Peter and Chantal Howard believe all families are called to be heroic. To inspire families in today’s world, the Howards have established an apostolate called Heroic Families (HeroicFamilies.com). The Howards are traveling around the country with their five children to present their Heroic Families’ “Ascend” program to as many parishes, families and venues as possible.
Why did you begin this apostolate?
Peter: We worked with families over the years in parish ministry. I focused on adult formation and have been a professor at the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation. Having a formal ministry oriented to families was never really on my radar. That was for Chantal, since it was a passion of hers.
It wasn’t until I was engaged in major personal discernment over the last year that I began asking the same critical questions that we ask families in our ministry — especially, what is God’s purpose for me? Honestly asking the Holy Spirit led Chantal and I more directly in our efforts to found a new ministry that is at the heart of the New Evangelization, a ministry that targets primarily the leadership of families.
Chantal: This ministry is the fruit of the work of the Lord in our individual family. We were both raised in relatively strong Catholic families. We had a chance to encounter John Paul II in a personal way in St. Louis. We realized the heart and soul of the future of the Church lies in the ability of parents to convey the faith to their children with courage, with passion and with inspiration. Because we’re striving to live this in our own family, we feel particularly equipped and inspired to share it with others. This ministry really springs out of a deep desire for our own family to discover and live the Gospel to encounter Christ personally and pass that along to our children.
With his legendary promotion and support of families, how did St. John Paul II influence you?
Chantal: John Paul II was our matchmaker. He really was. In St. Louis, we met by pure happenstance amid 350,000 people there to visit the Pope [in 1999]. So he was the reason we met each other. From his great statement, “As the family goes, so goes the nation and the world in which we live,” we felt the beginning [of our call] to step out and do something radical. Then Peter had a chance to study in Italy [at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas for a doctorate in sacred theology]; and, later, we encountered John Paul II personally when he blessed our marriage (on Oct. 16, 2002, the day he signed and issued his apostolic letter Rosarium Virginis Mariae). It was also the anniversary of the day that St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe founded his Militia Immaculatae. John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility and theology of the body have had a huge impact on us and were springboards in our family life.
What are your goals for Heroic Families?
Peter: We’re all called to be saints by our baptism. There’s a collective element to that when it comes to the family. We’re called to be a family of saints, a heroic family. We need to be nothing less than heroic.
Chantal: We realize that today, for many families, that heroic calling is just surviving family life. We see the destruction of the family, left and right. To survive, we also know God has given wisdom and insight through the Church and the saints, and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to not only survive, but to thrive. Our message is very fundamental and simple, and we want to present it in a new way. This is what families are hungering for — this is what saved our family. The more we talk to parents, we find this is what they’re starving for. Heroic Families is a strong response to that.
Who are your patron saints?
Chantal: St. Francis de Sales is a big patron of our movement, as are St. John Paul II, Louis and Zélie Martin, the new saints in our Church, Venerable Fulton Sheen and St. Maximilian Maria Kolbe, for whom Peter has a special love, being a Mariologist.
In the four steps of getting families to “Ascend” to being heroic families, you say the first step is getting them to understand their “why.” Why start there?
Peter: Because everything starts with “why.” It’s also called your “purpose” or your “cause.” Answering that question prayerfully before God makes all the difference in what you will do for God — as well as what you won’t do for God. It’s what separates the leaders from the followers, the saints from the mundane, the heroic from the mediocre. So we want to awaken families to honestly and courageously ask this question. Pope Francis says we need to wake up our families to the signs of our times, calling for nothing less than a heroic response from families.
And what is the second step?
Peter: It is to help families realize the importance of healing in order to begin living this calling. Our world is so broken and wounded. No matter how great and lofty our ideas and goals may be, if we’re not healed, we’re not capable of moving forward.
Chantal: One of the things that really resonates with our audiences is the testimony of our own personal journeys. We might have been raised in these great Catholic families and have this amazing Marian devotion, but the reality is, over 14 years of marriage and five kids, we suffered a lot. That’s part of the message of our own brokenness. When we first got married, we had a lot of high idealism with and intense desire to live a very holy marriage. It ended up causing a lot of wounds. It wasn’t until the Lord brought us through that crucible that we understood what mercy is. The Lord showed that he wants a culture of mercy in our lives. This is exactly what Pope Francis is calling for with this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy: We’re to discover that culture of mercy in our family.
And what is the next step up?
Peter: The third part is the spiritual pillars for today’s family. We focus on Mary and the Eucharist. It’s that simple, but in a concrete and heroic way. We look at Mary, especially as it pertains to the heroic calling in consecrating oneself to Mary: what that means to today’s family and how the family Rosary is integral for living that out. Many say, “That’s really interesting, but …” So we’re very real in our understanding that these truths need to be translated in a way that can be incorporated into family life. We give practical suggestions from our own experience on how to do it and how these can benefit families.
For example, sometimes we pray the Rosary using Scripture. We have the children tell the story as we say the decades. Sometimes we chant the Rosary, as Chantal grew up with influence from the Byzantine rite, as she was baptized into it. That Marian dimension is critical. Mary has had the greatest impact in my life and our family. Our consecration to Mary has helped us get through challenging times.
What is the other pillar?
Peter: The other pillar is the Eucharist. Make a commitment to go to Mass more frequently; go to Eucharistic adoration. We emphasize the power of adoration. It’s important for a family because the children are with their parents before Our Lord. It’s important that children see parents praying. Archbishop Fulton Sheen credited all his success [to adoration], in that he made a daily Holy Hour for 60 years. That particular practice of his forever changed me as a young man, and I wanted to carry that into my family. There’s no way I would have encountered John Paul and had the family I have if I was not committed to that practice as well. Making our faith accessible goes hand in hand with bringing our children to the Eucharist. That includes going with them to confession as a family. Sometimes it means making a family visit to a Catholic church for a couple of minutes. Driving by the church, say, “Hey, let’s go in and visit Jesus.”
To what do these three lead?
Peter: The last part focuses on equipping families to really step outside the box in living out practically all of these precious principles. This is where a lot of John Paul [and his teaching] has played a big part. ... Essentially, this is about inspiring families to aim to the heights and not being afraid of pursuing very great endeavors that serve the New Evangelization, because all things are possible with God. ... Jesus clearly said, “With God, all things are possible.” Do I really believe him? So the bigger question is: What has God put in my heart to serve him and serve families? And do I believe that God will provide for those needs if I answer that call?
Chantal: It’s going to look different for each family.
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.