift of himself – Jesus Christ. Wrap the baby Jesus from your nativity scene in a gift box, and open that gift first when gifts are exchanged. If you have young children, you may wish to lead them in singing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus.
No matter how you celebrate, now is a great opportunity to teach your children the meaning of the old adage, “Good things come to those who wait.”

“They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles” (Isaiah 40:31, RSV).

First Day Fears: Helping Your Child Cope with School Anxiety

Back to school time signals new beginnings: new classes, teachers, and friends, and a change in the daily routine. But for some children, starting the school year can be difficult, even distressing. This is especially true for children at key transition points, such as the beginning of kindergarten, middle, or high school. Fear of the unknown can lead to high anxiety, which depending on a child’s age, may manifest itself as verbalized worries, tearfulness at separation times, irritability, refusal to go to school, or physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. Here are some tips for helping your child start a new school or get back into the school year routine.

For new kindergarteners and young children: 
• Check to see if the school has an open house or another time when you and your child can visit before the school year begins, see the classroom, and meet the teacher. Getting a sneak peek can help children who are fearful because they don’t know what to expect. While you are there, help the child ask questions about the planned daily routine. 
• Allow your child to make some choices about what he/she will wear, the color of his/her backpack, etc. Having some control in feared situations can greatly reduce anxiety.
• When you drop your child off for school, don’t linger too long, even if he or she becomes somewhat tearful. Hanging around can send your child the message that either you don’t think he or she can handle the situation alone or you have some doubts about whether he or she is safe. This “lingering behavior” is a primary contributor of school anxiety in young children. Rest assured that teachers of young children are well equipped to handle first-day jitters.
• Use a transitional object, if necessary. Just as we are comforted by medals and other sacramentals that remind us of the presence of God and the saints, children can be comforted by a reminder that you are with them, emotionally if not physically.  Perhaps a picture of mom or dad in their pocket or a new watch given on the first day of school “to remind you I am thinking about you every hour today.”
For middle/high school children:
• Reflect your child’s feelings and remind him or her that the other kids starting middle or high school are in the same situation and likely have some of the same feelings, even if they don’t show it. It’s natural to be a little nervous in new situations.
• Send the message, “I know you can handle this,” both with your words and your actions. After reflecting feelings, be firm about school attendance and independence. Don’t walk into the school with your child on the first day, even if they say they want you to,. Doing so can make an awkward first impression on preteen and teen-age peers.
• Encourage children to come up with their own self-affirmations, reminders they can say to themselves when they begin to feel anxious. Some children use phrases like, “I know I can do this,” or perhaps even a simple Scripture verse, such as “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13, RSV).

For all children: 
• Make an effort to connect with families at your parish who have children of the same age. If your children can meet some of the kids who will be attending the same school, they will at least see some familiar faces on that first day.
• Be a stickler about reported illness. If children say they cannot go to school because they don’t feel well, make sure it’s really serious enough to stay home. Are they running a fever? Have they been vomiting? If they are sick, they should be resting in bed, not playing video games or watching TV.

New experiences and relationships are part of what makes life enjoyable and meaningful. As we communicate the joy of new beginnings to our children, let us impart the message of the angel Gabriel, “Be not afraid!” (Luke 2 :10, RSV).

HELPING CHILDREN EXPERIENCE GOD’S MERCY

God has created us in his image, and he has created us for good things. Sadly, we do not always live up to the goodness we were made for, but God loves us so much that he can’t give up on his. He extends his mercy to us, forgiving us when we are truly sorry and giving us grace to do better. Pope Francis has proclaimed a Jubilee Year of Mercy from December 8th, 2015 through November 13, 2016. This is an important time to remember, celebrate, and experience God’s mercy in our lives, and especially in our families.

Around age 6 or 7, children enter what we call the “age of reason.” They begin to get a better grasp on cause and effect and they learn that the world works according to rules. When kids learn God’s commandments, usually around age 7 in Catholic parish and school religion programs, they also realize they have broken some of God’s rules. They need to be assured of God’s unconditional love and experience his forgiveness.
We might sometimes be reluctant to discuss sin with young children,  but it’s important for kids to learn how to handle the sin we all experience. It’s important for children, at the beginning of their lives, to have a sense of what God has planned for them – what he made them for. Children cannot rise to standards that we do not set.

Here are some practical tips for helping children understand God’s forgiveness and mercy:

• Look for natural opportunities to discuss God’s rules, sin, and forgiveness in the context of family life. We have ample opportunities to do this in our relationships with one another (parents, siblings, etc.). Practice forgiveness and reconciliation even in difficult family situations. 
• Help your child understand the difference between a sin and an accident. We sin when we choose to do wrong. Make an extra effort to be patient with your child’s mistakes, but hold him or her responsible for wrong choices. 
• If possible, implement logical consequences when your child has wronged someone. For example, fighting over a toy may result in temporarily losing the privilege to play with that toy. In addition, assign your child a “good deed” to help repair the damage that is done to a relationship after a conflict. Coach the child who was wronged in receiving this good will mercifully.
• The life and the parables of Jesus are full of surprising examples of God’s mercy. It’s important for parents to be consistent with rules and consequences, but every once in a while, consider surprising your child with mercy. For example, in a situation in which your child has already experienced a natural consequence for a wrong that was done, empathize with her, and let your child know that although the choice was wrong, you feel said that she is hurting. Or, if your child is already “beating himself up” over a wrong choice, remind him that God made him for good things and will help him do better, and give him a hug instead of a consequence – just this once.
• Attend a communal reconciliation service as a family (Many parishes offer them during Advent and Lent). This helps children become more confortable with the sacrament and allows them to see others celebrating it. Emphasize that confession is not a punishment, but a way to experience God’s mercy and forgiveness. It is a reminder that “God loves us no matter what.”

