With jobs, the demands of raising children and relentless technology consuming modern family life, getting adults to attend parish programming can be a tough sell, no matter how engaging the content.
But invite whole families to attend – and offer them the convenience of a ready-made meal – and they will come.
The effectiveness of this inclusive approach was proven the night of Sept. 16, when about 130 St. Pius X parishioners – from infants to grandparents – filled a parish meeting room to capacity for the first of a series of 90-minute catechetical sessions called “Faith and Families.” After having dinner with their families, the attendees divided into six age groups and went to different sites on the parish plant for an age-appropriate presentation on the series’ debut theme – “Forgiveness.”
Catechesis for every age
“We have a very social parish, but we struggle to get a good turnout at (adult religious education programs), because I think we are very family-oriented as well,” noted Kate Coyne, St. Pius X’s director of religious education.
“Having a meal is a great way for them to bring their whole family, socialize and then have some catechesis,” Coyne said. “It’s so important for us to have lifelong faith formation.”
Led by volunteer catechists, younger children explored forgiveness through the parable of the Prodigal Son and drew pictures of what they thought forgiveness “looked like.”
God remakes human heart
Middle schoolers took part in an activity designed by Grace Marie Rose, the parish’s youth minister, in which they ripped up paper hearts labeled with their name to dramatize what happens to the human heart when sin is committed. Rose, who played the role of God, watched as the children raced to see who could reassemble their heart first. None succeeded.
“They were scrambling, but all they had to do was come to me (God),” Rose said. “I already had their names written on a new (paper) heart. All they had to do was ask, just like God in the sacrament of reconciliation.”
Teenage participants, led by Deacon Jonathan Hemelt, read the Genesis account of the Fall of Man, discussed the effects original sin, recalled God’s overwhelming desire to forgive in the Prodigal Son and explored routes to forgiveness, such as the sacrament of reconciliation and the Act of Contrition. Adults, who comprised the night’s largest age group, remained at their dinner tables to hear from their pastor, Father Patrick Williams.
“It is one of the most challenging aspects of being a Christian, that call to forgive,” Father Williams said. “It’s challenging not only because it’s difficult to forgive someone; but I think it’s also difficult to be forgiven – sometimes it is just as hard to accept forgiveness, as it is to extend forgiveness.”
As a followup exercise, Father Williams asked his audience to list things that prevent people from seeking others’ forgiveness, receiving answers such as feelings that the forgiveness is undeserved, and the human aversion toward owning up to a fault. He said the latter often is a sticking point because accepting culpability for our actions is equivalent to admitting to a weakness.
Strength in life’s valleys
Thankfully, Father Williams said, St. Paul reminds us that it is when we are at our weakest that God can be the strongest for his children.
“Our Christian understanding of weakness is not the same as our popular culture’s,” he said. “When I’m weak, God can fill in the void. It’s when I think I am strong, and I think I’m independent, that God can’t get into our lives.”
Father Williams also addressed the feelings of unworthiness with which people sometimes struggle when they are offered forgiveness.
“My response to that is always, ‘You’re right. You don’t deserve it. None of us does,’” he said. “If we had to earn forgiveness we probably wouldn’t get it, but it’s a gift. It’s a gift that God will extend to us whether we have earned it, or deserve it; if we’ve done it 75 times or 175 times.”
The flip side of forgiveness – obstacles that prevent people from forgiving those who have hurt them – was also examined, eliciting responses ranging from a fear of being hurt again by the perpetrator, to being too angry to accept the apology. Father Williams said Blessed Pope John Paul II gave the world a valuable lesson on mercy when he forgave the man who shot him, and also showed that to forgive does not mean to condone an action.
“(John Paul) didn’t say, ‘Release him,’ or ‘Set him free,’ and he didn’t say he was OK with what he did; but he forgave him,” Father Williams said. “In other words, he was no longer going to hold on to anger or a desire to retaliate. Forgiveness means I’m not going to let it rule my heart, to the extent that it’s going to eat at me.”
Need for the ‘tangible’
The final part of the pastor’s reflection focused on the sacrament of reconciliation – or the opportunity for us to “experience in a very tangible and human way” the mercy of God, Father Williams observed.
“When the priest, representing Christ and the church community, says, ‘You are forgiven; I absolve you, in the name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit,’ it is the whole church, the whole community, it is God who is forgiving,” Father Williams said. “We cannot underestimate the power of hearing those words.”
Although God forgives with or without the sacrament, it is a gift to hear those words because human beings desire “tangible expressions of love,” the pastor said, adding that reconciliation also reminds us that sin is “not just between God and me,” but impacts the whole Body of Christ.
“There is no such thing as a private sin,” Father Williams said. “If you are not living up to the call God is asking you to, all of us suffer.”