STRENGTHENING CATHOLIC IDENTITY THROUGH THE FAMILY
“Thus the little domestic Church, like the greater Church, needs to be constantly and intensely evangelized: hence its duty regarding permanent education in the faith…the family, like the Church, ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates…the future of evangelization depends in great part on the Church of the home”
~ St. John Paul II (Familiaris Consortio, #51-52).
What a Gift!
By Sarah Kushner
It’s 15-20 degrees outside in the snow and maybe 60 degrees inside my house as the wind whips a nearby tree branch against my bedroom window and the radiator begins to rattle and hiss with the promise that the temperature inside my room may soon begin to slightly rise. I comfortably lay under the covers trying to convince myself to make a run for the bathroom and turn on the shower to begin the lengthy process of warming up the frigid winter water. As an adolescent, it’s what I did every day for school and it’s also what I did early every Sunday morning to attend CCE classes and Mass in my hometown of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.
My parents, my younger brother, and I attended St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in Beaver Falls. The parish was founded in 1871 by German immigrants and the finalized traditional European brick building with its many beautiful stained glass windows and towering spire was completed and dedicated in 1897. The spirit of our parish was humble and holy and most of its members lived simple, hard- working lives. We knew the names and family stories of almost all of our fellow parishioners. Mr. Wagner was a parishioner and my high school CCE teacher. He and his wife had 17 children and lived across the street from the church. I remember him dissecting every word of the “Hail Mary” with us, pounding on his desk, asking us if we could “believe how beautiful this prayer is?” At. St. Mary’s, I learned to do the dishes at the Friday Lenten fish fries, my dad was on the church council and my mom headed up things like the parish picnics and the church bazaar. I can remember waiting for what seemed like hours outside in the snow after CCE class for my parents to join me for 10:30 am mass. My parents were always dressed in their Sunday best and I can remember during mass, they both would recite the Nicene Creed in a way that made me know they really believed it. After mass, my parents would be sure to visit with our pastor, Father Gildea, as well as their fellow parishioners. Sometimes they would offer to take someone “up the hill” back to their home if they had no other way. My parents’ devotion to St. Mary’s taught me many things, among them that God was first and worth any human sacrifice, that the offering of the mass was a priority always, as well as were the teachings of our faith, and that we are here to serve God, to praise God, and to be Christ to others. What a gift they gave to me!
My aunt, uncle and cousins attended St. Philomena’s Catholic Church two miles away on the other side of our small steel town, and my grandparents attended St. Joseph’s Catholic Church three miles in the opposite direction, across the bridge in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. My aunt was both my godmother and my confirmation sponsor. She was a Eucharistic minister and often took communion to those who were sick or homebound. Occasionally we would attend mass with my grandparents at “St. Joe’s”. They always sat in the same pew and were always there at least 30 minutes early. My Italian grandmother would pray the rosary while waiting for mass to begin and once mass did begin, my German grandfather would sing the entrance hymn with such pride and vigor that I was sure he could be heard in heaven. Many of the hymns we still sing at mass today move me to be able to hear my grandfather’s radiant voice, even though he is no longer here with us. When I recite my rosary I often think about my grandmother’s own devotion to the rosary. I can envision her in her recliner, rocking back and forth, rhythmically murmuring the words, almost entranced, finding peace in this prayer, particularly after her son, my uncle, passed away from Leukemia at the age of 43. These practices taught me several things; to go to God first, to seek and praise Him with vigor, to bring my sorrows and requests to our Blessed Mother, and that our Catholic faith was a part of my extended family as well as my nuclear one. What a gift they all gave to me!
As a mother, I know how important it is to give these same types of gifts to my three young boys. I sometimes find myself almost filled with panic wondering “How can I possibly do that, in a big city, where there is no snow, that is hundreds of miles away from any extended family, in a parish that sometimes seems bigger than the entire town where I grew up, in a day and age where our culture overwhelmingly tries to direct us away from the Gospel message, from family life, from serving one another, and from God!” …and then and I pray, or I work on my Bible study, or I attend mass, or I drop my children off at the Catholic school that they attend, or I go to Adoration, or I recite the rosary, or my son asks me a question about a Bible verse he doesn’t fully understand…and God blesses me with the wisdom of His Word, the grace of His love and sacrifice, and the peace of His protection. My husband and I don’t always get it right, but we work hard to teach our children to put God first in their lives. When planning our family time together, including weekends and vacations, we let the kids know through our choices, that God is first. Mass, family prayer, making sacrifices for relatives, putting others first, doing works of mercy, treating all of God’s creations with dignity, not giving into all of our human wants and desires, are some of the messages we hope are making their way into the hearts and minds of our kids. Raising soldiers of Christ is hard work! What a gift they are giving to me!
Due to a declining number of parishioners and the under-abundance of available priests, in recent years, the parish of St. Mary has been consolidated with the other parishes in the area and has been renamed St. Monica. Two years ago this month, due to an over-abundance of necessary repairs, demolition began on the beloved St. Mary church building I grew up in. After the initial demolition, I phoned my dad and asked him if he could retrieve for me, a relic of the church structure. So, my dad cautiously walked among the rubble of the church, the church where I was baptized, where I worked at fish fries on Friday nights, where I watched Mr. Wagner and his 17 kids grow up with me, where Fr. Gildea was our pastor for 15 years, and where I heard the Gospel for the very first time. My father got for my brother and I, each a brick from St. Mary Roman Catholic Church. My brick rests in my home here in Houston, Texas. When I see it, it reminds me that I have to keep working hard, fighting the battle, teaching my faith to my children, and keeping Christ at the center of our family life, one day at a time, brick by brick. It also reminds me that all of this shall come to pass and that the battle over sin and darkness has already been won. God gave us his only son for our salvation. What a gift God gave to me!
Sarah Kushner and her husband, Dave have been parishioners at St. John Vianney since the fall of 2014. Sarah is the proud mother of three boys, Davis (9), Vincent (7), and James (1). She has continuously heard a calling to aid expectant mothers in need through the Gabriel Project and has recently accepted the position of Co-coordinator of the St. John Vianney Gabriel Project. Sarah is a former middle school math teacher at St. John Paul II Catholic School and currently serves on several committees at the school as a parent volunteer. She is an active member of the St. Monica’s Society and is also looking forward to traveling this fall with the St. John Vianney mission team to Eagle Pass, Texas.
Sarah’s moving reflection and what she is doing for her family, her parish and her community are truly a gift and an example for all of us, and it could not have come at a better time. Multiple national surveys provide evidence of a drop-off in faith participation for younger Catholics. This is particularly the case for millennials, where only about two thirds or fewer of those raised Catholic remain Catholic as adults. In addition, a study conducted by Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) confirms that Catholics as young as ten years old are leaving the Catholic Faith.
As Sarah reminds us, “all of this shall come to pass and the battle over sin and darkness has already been won.” Yet, we are still called to fulfill our duty and responsibility to share our faith with one another. In the article Healthy Families, Healthy Society, Archbishop William E. Lori encourages us to strengthen our Catholic Faith by strengthening one family at a time. This, in turn, will lead us to becoming the civilization of truth and love which God created us to be.