For a one-page, downloadable pdf of this article, click here.

A Catechist's Guide to Amoris Laetitia: The Joy of Love

With today's release of the new Apostolic Exhortation, I am pleased to present this chapter-by-chapter summary guide for catechists and teachers of the faith. However, I recommend, as Pope Francis does, that you take your time with the document itself. It is a beautifully written teaching on marriage and family that will surely shape our conversation about these issues for years to come. The full text of the Apostolic Exhortation can be found here. Or better yet, order a print copy of the document here.

**NEW UPDATE 5/7/2016 -- This study guide now includes reflection questions for catechists and catechetical leaders for each chapter of the document. You can also download a pdf of this study guide here.

INTRODUCTION

In the first paragraph, Pope Francis affirms the positive message of the family, stating, “the Christian proclamation on the family is good news indeed.” 

Pope Francis immediately puts to rest sensationalist rumors about what will be contained in the document, stating, “The debates carried on in the media, in certain publications and even among the Church’s ministers, range from an immoderate desire for total change without sufficient reflection or grounding, to an attitude that would solve everything by applying general rules or deriving undue conclusions from particular theological considerations” (2). He goes on to effectively state that what he will write will not absolutely settle the argument with general rules, because “each country or region…can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to local traditions and local needs.”

Following that caveat about what he will not do, Pope Francis spells out what he will do in the apostolic exhortation and why:

He feels the Synods raised “many legitimate concerns and honest questions,” and wishes “to gather the contributions” of the Synods and add “other considerations s an aid to reflection, dialogue and pastoral practice, as a help and encouragement to families in their daily commitments and challenges” (4).

Pope Francis states that this Exhortation is fitting for the year of mercy, “because it represents an invitation to Christian families to value the gifts of marriage and the family, and to persevere in a love strengthened by the virtues of generosity, commitment, fidelity and patience” and “because it seeks to encourage everyone to be a sign of mercy and closeness wherever family life remains imperfect or lacks peace and joy” (5).

He lays out his outline in paragraph 6:

"I will begin with an opening chapter inspired by the Scriptures, to set a proper tone. I will then examine the actual situation of families, in order to keep firmly grounded in reality. I will go on to recall some essential aspects of the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family, thus paving the way for two central chapters dedicated to love. I will then highlight some pastoral approaches that can guide us in building sound and fruitful homes in accordance with God’s plan, with a full chap¬ter devoted to the raising of children. Finally, I will offer an invitation to mercy and the pastoral discernment of those situations that fall short of what the Lord demands of us, and conclude with a brief discussion of family spirituality" (6).

He closes the introduction with a salient and hopeful quote from his address last year at the Meeting of Families in Santiago de Cuba:  “families are not a problem; they are first and foremost an opportunity” (7).


CHAPTER ONE – IN THE LIGHT OF THE WORD

In Chapter One, Pope Francis recounts the family in salvation history, noting that the family is present from the first page, in the story of Creation, to the last, in the marriage feast between the Bride and the Lamb. He points out that Genesis presents the human couple in its deepest reality – God has created man and woman in his image, and they, as a couple, reflect the image of the Creator in their fruitfulness (10). Pope Francis elaborates on this in paragraph 11, in which he points out that the family is a “living reflection” of the triune God, who is a “communion of love.” He quotes Pope John Paul II in describing the Trinity as “a family, for he has within himself fatherhood, sonship, and the essence of the family, which is love. That love, in the divine family, is the Holy Spirit”

In paragraphs 12 and 13, Pope Francis discusses marriage as an encounter between man and woman, and a relationship of “voluntary self-giving love” (13).

Pope Francis then speaks of children and the family as “domestic church” and “the place where children are brought up in the faith. He discusses the biblical instruction for children to honor their parents, and states that the Gospel reminds us “children are not the property of the family, but have their own lives to lead” (18).

Pope Francis asserts that the ideal of the family presented in Scripture is “a source of comfort and companionship for every family, because “it shows them the goal of their journey” (22).

Work

Pope Francis points out that Scripture presents work as ‘an essential part of human dignity” (23) and says that labor “also makes possible the development of society and provides for the sustenance, stability and fruitfulness of one’s family” (24).  For this reason, he cites unemployment as a threat to family life (25). He also 

Tenderness of an Embrace

Pope Francis states that Jesus proposes his Law of Love as the “distinctive sign of his disciples.”  He adds, “love also bears fruit in mercy and forgiveness” (27). 

Here, Pope Francis points to a virtue he states is “overlooked in our world of frenetic and superficial relationships” – tenderness.  Pope Francis cites God’s own presentation of his relationship with us as one of parental love

In the last paragraph of Chapter 1, Pope Francis points to the Holy Family of Nazareth as an example for today, as this family “had its share of burdens and even nightmares.” He directs us to look especially to Mary, whose heart “contains the experiences of every family” (30).

