Three married Catholic couples concerned about family life in America spoke to the about 250 bishops who lead the nation’s 71 million Catholics. The couples suggested ways the Catholic parishes and dioceses can support families challenged in a secular culture that often depicts marriage as irrelevant.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been meeting since Monday. The meeting closes Friday morning with a Holy Hour of Prayer. Thursday, the last day that the meeting is open to the press, the bishops turned over their microphones to three married couples for a half hour. It is rare for laity to speak at the meetings.
Jeff and Alice Heizen of LaCrosse, Wis., told bishops to be positive about marriage and to point out the good points. In her youth, Alice said, when her father first took her to ski, she was too scared to ski down. Her dad told her not to look at the rocks but to look at the snow. Priests helping young couple need to stress the beauty and joyful aspects of marriage, to look at the snow not the rocks which society stresses, she said.
“Couples need confidence in marriage,” she said. “Marriage is hard work but worth the effort. Too often our cultures stresses only the sentimentally of marriage rather than the joy of marriage."
In LaCrosse, she added, six months after the wedding lay leaders reach out to the couple to offer help or an ear to listen. Baptisms can also be a "fine opportunity to help (couples) grow in their faith and understand the sacramental nature and graces of a lifetime marriage," she said. Baptism is a particularly effective time to bring unmarried parents closer to the church, she said.
The church can celebrate marriage that with annual parish wedding anniversary celebrations.
A second couple, Lucia and Ricardo Luzondo from San Antonio, suggested that Catholic seminaries need to offer more training to young men before they become priests on how to help struggling couples.
“Of course (seminarians) need to study theology, but they need to learn how to counsel those in domestic violence,” said Ricardo Luzondo, a retired doctor. Priests sometimes give limited or bad advice or just avoid working with couples, he said.
More parish priests should encourage engaged couples to become active members of parishes before the wedding, Lucia Luzondo said.
“They need to remember that they are part of a community,” she said. And parishes can help couples grow in marriage by offering married couples weekly or monthly programs, dialogue sessions and seminars.
Too often marriage programs are not offered in Spanish to Latino Catholics; nearly half the Catholics in the United States are Latinos. For many of them Spanish is the “language that touches soul and changes hearts.” she said.
A family dinner is key to family life. “That is where we get to know our children,” Claire Grabowski of Washington, D.C., told the bishops. She and her husband John Grabowski, a moral theology professor at Catholic U. make it a must in their house. After church they discuss the scripture readings. They encourage Catholic priests and lay leaders to share Gospel and church documents that reveal “the beauty of the church’s teaching on marriage.”
Pope Francis' emphasis on the family
The Heizens talked about their two weeks in Rome last October as the official American family at a worldwide Synod of Bishops on the Family at the Vatican. A Vatican synod is a gathering of bishops; this was the first synod on the topic of families in a half a century.
“Pope Francis was there when we spoke, he was with us often at coffee breaks, he’s very easy (to talk to). We had a translator and saw him often,” Alice Heizen said.
“Pope Francis is deeply concerned about the social and spiritual crisis that now exists in many marriages and families,” Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory said in an interview before a session. And, in fact, he added that “preparations for next fall’s Synod of Bishops on the Family at the Vatican is the key to this week’s meeting in St. Louis."
The Lacrosse couple were not the only American families to contribute to the Vatican synod. Tens of thousand American families responded to a Vatican survey that Francis mandated in a stunning Vatican "first."
Gregory and St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson were among hundreds of American bishops who put the survey on line or distributed it to parishes or Catholic organization. “They were very articulate,” Carlson said in an interview.
St. Louis Archdiocese efforts to promote family life
Over the past several months the archdiocese’s Office of Laity and Family Life director Julie Bostick and her staff have ramped up their efforts to work with couples preparing for marriage as well as accompanying them through their first years and through their married life, Carlson said.
Special programs are offered to couples married outside the church who now want a sacramental marriage as well as programs for divorced Catholics challenged at forming a strong family life for their children and themselves. For years the archdiocese has had an annual special masses for couples celebrating wedding anniversaries from 25th and 50th and beyond.
Carlson believes that Catholic education helps families. It is a priority for him.
“The archdiocese is 38th in size but eighth in size of its Catholic schools, Carlson said. It is a St. Louis traition he works energetically with Catholic donors to maintain. Studies show that 20 years after graduation those educated in Catholic schools are stronger Catholics, he said.