Elizabeth Shearer, with three little ones in tow, ages 7, 5 and 4, along with her husband, Andrew, works to make family service a priority. Residents of Fremont, Calif., they participate in the pro-life movement, volunteer at a homeless shelter and help at a crisis-pregnancy center, where Andrew sits on the board of directors. They are also actively involved in the Walk for Life West Coast, Life Chain and 40 Days for Life.
“It’s been a wonderful learning experience for my kids,” Shearer says. “I can see that they are learning to be more compassionate and empathetic than before we got them involved.”
Her sense of service was instilled in her as a child. With her mother and sisters, she visited nursing homes where they joined with others from their parish to sing to, converse with and lift the spirits of the residents. They participated in the Walk for Life and Life Chain and volunteered at the local crisis-pregnancy center. They would pray in front of abortion clinics from time to time and also worked on political campaigns on both the local and national level. Shearer’s sense of service, gained from her mother’s good example, earned her a spot as an alternate delegate to the Republican State Convention when she was just 18 years old.
“Serving others has been a wonderful teaching tool for how Christ needs us to be his hands and feet on earth,” she says. “The children also really love the thought that they are making Jesus and Mary very happy by helping people who need it! I thank my mother for her selfless influence during my childhood. I’m seeing the beauty of carrying on that tradition in my own family. I believe children are never too young to participate in service and spiritual activities. If it becomes a way of life, it will stick with them when they grow up.”
Like many Catholic families, the Shearers are following what the bishops of the Church recommended during their 1980 synod for family life in the Church. According to the words of Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, written just after the synod’s conclusion, “Family, become what you are.” That is, a community of life and love called to serve one another, the Church and the world.
With Lent upon us, it’s a good time to re-evaluate John Paul’s exhortation and revisit how we are called to serve as Catholic families. The Church always has advocated fasting and penance during Lent, but that doesn’t mean only “giving up” something we like. It also means performing the spiritual and corporal works of mercy: giving of ourselves for the sake of others in order to become more like Christ.
In this spirit, the synod defined four tasks for families:
1. Form a community of persons. With love as both the driving force and the final goal, and in the spirit of sacrifice, family members develop a deepening and lasting commitment to one another.
2. Serve life. The family is to promote human life by every means and defend it against attack.
3. Participate in the development of society. The family is the first and vital cell of society; it is characterized by an experience of communion and sharing that is its fundamental contribution to society. The family can and should, according to its own means and abilities, devote itself to social service and political activism.
4. Share in the life and mission of the Church. The family is called to become a “Church in miniature” or a “domestic Church” by building up the Kingdom of God through its sacramental life and evangelization.
For the Cromer family of Oklahoma City, Okla., this took the form of inviting a foreign-exchange student to stay with them — just one of the many ways they’ve embraced their call to service as a Catholic family. When their teenage son and daughter were 17 and 14 years old, respectively, they took a student from Buenos Aires into their home for a month.
“He was a very nice young man,” says Joanne Cromer, “and we all enjoyed learning about his family and culture and incorporating him into our daily routine.”
Families who participate in service projects find that, when they benefit others, they themselves are benefited, too. Volunteerism teaches kids what St. Francis de Sales called the “little virtues”: patience, humility, gentleness, simplicity, honesty and hospitality lived out in the ordinary, daily life of “being who you are and being that perfectly well.”
Giving up favorite foods or types of entertainment for Lent can do much to teach families temperance and perseverance. It allows them a glimpse of what our Savior suffered during his passion and crucifixion. Doing service work adds another dimension to family striving: transformation in Christ. That’s the ultimate aim of all Christians — and the foundation upon which families build their identity. Serving others helps families to become what they are, communities of life and love, and there’s no better time to start than now.
Jim and Pam Singleton are parents of five children, ages 12-22, in McSherrystown, Pa. Their Catholic high school requires 80 service hours in order to graduate, and its athletics program requires parents to volunteer at all games. Even though the hours were mandatory, the Singletons fulfilled them with a sense of service because they believed in their school’s mission. When the children were small, Pam took them along with her to pray the Rosary outside of abortion clinics. That was years ago, when they lived in Milwaukee, but they still reap the fruits of their service.
“The biggest benefit was meeting people of like mind for our children and us,” Pam says. “We made friendships that still exist today after leaving the state seven years ago. In addition, it’s very healthy for children to see other children doing things that are not the norm of today. Now, when help is needed, our younger son will volunteer when most others won’t. I believe it helps parents see strengths in their children that otherwise they might not be aware of. Of course the biggest benefit is the joy shared as a family. A family gets more than it gives.”
Marge Fenelon writes from Cudahy, Wisconsin.