Reflection Questions for Catechists/Catechetical Leaders:

1. In what ways can I more effectively communicate Catholic teaching on marriage and family, especially as it relates to the communion of the Holy Trinity and the self-giving love of Jesus and the Church?

2. How might I make the Holy Family more prominent in my own work as a catechist, with special attention to the way they endured struggles and challenges with grace and love?


CHAPTER TWO – THE EXPERIENCES AND CHALLENGES OF FAMILIES

This chapter opens with a key quote: “The welfare of the family is decisive for the future of the world and that of the Church” (31).

Here, Pope Francis quotes the synod in saying that the “tensions created by an overly individualistic culture, caught up with possessions and pleasures, leads to intolerance and hostility in families” (33).  Here is another key quote:
“Freedom of choice makes it possible to plan our lives and to make the most of ourselves. Yet if this freedom lacks noble goals or personal discipline, it degenerates into an inability to give oneself generously to others” (33).

Here is another related statement in the next paragraph:

Ultimately, it is easy nowadays to confuse genuine freedom with the idea that each individual can act arbitrarily, as if there were no truths, values and principles to provide guidance, and everything were possible and permissible (34).


Regarding the Christian advocacy of marriage in the larger society, Pope Francis says this:

“As Christians, we can hardly stop advocating marriage simply to avoid countering contemporary sensibilities, or out of a desire to be fashionable or a sense of helplessness in the face of human and moral failings. We would be depriving the world of values that we can and must offer. It is true that there is no sense in simply decrying present-day evils, as if this could change things. Nor it is helpful to try to impose rules by sheer authority. What we need is a more responsible and generous effort to present the reasons and motivations for choosing marriage and the family, and in this way to help men and women better to respond to the grace that God offers them (35).”

He adds that we must be humble and realistic as we do this, and have a “healthy dose of self-criticism” (36).

Hinting at what is to come in his discussion of “irregular marriages,” Pope Francis says this:

“We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life. We find it difficult to present marriage more as a dynamic path to personal development and fulfillment than as a lifelong burden. We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them” (37).

Pope Francis goes on to discuss some of the threats to marriage and family in society today, including the “throwaway culture,” the discouragement of young people to marry, and a contraceptive mentality (39-42). He mentions the failures of social and political systems to uphold the family, and cites especially lack of affordable housing and problems with access to education (43-44).  He also discusses children born out of wedlock, the exploitation of children and forced migration as serious threats to family (45-46). He discusses the need to support families of persons with special needs and families caring for elderly members (47-48).

In paragraphs 50 and 51, Pope Francis discusses the challenges of parent-child communication, family stress, substance abuse and domestic violence. 

In paragraph 52, Pope Francis reaffirms the nuclear family as the basis for the future of society. In paragraph 53, Pope Francis addresses the growing number of alternatives to marriage being proposed, and again cautions against a disparagement of traditional marriage. 

Pope Francis decries the unequal treatment of women that continues in many places around the world. He states:

"There are those who believe that many of today’s problems have arisen because of feminine emancipation. This argument, however, is not valid, 'it is false, untrue, a form of male chauvinism'. The equal dignity of men and women makes us rejoice to see old forms of discrimination disappear, and within families there is a growing reciprocity. If certain forms of feminism have arisen which we must consider inadequate, we must nonetheless see in the women’s movement the working of the Spirit for a clearer recognition of the dignity and rights of women" (54).

Pope Francis also discusses the critical role men play in the family (55).

In paragraph 56, Pope Francis addresses current trends towards a fluid definition of gender and gender identity. Quoting the Synod, he states, “It needs to be empha¬sized that “biological sex and the socio-cultural role of sex (gender) can be distinguished but not separated” (56).  He adds, “Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator. We are creatures, and not omnipotent. Creation is prior to us and must be received as a gift. At the same time, we are called to protect our humanity, and this means, in the first place, accepting it and respecting it as it was created (56).

Another key quote is found in paragraph 57:
“There is no stereotype of the ideal family, but rather a challenging mosaic made up of many different realities, with all their joys, hopes and problems. “


Reflection Questions for Catechists/Catechetical Leaders:

1. What challenges do families face in our parish and community? How can we better support families in these circumstances?

2. How do I provide for leaners with special needs in the catechetical setting? How might I support and encourage families of individuals with special needs?


CHAPTER THREE – LOOKING TO JESUS: THE VOCATION OF THE FAMILY

In Chapter 3, Francis points to the Kerygma as the center of all teaching on the family, as it is the center of all evangelizing activity. He states:
"The mystery of the family can be fully understood only in the light of the Father’s infinite love revealed in Christ, who gave himself up for our sake and who continues to dwell in our midst" (59).

Here Francis discusses the New Testament’s presentation of marriage as a gift, and Jesus’ own teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, which Francis asserts should also be seen as gift (62).

Francis affirms prior teaching on love, marriage, and the family, including the teaching found in Lumen Gentium, Humanae Vitae, Familiaris Consortio, and Deus Caritas Est.  

In summarizing the theology of the Sacrament of Matrimony, Francis states, “The family is the image of God, who is a communion of persons” (71) and “The sacrament is a gift given for the sanctification and salvation of the spouses, since ‘their mutual belonging is a real representation, through the sacramental sign, of the same relationship between Christ and the Church’” (72).

