Blessed John Paul II’s life and teachings on family and marriage are still bearing fruit, say members of one Colorado parish that has launched a family-friendly initiative inspired by the late Pope's example.
Pope John Paul II taught that “the Christian family is a ‘locus theologicus,’ a place where we can understand the mystery of God,” Father Luis Granados of Saint Mary Parish in Littleton, Colo., explained in a recent interview with CNA.
“As a priest, I look at spouses loving each other and loving their children and I understand a lot about God’s mercy, God’s faithfulness, God’s sacrifice,” he said. “The families are better than many books of philosophy and theology.”
Saint Mary’s is in the middle of a 12-month initiative titled “Toward a Family-Friendly Parish,” which launched in October 2013.
The program is divided into 12 monthly topics that delve into God’s plan for the family. On the first weekend of each month, the priest at each Mass introduces the topic, and parishioners receive a guide to exploring the topic at home during the weeks to follow. The guide includes a visual image, a proposed family project, and a song and psalm for weekly family prayer.
Parishioner Julie Hecker told CNA that February's topic of “Fruitfulness” particularly affected her. The month's challenges included creating a photo slideshow of your family.
Hecker says many of the family pictures she rediscovered for the project showed her family's involvement in the sacraments and the parish.
“(The project) revealed just how important the Church has been in our lives,” she reflected.
Her husband, Michael, says the first month's theme of “Family Tree” had a special impact on him. That month's activities included a short song called “Magnificat,” which he sang together with his wife and their children.
“I can’t help but smile when I hear my 6-year-old and 3-year-old singing it when they think no one is listening,” he reflected. “It is a song that connects my high school kids, middle school child, grade school kids and toddler together.”
During that first month, the Heckers also sang that song with their parish. Michael says the experience taught him to consider his fellow parishioners as extended family.
“Over the past few months my concept of family has changed,” Hecker said. “I still have my nucleus family, but I have grown to look at and love all in our parish as part of my ‘extended’ family.”
Longtime parishioner Thomas Buelt says he has also noticed this transformation of the parish community into a family – even in the early months of the program.
“The real change, I have noticed, in those who participate, is the desire and action to incorporate the extended family to the program,” Buelt said. “It inspires the entire St. Mary Community to view your fellow parishioner as a family member, and in turn allows each member to transfigure their relationships.”
Specific community-building efforts include Family Movie Nights and Discipleship Nights, where parishioners share their testimonies and receive catechesis.
Fr. Granados says the initiative also aims to build relationships between priests and families, an effort he says is at the core of the new evangelization.
“The new evangelization will come through the personal relationship between the priest and the spouses: the reciprocal gratitude for their fidelity: 'Thank you for your priesthood.' 'Thank you for your marriage',” Fr. Granados explained.
“This is not a matter of programs, plans, theories - even family-friendly theories. The point of our 'program' is to foster this relationship and connection between the priests and the families that will help both parts to grow in the faithfulness of their vocation.”
He added that John Paul II is the model of this goal, pointing to a parish in St. Florian, Poland, as one of the first implementations of this family-based concept.
“There was no explicit ‘program,’ but there was the life of the priest and the lives of the young adults and families,” he said.
The image for St. Mary's entire “Toward a Family-Friendly Parish” initiative is an icon of Christ sharing a meal with Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Parishioners were invited to hang the icon of Bethany in their homes. The image is part of the parish's efforts to emphasize the inclusion of all members, even those who may not currently be married or raising children.
“We needed to remember that not only do the family members have an age, but the family as a whole unit has an age as well,” Fr. Granados explained. “Every family experiences very different stages of life and progress in the path of holiness accordingly.”
He said the initiative aims to include widowed parishioners as well as single people and those who are divorced.
“When we touch the family, we touch every person at every time of life: the child, the young adult, the widow, the sick, the poor, the divorced, or the priest,” he said.
In this way, the program does not detract from or compete with other programs at the parish.
“If the family is the path of the Church, then it is the path of the parish, the center of its mission,” Fr. Granados said. “Any department in the parish should be family oriented. If we help the sick, we will try to heal his or her relationships with the family. If we have a wonderful food bank, we need to consider the poverty of being without relationships – loneliness.”
“To consider the family as (simply) another ‘sector’ of the ministry is to forget the way God has chosen to come to us,” Fr. Granados said. “God came to us in the Holy Family of Nazareth and comes to us through the sacrament of marriage.”
During one month of the initiative, parishioners were invited to reflect on outreach, specifically to widows and orphans.
Parishioners Tim and Angela Urban say this challenge particularly affected them.
“(It) challenged us to look outside our family, to treat all members of the parish as family and to be more attentive to who might be needing our family's help,” they said. “We realize what a gift family is and sharing it with others has been a blessing for us and our children.”
Fr. Granados' Spain-based community, the Disciples of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary, also has a parish in Virginia, but Saint Mary’s is the first to host the “Towards a Family-Friendly Parish” program. Fr. Granados says the order hopes to spread the program to its school in Madrid next year.