If Chuck and Laura Zimmerman had their druthers, they’d be raising their four children, ages 1 to 10, as they see fit.
That doesn’t sound like too much to ask. But they’re finding that aggressive outside influences — from jaded media to unchurched peers to a secularized school system — sometimes reach out and capture their kids’ hearts and minds in ways the parents can’t even compete with.
“It’s an intrusion,” says Laura. “We can’t actively parent our children with other forces working against us all the time. Some parents don’t mind or have no other choice, but that’s not the way we want it.”
Consequently the Zimmermans find themselves spending significant amounts of time each day trying to deprogram their children from negative stimuli that have gotten through. No easy task, that.
“We teach them to be obedient to their teachers and other figures of authority,” Laura explains. “But, what do you do when those figures speak and act in opposition to what parents would approve?”
Author Peter Kreeft wrote about this dilemma in his booklet A Defense of Culture Wars: A Call for Counterrevolution. The Boston College philosophy professor is concerned about the forces pushing parents to relegate childrearing responsibilities to unqualified caregivers, government agencies and civic organizations.
“Parents today feel increasingly trapped and helpless,” he writes. “Control over their children’s lives and happiness seems to have passed into the hands of an educational elite whose philosophy of life is radically different from that of the parents and is often a moral vacuum.”
Kreeft points out that the values civilized societies have historically held dear — self-discipline, character, loyalty, family, civility, courtesy, gentlemanliness, womanliness, and the very idea of objective truth and objective values — have been downplayed in our schools and degraded in our entertainments.
How do conscientious and confident parents swim against these calamitous currents? By looking to the institution that’s seen it all before, in one form or another, over the course of its 2,000-year pilgrimage through history.
“The Church knows that parental rights are primary, springing as they do from natural law,” Michael O’Brien writes in The Family and the New Totalitarianism. “And it also knows that with every right come obligations. The protection of a proper understanding of both rights and obligations (they are inseparable) cannot be sustained unless we listen to the inspired teaching authority of the universal Church.”
Being educated in the teachings of the Church helps make parents savvy toward today’s particular threats to the sanctity of the family. By getting involved in parish activities and other Catholic goings-on, families can find inspiration, know-how and moral support to keep their families growing strong in the Catholic faith — come what may.
Father Kevin Barrett is the chaplain of the Apostolate of Family Consecration, an Ohio-based ministry that advocates family consecration as a defense against the culture of death and its impact on families. The ministry stresses four points that will help families protect themselves from negative influences: understanding the reality of sin, accepting the reality of grace, striving for holiness and total consecration to Jesus through his mother, Mary.
“Families can live these points in three different ways,” Father Barrett says. “First, by frequent and worthy reception of the sacraments. Second, by daily prayer together, especially the family Rosary. And third, by good works done in the state of grace. These will surely strengthen families against whatever they might face.”
But even the strongest families will find it difficult to make it on their own. Families need a sense of community — within the parish, within Catholic movements and organizations, and with friends and other families — in order to develop support for themselves and find positive peer pressure for their children.
“No family is an island. We need community to raise our children,” says Jerry Coniker, the apostolate’s founder. “But we live in an amoral society, so we have to create for ourselves a community of believers focused on God, truth and love.”
Lack of moral and spiritual communities for families is what drove Jerry and his late wife, Gwen, to found the Apostolate of Family Consecration in 1975 as well as Catholic Familyland, a 900-acre retreat and recreation facility located in the Steubenville, Ohio, diocese.
Today, families from all over the country come to Catholic Familyland to experience more concentrated spiritual formation and the sense of community for which they long. Because of their dedicated service to families, Pope John Paul II appointed the Conikers to the Pontifical Council for the Family in 1999.
The Zimmermans find their parish to be the most fruitful source of community support for their family. They secure Sundays as family days and make Sunday liturgy a celebration to look forward to rather than an obligatory intrusion into their weekly schedule. They participate in their parish’s spiritual and social activities whenever possible, especially those that are family-oriented.
“Being around good Catholic families creates other good, strong Catholic families and good, strong members of society,” says Laura. “It’s such a blessing to be able to inspire and teach each other and to share experiences together.”
Whatever methods families use to form a sense of community for themselves, they need to keep their primary focus in mind: educating for eternity. Rick Sarkisian, author of numerous books on life planning and vocational discernment, suggests that families develop a mission statement for themselves to help them focus and define the structure of their choices. Bonding with other families that have similar mission statements creates a safety net of unity and community.
“In our present time, families benefit greatly from a clear sense of purpose and direction to know where they are going in the spiritual sense, and how to get there,” says Sarkisian. “More than ever, families are challenged to embrace a sense of mission and purpose, discovering God’s plan and their identity and mission.”
Stated another way: It takes a village of domestic churches to raise a child in the way of the Lord so that, when he is old, he does not depart from it.
Marge Fenelon writes from