Pope Francis discusses marriage as a vocation, saying that the decision to marry and to have a family “ought to be the fruit of a process of vocational discernment.” He states, “the engaged couple promise each other total self-giving, faithfulness and openness to new life” (73).

Pope Francis then turns to pastoral care for those living in what are sometimes called “irregular situations” – cohabiting couples, couples who are civilly married, or are divorced and remarried. Foreshadowing the lengthier discussion of these issues in Chapter 7, he advocates an affirmation of Church teaching with pastoral care and careful discernment of individual situations (78-79).

This is followed by a discussion of children as the fruit of conjugal love, and the responsibility of parents to provide for their children. Finally, the need for the entire Christian community to safeguard and support families is emphasized, both for the good of the family and for the good of the Church and society as a whole (87-88).

Reflection Questions for Catechists/Catechetical Leaders:

1. What are we doing to support and involve the family in catechesis? How might we better evangelize families and help them evangelize one another?

2. How do we promote the view of marriage as a vocation in our work as catechists?


CHAPTER FOUR -- LOVE IN MARRIAGE

This is perhaps the chapter par excellence of the Apostolic Exhortation. Here, Pope Francis begins by emphasizing the importance of “encouraging the growth, strengthening and deepening of conjugal and family love” (89).  Using St. Paul’s discourse on love from I Corinthians 13, and drawing connotations of the original Greek, Pope Francis provides detailed commentary on each quality of love discussed in the passage, applying each quality of love in the Pauline text to the specific love of the family. What results is a beautiful treatise on the qualities of love in a marriage and family. This section would be edifying to all couples and families.

Pope Francis then turns again to the teaching that marriage is a sacramental sign of the communion of the Holy Trinity and the union of Christ and the Church, but, quoting St. John Paul II, adds that this is a dynamic process for the couple, and cautions against laying “upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union between Christ and his Church” (122).

In paragraphs 123-125, Pope Francis makes the case that a marriage relationship is, by nature, a lifelong one, and one that needs grace to sustain itself and grow in the face of today’s challenges, including the “culture of the ephemeral,” in which everything is treated as temporary and disposable (124).

Pope Francis discusses the difference between pleasure, which is fleeting, and joy, which is an “expansion of the heart” (126). He states, “Loving another person involves the joy of contemplating and appreciating their innate beauty and sacredness, which is greater than my needs” (127). He also discusses how joy can grow through pain and sorrow, as the couple can grow closer as they suffer and struggle together (130). 

In the next section, Pope Francis answers those couples (especially in the youngest generation) that might shun the formal institution of marriage, saying they don’t need a formal commitment or piece of paper to prove their love. He states:

“Naturally, love is much more than an outward consent or a contract, yet it is nonetheless true that choosing to give marriage a visible form in society by under-taking certain commitments shows how import¬ant it is. It manifests the seriousness of each person’s identification with the other and their firm decision to leave adolescent individualism behind and to belong to one another” (131).

Francis adds that marriage, as a social institution, “protects and shapes a shared commitment to deeper growth in love and commitment to one another, for the good of society as a whole” (131).

In paragraph 133, Francis discusses three words that are necessary in families: “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Sorry,” adding “the right words, spoken at the right time, daily protect and nurture love” (133). He also discusses dialogue as essential for the growth of love in marriages and families (136), encouraging families to take quality time to be together (137) and cultivate habits of “giving real importance to the other person” (138). Francis counsels family members to “keep an open mind” in disagreements, and points out that a competitive spirit that is oriented towards winning an argument against the other is incompatible with the love to which we are called in families (140). 

The next section is devoted to a discussion of passion and emotions, particularly in the way that they deepen love when they lead us to loving actions (144-146). Because God delights in our joy, eros, properly ordered, is embraced, not rejected by the Church, Pope Francis says (147). He goes on to discuss Gods will for us to enjoy ourselves, but the necessity of integrating enjoyment with generous commitment (148). Pope Francis further elaborates on the erotic dimensions of love, saying that sexuality is a gift from God (150), but requires self-discipline and self-mastery, because it is not “a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity” (151).

In paragraph 156, Pope Francis decries “every form of sexual submission,” and states that Ephesians 5, properly understood, is about mutual submission of the spouses to one another. Still, he says, the ideal of marriage is not simply self-sacrifice, because “authentic love also needs to be able to receive the other” (157).

What follows is a discussion of marriage and virginity, in which Pope Francis asserts that both states of life “complement one another” and neither is absolutely superior to the other (159).

In the final section of this chapter, Francis discusses the ways in which married love grows and changes over the life of a marriage, saying that with the grace of the Holy Spirit, we find the strength to “confirm, direct and transform our love in every new situation” (164).

Reflection Questions for Catechists/Catechetical Leaders:

1. How might I share Pope Francis’ teaching on love in the family from I Cor. 13?

2. How might we use Pope Francis’ words on the importance of marriage both to the couple and society in order to encourage young people to consider marriage in a society that increasing shuns the institution of marriage? 


CHAPTER FIVE -- LOVE MADE FRUITFUL

Pope Francis begins this section by stating, “Love always gives life” (165). He discusses the openness to life that is characteristic of sacramental marriage and stresses the importance of caring for the children we have. Next he discusses pregnancy and discusses each child as a gift from God, for whom God has a dream (168). 

