It’s been 12 years since the Pontifical Council for the Family presented guidelines to help parents teach their own children about human procreation before someone else — the media, public schools, poorly catechized peers — got a chance to usurp their authority. And often botch the job.
“[H]aving given and welcomed life in an atmosphere of love,” the council wrote, “parents are rich in an educative potential which no one else possesses. In a unique way they know their own children; they know them in their unrepeatable identity and by experience they possess the secrets and the resources of true love.”
Today this rich document — at more than 21,000 words, it’s got the heft of a short book — is still making a difference for the better wherever families, parishes and study groups apply it.
Sally Wallace of Endwell, N.Y., can vouch for that. The mother of eight (and now grandmother of 19) used the writing to launch a program in her parish that eventually evolved into the Catholic Parents Program. This, in turn, developed into the national Life and Hope Parents Program (due online soon at truthandmeaningforparents.com).
The five-week program provides resource books, papal encyclicals, a copy of the pontifical council’s 1995 document and DVD recordings of speakers explaining the document (which is formally titled The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality and available online at Vatican.va).
“The parents came to the program very confused and feeling unprepared,” Wallace recalls of the early days of her apostolate. “They left so full of confidence because they were armed with knowledge and they had each other. When you share the truth, you’re reaffirmed in it.
“It is more and more clear that, today, parents are faced with situations where they have to defend the family, marriage, purity before marriage, things we think that others would understand and value,” adds Wallace. “What’s being taught in the schools is absolutely contrary to what we believe. It’s critical even for well-educated parents to study and be prepared to teach their own children.”
Wallace is not alone on the front lines of this movement.
Mary Pat Van Epps, director of the Natural Family Planning Center of the Diocese of Memphis, Tenn., started All in God’s Plan way back in 1986. It’s now used by dioceses and parishes around the country.
All in God’s Plan is presented to mother/daughter and father/son groups starting at age 9. It promotes respect, chastity and other relevant virtues as a way of dealing with the physical and emotional changes of puberty and early adolescence. Plus, in age-appropriate ways, it prompts gentle and wise discussion on the Church’s marriage-and-family teachings.
Van Epps presents the program to as many as 300 mothers and daughters, and 200 fathers and sons, each year. (It’s online via the Memphis Diocese’s homepage, cdom.org; just click on “Natural Family Planning Center.”)
“We show the beauty of God’s design” as expressed in human fertility, she explains. “God made our bodies to have children. What a privilege that is.”
Mary Ann Chezik uses All in God’s Plan in the Diocese of Camden, N.J., where she is coordinator of family ministries. Parents appreciate the wealth of information, much of which they did not get in their youth, and the opportunity to bond with their children at a time when they are looking more to their friends.
“This is the generation of moms who are trying to talk to their daughters. Women want to do a better job than their mothers did with them,” says Chezik. “When I ask how many had a good education in this, hardly any hands go up. It’s critical that we do a better job because the culture surrounds our kids with a message that they can do anything they want. This program connects God to the whole process.”
Mark Houck, co-founder of The King’s Men, a Catholic virtue-based leadership program for men and boys online at thekingsmen.us, has spoken at Chezik’s father/son program several times.
“Fathers don’t always know how to properly initiate their sons,” he says. “A father needs to validate his son and give him his commissioning into manhood. Many fathers fail at that and the boys have to figure that out on their own.”
“Even Jesus, on some level, needed to know that his Father was pleased with him,” adds Houck. “This is what fathers need to do with their sons.”
John Butterworth attended the Camden program with his son when the boy was in the sixth grade. He admits they were uncomfortable but knew that “it needed to be done.”
“In the end, we have a better relationship,” says Butterworth. “He’s got stuff going on that he knows I know about because I’ve been through it. He will come and ask me about things, what’s normal and not.”
His wife, Regina, has been a presenter at mother/daughter programs for years, sometimes with her now 21-year-old daughter.
“A lot of the moms who attend say it opens the door to communication, especially on the ride home,” she says, adding that she knows what they mean from firsthand experience. When she was a girl, she “didn’t have that experience. My mom wouldn’t talk about (the facts of life). You can’t be embarrassed in this day and age.”
Also rising up to meet the need on a national level is Family Honor. Based in Columbia, S.C., and online at familyhonor.org, this was started in 1987 by a group of pro-life, pro-NFP parents. Its stated aim is to “help provide opportunities for parents and children to connect on important life values, with a special emphasis on chastity.”
Family Honor is a series of gender-specific parent/child programs for students in grades 6 through 12. These are led by trained teams of three men and three women. By the end of the series, both parent and child are more comfortable — and better able — to discuss situations that would otherwise induce a case of the squirms.
Brenda Cerkez, executive director, says one of the best things her apostolate provides is the impetus for parents to launch meaningful conversations with their children — “talks” that begin in childhood but carry right on through to early adulthood.
“Parents are universally concerned about their children. They want to be better equipped to talk to them, and help them avoid mistakes they made,” she says. “I hear, so often, ‘I wish this program had been around when I was growing up.’ There’s a lot of heartache out there and this does heal some of those wounded hearts.”
Or, as the Pontifical Council for the Family put it: “May parents constantly rely on the love which they offer to their own children, a love which ‘casts out fear,’ which ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1 Corinthians 13:7). Such love is and must be aimed toward eternity, toward the unending happiness promised by Our Lord Jesus Christ to those who follow him: ‘Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.’”
Barb Ernster writes from