Michelle Virnig wasn't entertaining lofty thoughts about building the culture of life as she flipped through her cookbooks in preparation for a Friday dinner eight years ago.

It was entertaining and feeding the parish priest that preoccupied her.

The Shoreview, Minn., mother of five finally settled on fish — “orange roughy” — but for the whole family, the evening's real find was the personal connection with their guest.

Priests have visited the Virnigs often since then. One in particular — Michelle's husband, Kurt, serves for him at daily Mass — has become a good friend and a hands-on ally in the work of building Catholic family life.

“Our kids are 13 to 25 now, and as they've gotten older, almost all of them have gone to Father for help with a problem or something,” says Michelle. “They know he's approachable. But if they hadn't seen him on their turf, would they have talked to a priest at all? Probably not.”

Teaching Moments

If culture-building means strengthening and passing on certain values and ideals, then culture-building isn't too grand a term for what happens at family mealtimes. In ordinary-life settings like this, values and teachings can become concrete and compelling through personal stories and conversation. Faith-building relationships can develop. As the Virnigs and many other Catholic parents have discovered, a priest's presence at the table can advance these goals significantly. It's a role that most priests — time permitting — are eager to embrace.

Father Joseph O'meara, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Church, Baltimore, says that visiting families and interacting with their children is one of his favorite activities and brings him great encouragement for his own vocation.

Parents of younger children could try a few ideas from Father Charles.

The visits strengthen parish bonds, he has noticed, and are good opportunities for sharing and discussion. “I sort of expect and enjoy being asked questions about Catholic life,” he says. “Sometimes the younger children will ask, ‘How come you wear those clothes?’ The older ones, without asking directly, might wonder why I'm not married.” Father O'meara seizes every opening. “It's a nice chance to explain. Sometimes I tell stories about how I found my vocation.”

If Father O'meara didn't live halfway across the country from Dwight and Margaret Ganje, this Minnesota couple might well seek him out as a guest for their family's monthly “focus” meal. They came up with the concept more than six years ago, when the oldest of their three children was going into ninth grade.

“We wanted our children to see that there are many possibilities for following God, so we started inviting people over to share their story, their testimony,” Margaret explains. “Specifically, we wanted our children to hear how these people made choices in their lives — the bad as well as the good, and what they learned from that.”

Focus meals have worked well for the Ganjes and have provided valuable insights into the lives of dedicated people from a variety of vocations, ministries, and occupations. Many priests have shared their stories.

“We all love hearing about their childhood and how they discovered their vocation,” Margaret reports. “We always come away with a sense of closeness — being inspired by priests' faithfulness, seeing them as real people who struggle sometimes, wanting to support them more. Also, for the children, the conversation is very intellectually stimulating — full of interesting topics they can relate to.”

Kids and Priests

Parents who worry that younger children might not be able to connect with a visiting priest could try out a few ideas from Father Charles Antekeier, recently retired pastor of St. Francis Xavier Church, Grand Rapids, Mich. “There should be introductions, with parents indicating what each child contributes to the family,” he suggests. “They can help each child to tell about their school, sports, classroom activities.”

Father Antekeier, who tries to come prepared for visits by knowing children's names and putting a few candies in his pockets, says that parents can prepare too. “Show young children a picture of the priest and explain that he's coming. Have them prepare a list of simple questions — things like how many brothers and sisters do you have? What do you do every day?”

“‘What's the most fun thing you do as a priest? Which of my toys do you like best?’ Those are good question for small children,” adds Father William Baer. Older children may be more of a challenge, he admits, but even they can be drawn in if parents keep the conversational ball rolling.

“When I'm with a family that has teen-agers who look like they'd rather be anywhere else but with their parents and the parish priest, I talk to the parents,” says Father Baer. “I tell funny stories about growing up, about some of the behind-the-scenes surprises that can come up at church events like weddings. Everybody loves stories! I watch the kids slowly start to laugh, show interest” — even interest in the priest-hood, he says.

“Sometimes in the course of an hour, I see a teen-ager go from nervous or sullen to a very positive fascination with priesthood,” he says. “I'm impressed at how many of them admit — not just later, but right there at the dinner table — that being a priest would be cool, wow!, really something.”

It's the kind of statement that makes not only parents sit up and take notice, but also Father Baer of St. John Vianney Junior Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.