In the next section, Pope Francis states that every child “has a right to receive love from a mother and a father, affirming the necessity of both parents, who “show their children the maternal and paternal face of the Lord” (172).  Pope Francis goes on to discuss some unique qualities of mothers and fathers.

In paragraph 178, pope Francis discusses the suffering of couples facing infertility, but, quoting Gaudium et Spes, affirms that these couples still have a whole marriage with value and indissolubility (178). Pope Francis mentions adoption and foster care as generous ways in which couples with or without their own biological children can be fruitful and generous. In paragraph 186, Pope Francis points to the Eucharist as a call to “open the doors of the family to greater fellowship with the underprivileged.”

Pope Francis discusses the importance of our larger extended families (187) and especially admonishes children not to forget their parents even though the must leave them. He goes on to remind us to value and care for the elderly. Francis also discusses the relationships between brothers and sisters and the relationship of the family to the larger community.

Reflection Questions for Catechists/Catechetical Leaders:

1. What support does our community offer couples that are facing infertility? How might we better encourage and support those couples?

2. How does my ministry support and involve elderly members of our community? How might we better use their talents and build a parish that more closely resembles an “extended family”?


CHAPTER SIX -- SOME PASTORAL PERSPECTIVES

Pope Francis opens Chapter Six by calling for renewed efforts in evangelization and catechesis within the family, encouraging the faithful to propose “values that are clearly needed today” and to “denounce cultural, social, political and economic factors…that prevent authentic family life and lead to discrimination, poverty, exclusion and violence (201). 

The parish is called “the family of families,” and Pope Francis states that this is where the primary contribution to the pastoral care of families is offered (202). This is followed by a discussion of the need for support of deacons and priests and the training of seminarians in dealing with the complex challenges facing families today, as well as a need for the training of “lay leaders who can assist in the pastoral care of families” (204). 

The following paragraphs are devoted to the preparation of engaged couples for marriage, as well as remote preparation for marriage through the family. Here there is emphasis on not merely preparing for the wedding, but for a life together. Pope Francis also highlights the importance of supporting and forming the couple in the early years of marriage, which can be especially challenging. In paragraph 220, Pope Francis discusses various stages in the life of a marriage and also offers some guidelines for young couples on discerning responsible parenthood (222).

Paragraphs 232-238 discuss crises in marriage and the necessity for the couple to face these crises together in order to stay together and grow in love. Pope Francis also acknowledges the challenges that can be caused by past trauma or dysfunction in the family of origin of one or both spouses (239-240). 

Paragraphs 241-246 discuss the pastoral care of separated and divorced persons. Regarding those who have divorced and remarried, Pope Francis states, “
It is important that the divorced that have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church. “They are not excommunicated” and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community. These situations “require careful discernment and respectful accompaniment” (243). Special attention is also given to the effects of divorce and separation on children. Pope Francis emphasizes that “the good of the children should be the primary concern” (245).

In paragraphs 247-252, certain complex situations are discussed, including mixed marriages and disparity of cult, as well as a divorced and remarried person who is seeking baptism. Same sex attraction is also discussed in this section. Here, Pope Francis quotes the Synod Fathers, who said, “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (251). Even so, Francis reaffirms that every person’s dignity should be respected, and recommends families of persons with same sex attraction be given “respectful pastoral guidance” (250). 

In the remaining paragraphs of this chapter, Pope Francis calls for support of single parent families and families that are grieving the death of a loved one.

Reflection Questions for Catechists/Catechetical Leaders:

1. How are families dealing with separation and divorce acknowledged and supported in our community? Are we flexible with children in the catechetical program who are able to attend only periodically due to joint custody or visitation arrangements? How else do we support children of divorced parents?

2. What can our parish do to better accompany couples that are struggling in their marriages, particularly young couples in their first years of marriage?


CHAPTER SEVEN – TOWARDS A BETTER EDUCATION OF CHILDREN

Pope Francis begins this chapter by citing the key role of parents in the moral development of their children. He calls parents to consider what influences they want their children to be exposed to, expressing particular concern about the media habits of children (television and other electronic devices). However, he cautions against overcontrolling the environment of children, saying that, “what is most important is the ability lovingly to help them grow in freedom, maturity, overall discipline and real autonomy” (261). He encourages parents to be aware of their children’s goals, desires, and dreams.

Francis speaks about cultivating a “good habits and a natural inclination to goodness” in their children, including delay of gratification, or what Pope Francis calls “the habit of foregoing an immediate pleasure for the sake of a better and more orderly life in common” (264). 

Considerable attention is given to the development of good habits and virtues, as well as a discussion of discipline and correction. Pope Francis encourages parents not to fall into extremes of either catering to all of the child’s desires or “depriving the child of an awareness of his or her dignity, personal identity and rights” (270). He advises parents to proceed slowly, taking into account the stages of the child’s development (273).  Pope Francis highlights the roles of catechists and Catholic Schools in supporting the family in the task of raising their children in faith (279). 

The next section of this chapter focuses on sex education, stating that it should be presented “within the broader framework of an education for love, for mutual self-giving” (280).  Francis cautions attention to the development and maturity of the child, not presenting too much information too soon, and highlights the value of a sex education that fosters “a healthy sense of modesty” (282). He contrasts a Christian sex education with one that is merely focused on “safe sex,” saying, “It is always irresponsible to invite adolescents to toy with their bodies and their desires, as if they possessed the maturity, values, mutual commitment and goals proper to mar-riage” (283).  He adds that sex education should “foster respect and appreciation for differences” and an acceptance of one’s own body (285). 

In the closing paragraphs of this chapter, Pope Francis highlights the value of family catechesis and states, “It is essential that children actually see that, for their parents, prayer is something truly important” (288).

Reflection Questions for Catechists/Catechetical Leaders:

1. As a catechist or catechetical leader, what tools can I give parents that will assist them in forming the consciences of their children?

2. How does our parish partner with parents to help children learn about God’s plan for love and sexuality?


CHAPTER EIGHT – ACCOMPANYING, DISCERNING AND INTEGRATING WEAKNESS

At the beginning of this chapter, Pope Francis evokes the image of the Church as a field hospital. He points out that some forms of union faithfully reflect the union between Christ and his Church, some “radically contradict this ideal, while others realize it in at least a partial and analogous way” (292). He calls pastors to enter into “pastoral dialogue with these persons” in order to “distinguish elements in their lives that can lead to a greater openness to the Gospel of marriage in its fullness” (293). 

Pope Francis discusses various reasons people might be living together without marriage, and cites the “law of gradualness” of Pope John Paul II as a pastoral response.  He goes on to say, “This is not a “gradualness of law” but rather a gradualness in the prudential exercise of free acts on the part of subjects who are not in a position to understand, appreciate, or fully carry out the objective demands of the law” (295). 

Pope Francis cites the mercy of God and the “logic of the Gospel” in relation to dealing with “irregular situations.” He expresses his agreement with the Synod Fathers, who concluded, ““In considering a pastoral approach towards people who have contracted a civil marriage, who are divorced and remarried, or simply living together, the Church has the responsibility of helping them understand the divine pedagogy of grace in their lives and offering them assistance so they can reach the fullness of God’s plan for them”, something which is always possible by the power of the Holy Spirit” (297).  He recommends a process of accompaniment in which the pastor “guides the faithful to an awareness of their situation before God” (300), and mentions conversation with the priest in the internal forum. However, he cautions against the notion that any priest can quickly grant ‘exceptions’” (300). 

Pope Francis discusses factors that may mitigate culpability, and cautions against a “black and white” view of these situations (305).  However, Pope Francis again stresses the importance of proposing the ideal, saying anything less “would be a lack of fidelity to the Gospel and also of love on the part of the Church for young people themselves” (307). 

Reflection Questions for Catechists/Catechetical Leaders:

1. How can I, as a catechist, work to form consciences for discernment of moral situations, offering my learners a path to independent decision-making rooted in principles of Catholic morality, versus simply providing rules?

2. How do we “accompany” youth and young adults who are already expressing opinions or making decisions contrary to the Christian life? How do we gently guide them to a realization of what God has called them to be? 


CHAPTER NINE – THE SPIRITUALITY OF MARRIAGE AND THE FAMILY

In the second paragraph of this chapter, Pope Francis states, “We have always spoken of how God dwells in the hearts of those living in his grace. Today we can add that the Trinity is present in the temple of marital communion” (314). He goes on to say, “The Lord’s presence dwells in real and concrete families, with all their daily troubles and struggles, joys and hopes” 315). 

Pope Francis encourages families to center themselves on Christ (317), and recommends family prayer as a “special way of expressing and strengthening this paschal faith” (318). He states, “to want to form a family is to resolve to be a part of God’s dream, to choose to dream with him, to want to build with him, to join him in this saga of building a world where no one will feel alone” (321). He admonishes families not to stay closed in on themselves, but to live their faith in society:  “The family lives its spirituality precisely by being at one and the same time a domestic church and a vital cell for transforming the world” (324).

Reflection Questions for Catechists/Catechetical Leaders:

1. How do I nurture the spiritual lives of the families I serve by providing resources for prayer and Catholic practices in the home?

2. How are families at our parish equipped to share their faith with the larger world? What strategies can we give families for living their faith in the community? 









The Martin Family -- My "Other Family" in Heaven

Early in my Catholic journey, a friend introduced me to St. Therese of Lisieux, also called the Little Flower. I read her autobiography and was attracted to her "Little Way" to holiness -- doing small things with great love. I have asked for her intercession for many things over the years, and in a particularly difficult time, when I was in a great deal of distress, I happened across a medallion of Therese with the inscription "Do not forget that I am your sister and I will never cease praying for you." It was such a comfort to find this among my own possessions on that challenging day. I won't go so far as to say that it was of a supernatural origin. I had a number of St. Therese medals, pictures, and other items, but I will say that I don't recall seeing this one, or reading its inscription, until that difficult day.

Truly, St. Therese has been my sister over the years, probably because of her documented affection for poor souls in need of conversion! It was through Therese that I, like many others, discovered her parents and newly-proclaimed saints Louis and Zelie Martin. 

Louis Martin was born in 1823 in Bordeaux, France, were his father, a military captain, was garrisoned. The family settled in Alençon when Louis was 7 years old. When he was older, Louis went to live with his father’s cousin, a clock maker, and learned his trade. He initially felt a call to religious life, but eventually settled into his trade as a watch and clock maker in Alençon.
 
Zélie Guérin was born in 1831 in Saint-Denis-sur-Sarthon, near Alençon. Like Louis, Zélie initially felt herself called to religious life, but when she interviewed with the Sisters of Charity, it was decided that she did not have a vocation. She learned the trade of lacemaking and excelled in this craft, establishing an office in Alençon.
 
Louis and Zélie saw one another one day as they were crossing the same bridge in opposite directions. They each asked about the other around town and eventually met. They married within three months.
 
Though they were skilled in their trades and did well, financially, Louis and Zélie faced many hardships. They had nine children, four of whom died very young. During the Franco-Prussian war, their home was occupied by enemy soldiers, whom they were forced to host and feed with very little resources. When their youngest child, Thérèse, was just four years old, Zélie died of breast cancer, leaving Louis to raise his five girls alone.
 
Through it all, Louis and Zélie remained faithful to God and to their vocations and spouses and parents. Evidence of this is seen in the lives of their children, all of whom entered religious life. Louis died of arteriosclerosis in 1894, at the age of 70.

One of the most striking things about Louis and Zélie Martin is the ordinariness of their lives. They were, in many ways, an average couple presented with challenges, some unusual, at least to us (e.g., infant mortality, military occupation) and others quite common (such as family illness and parenting difficulties – especially with their daughter Leonie, for whom there is also now a cause for Beatification). But the couple lived by the principle of doing each everyday act with great love, as if for Jesus himself. Zélie used to speak of making small sacrifices that would “set pearls in your crown” in heaven. In this, we can see the seeds of Thérèse’s own spirituality.
 

The devotion of Louis and Zélie to their faith led each of them to initially consider religious life, yet they found that God had not called them to give themselves in this way. Instead, their vocation was to give themselves in love to one another and to their children. Their lives affirm the dignity of the vocation of marriage as a path to sanctity.

Louis and Zélie Martin show us how it is possible to live an ordinary life with extraordinary virtue. For those with a vocation to marriage and family – the majority of Catholics today, they provide an example of living out that vocation in a faithful and holy way. In short, they are a shining reminder that by loving our spouses faithfully and raising our children with love, we are living holy lives.
 
The Martin family serve as an inspiration to married couples, showing us that through the vocation of marriage and parenthood, even as we are called to bear crosses, we can become more like Jesus. In giving to one another in small sacrifices of love, we become ever more the people God made us to be.
 
We also recognize that the circumstances of life are sometimes less than ideal. Louis Martin spent the better part of Thérèse’s childhood as a single parent, having been widowed when Thérèse was just four years old. Still, his faithfulness and openness to God’s grace allowed him to raise five saintly daughters – including a Doctor of the Church.

I was at the home of Saints Louis and Zelie last March on the day the Vatican announced they would be canonized, and it brought great joy to everyone in Alencon. This is a family whose love is so great that they are always adding to their numbers. I recently read Helene Mongin's new biography of Louis and Zelie Martin, titled, "The Extraordinary Parents of St. Therese of Lisieux," and I got to know the Martins even better than before. 

With St. Therese as my spiritual sister, I also think of Louis and Zelie as a spiritual mother and father. They are a model for me and the love I want to cultivate in my own home and daily life. The Martins have a son named Joseph (who died as an infant) with them in Heaven, and in me they have another son named Joseph on earth. I must confess, though, that I feel I am much more like Leonie, their difficult child who struggled to find a path to holiness, than I am like Therese, the beloved saint and Doctor of the Church. Still, I pray that with God's grace and through their intercession, I will, like Leonie (who is now being considered for Beatification), grow in holiness and one day share in the heavenly banquet with this family I love so much. 

Saints Louis and Zelie Martin, pray for us, and save me a seat at your table!

Pope Affirms the Family, Encourages Openness to God's Love

One could feel the anticipation in the air as the crowds filed in hours early for the Festival of Families on Saturday night. For the thousands gathered from over 100 countries for the World Meeting of Families, this was what they had been waiting for all week – a visit from Pope Francis. What’s more, they knew this was the reason Pope Francis had come to the United States – to be with the families gathered for the World Meeting. They knew this moment would truly be something special.

And the Holy Father did not disappoint. The roar of police motorcycles ahead of his motorcade, and then the flashing lights of emergency vehicles, signaled that he had arrived, and the crowd erupted in shouts of joy. Riding the Popemobile through the streets surrounding the parkway, it seemed he visited the crowd from every side, and then took his place to cheers and applause.

Nestled within performances from world renowned artists such as Aretha Franklin and Andrea Bocelli and testimonies by families who had endured great struggle, was a gem of a spontaneous talk on the family, delivered by the Pope himself. He thanked the performers and families who had given testimonies, saying, “All that is good, all that is true, all that is beautiful brings us to God.” He then recounted a time when he was asked by a child what God did before he created the heavens and the earth.He said that at first he wasn’t sure how to answer, but then said, “Before God created the heavens and the earth, God loved, because God is love.” But the great love that existed among the three Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity was so “overflowing” that God “ had to come out of himself so as to have that which he could live outside of himself.” And so, said Pope Francis,God created the world. “But the most beautiful thing that God made…was the family.” All of the love God has in himself “he gives to the family.” A family “is truly a family,” said Francis, “when it is able to open its arms and receive all of this love.”

Pope Francis paused for a moment to acknowledge that the lofty language he was using to describe the family might sound unrealistic, given the daily struggles families face. He acknowledged that there are crosses to bear in family life, but added that just as with Jesus there was resurrection after the cross, so too in families. For this reason, said the Holy Father, the family is “a factory of hope.” Pope Francis concluded his talk by offering a word of advice to families for sustaining this hope: “Never end the day without making peace in the family.”

The following day  at Mass, before an even larger crowd, Pope Francis again affirmed the goodness of family life. In a nod to St. Therese of Lisieux, to whom Pope Francis has a special devotion, he said that “holiness is always tied to little gestures,” which “we learn at home, in the family.” He said that this is why our families “are true domestic churches,” because “they are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.” In closing, Francis again called families to “be open to miracles of love for the sake of all the families of the world.”

The Theology of Dialogue: “Unity in Diversity” at the World Meeting of Families

All week at the World Meeting of Families, the Church’s beautiful diversity was on display. With over 100 countries and persons of all ages represented,  any sweeping generalization about the attendees here would have been inaccurate. This was a neither a gathering of the progressive Church nor the conservative Church, neither young nor old, neither Western not Eastern. This was simply a gathering of the Church, and in particular her families. It was fitting then, that the final day of programming at the World Meeting highlighted the theme of unity In diversity.

In the final keynote, Protestant Pastor and bestselling author Rick Warren took the stage with Cardinal Sean O’Malley. Pastor Warren reaffirmed many of the themes of the conference, including the urgency of strengthening families in today’s society. He also affirmed the current focus on the New Evangelization in the Catholic Church, saying, “Make the New Evangelization the mission of the rest of your life.”

Cardinal O’Malley expressed his thanks to Pastor Warren and spoke of the privilege of speaking together with a brother who teaches people about Jesus. O’Malley admonished those gathered to “see the world through God’s eyes.” The Cardinal also picked up the theme of evangelization, saying, “If the world does not believe, it is in part because we are not united.”

In the final workshop session of the World Meeting, Cardinal Tagle spoke about “Reaching out to Others in Authentic and Effective Ways.”  Diversity, said Cardinal Tagle, is a gift. “It's part of God’s design.” But it is a gift that must be consciously received, and this requires responsibility. Cardinal Tagle stated that God himself, in his Trinitarian nature, is a model of unity in diversity. “What a shame if we do not image this God we profess.”

According to Cardinal Tagle, God accomplishes unity in diversity because he “is a God of dialogue.” We must also be a people of dialogue if we wish to reach out to others. Cardinal Tagle provided three questions “to help us understand if we are ready for dialogue”: 1) Do I understand my own culture? 2) Do I know the culture of the other, so I can avoid presuppositions and prejudice? and 3) Do I make a conscious effort to clear the environment of prejudice and discrimination?

The Cardinal once again delighted those gathered with stories, including some about his own journey towards culture competency. At the end, there was time for one question from the audience. The question was one he is growing accustomed to being asked: “Will you sing us a song?” And in a voice as smooth as Johnny Mathis or Frank Sinatra, he did just that.

Helping Kids Cope with Anxiety and Stress

The beginning of the school year and the changes that come with it can sometimes cause stress for children and parents alike. Whether it's first-day jitters, adapting to schedule changes, homework, tests, or other issues, stress sometimes intensifies at this time of year. For some kids and teens, however, worries and stress can be more serious issues. According to recent research, about 13-15% of children and teens meet the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder -- a startlingly high prevalence rate for any health or mental health problem (and much higher that just 15 years ago). Signs of anxiety disorders can include persistent worries, frequent crying or irritability, changes in sleep and eating habits (for example, difficulties falling asleep), and physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches.

Though stress and anxiety can feel overwhelming, we can choose how we respond to it.  here are some ways we can help kids and teens deal with stress and prevent anxiety disorders:

Think positive! Help your child or teen identify and change patterns of thinking that might be extreme, absolute, or pessimistic. For example, it is usually not helpful to us when we think thoughts that begin with "I can't" or include words like "always" or "never." Try to replace these with more positive or flexible thoughts.  

Coach your child through basic problem-solving steps. instead of telling your child how to handle a particular challenge, guide him or her through the problem-solving process by helping your child ask and answer these questions: 1) What is the problem?; 2) What are all of the different things I could do?; 3) Which action should I take?; 4) How did it work?

Help your child cultivate stress-busting habits. Adequate sleep, exercise, proper diet, and quality time with supportive friends and family are things that can help us prevent and manage stress. Help your child acquire and keep these good habits.

Encourage through your actions. Don't try to do for your children what they can do for themselves, but may lack the confidence to do. Instead, serve as a cheerleader for your child by using encouraging words and actions that say, "I know you can do this. I believe in you."

Help them learn how to relax. Slow, deep breaths (sometimes called "belly breaths") can help us in ridding the body of tension, as can step-by-step muscle relaxation techniques, such as focusing on one muscle group at a time, and relaxing those muscles. Imagining a peaceful place can also be helpful in relaxing the mind and body.

Be a good example. Make sure you are a helpful role model when it comes to managing stress. Children and teens often do what they hear and see.

Help them learn to take their worries to God. I Peter 5:7 says, "Cast all you worries upon him because he cares for you" (NAB). God is a loving parent, and if we ask him he is ready to give us the grace to work through even the most stressful of challenges.

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