John Paul II's Families

Thanksgiving is a time for family and prayer. Twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II's Familiaris Consortio (On the Family in the Modern World) underlined the importance of both. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of that document (Nov. 22), and in honor of Thanksgiving, Register writers explored four of that document's themes by looking at four families whose lives exemplify them.

Called to Serve Life

The Nguyens

Leah Nguyen was 30 weeks pregnant with her third child — who would later be named Mary Magdalene — when she found out the child had anencephaly, a fatal birth defect in which the baby has no brain and no skull bone from her eyebrows to the back of her head.

“We were on our knees,” said her husband Stephen, describing their decision whether to carry their daughter to term. “We were not asking for healings or miracles, but for guidance to understand and to do God's will.”

Having studied the Pope's teaching in Familiaris Consortio (On the Family in the Modern World), the Nguyens were aware of their call as a family “to serve life … transmitting by procreation the divine image” to their children (No. 28). They also knew that “the Church firmly believes that human life, even if weak and suffering, is always a splendid gift of God's goodness.” (No. 30)

Supported by their faith and by their friends and families, the couple from Kansas City, Kan., completely accepted Mary Magdalene's condition. The child was born full-term Sept. 28, 2000 and died 16 hours later.

“Our decision gave us the freedom to celebrate her life, to give her a funeral, and to accept the offerings that people gave us — cards, Masses, flower, meals — the things that poured in because we acknowledged her life,” said Leah.

She concluded, “You don't sign up for something like this, but when it happens, it's beautiful to see how God uses it.”

The Nguyens are expecting their fourth child next year.

Forming a Community of Persons

The Rivards

Kerrie Rivard and her husband, Paul, studied Familiaris Consortio at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Regina, Saskachewan, and learned that the family is a community of persons on the model of the Holy Trinity.

“God created both men and women individually, in his own image using different traits,” said Kerrie Rivard. “Just as the three persons of the Holy Trinity are indissoluble, so is the family.”

The call to build a community persons extends to the children also, as John Paul taught: “All members of the family, each according to his or her own gift, have the grace and responsibility of building day by day the communion of persons, making the family ‘a school of deeper humanity.’” (No. 21).

For the Rivards, this means trying to give “100% to each other, as God does, because we value each other as God does,” said Kerrie.

In their busy household, there are many opportunities to serve. Paul, an insurance underwriter, gives practical domestic help to Kerrie, who stays home with their three children, Stephane (age 4), Benoit (age 2) and Claire (9 months). He also initiates a family prayer time and carves out time to spend with the family each day.

Kerrie recognizes the challenge this places on her husband. When friends sometimes criticize their spouses, she is careful to praise hers. She wants her family to be known for “respecting and promoting each one of its members in his or her lofty dignity as a person, that is, as a living image of God. (no. 22)

Developing Society

The Dannenfelsers

Long before they met and married, Marty and Marjorie Dannenfelser had been involved in politics. Both of them ended up working on Capitol Hill in Washington. Today, the parents of five children aged 9 years to 9 months, the Dannenfelsers say participation in the political arena has become “part of the personality” of their family.

Such political involvement is one of the ways the Pope says families can be involved in developing society: “Families should be the first to take steps to see that the laws and institutions of the state not only do not offend, but support and positively defend the rights and duties of the family. Along these lines families should grow in awareness of being ‘protagonists’ of what is known as ‘family politics’ and assume responsibility for transforming society; otherwise families will be the first victims of the evils that they have done no more than note with indifference” (No. 44).

Marjorie, 35, says, “The older children are always interested in who is running in whatever race nationally or locally, because we talk about it all the time at the dinner table.” She also says her volunteer work as chairman of the board of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization dedicated to training pro-life activists and candidates, “has been a way to introduce the children to the culture of life ideas.”

Marty, 49, formerly with the Family Research Council and now a presidential appointee in the Administration for Children and Families of the Department of Health and Human Services, sometimes brings the children to his office and explains what he does to help other families and other kids — and why.

Can small children grasp such complex political ideas and processes? The Dannenfelsers have good reason to think so: During the presidential race last year their two older children started a political club to make their playmates aware of the importance of what was going on in the election.

“It was a good time to talk about our responsibility to take our love of Christ into every area, including the political arena,” says Marjorie. “Not everybody tries to make Christ the beginning and end of politics. As Pope John Paul II says, we have an important call to try to re-Christianize the political process, which has gotten secularized since our nation's founding.”

Sharing in the Life and Mission of the Church

The Binkleys

The Holy Father also taught a fourth role for the family: to be a “‘church in miniature,’ in such a way that … the family is a living image and historical representation of the mystery of the Church” (No. 49).

Tina Binkley of suburban Atlanta says she treasures her “domestic church”: husband, John; Amanda, 6; Jack, 3; and Robert, 8 months. She became aware of the idea when she participated in a parish group that studied Familiaris Consortio.

She now takes to heart John Paul's call for her family to share in the mission of the Church, first and foremost by being a “believing community.” Tina teaches her children that Jesus is their best friend, and Mary is their heavenly mother. They often read saint stories, and sing hymns and Bible songs. In every room in their house hangs a crucifix, and a highlight of their week is Sunday Mass, where they always stay after to fellowship with other families. Changing diapers cheerfully, praying with the children before bedtime, passing on outgrown clothes to needy families, saying a rosary while doing the dishes, taking meals to new moms … it all may sound insignificant, but Tina knows that through all these activities she's building the Church.

Like the Church at large, the Binkleys also evangelize. Quoting Pope Paul VI, John Paul said: “The family, like the Church, ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates. In a family which is conscious of this mission, all the members evangelize and are evangelized. … And such a family becomes the evangelizer of many other families and of the neighborhood of which it forms part” (No. 52). “We're gentle evangelizers,” Tina explains. “We found the best way to reach out was to simply invite family members to come to church with us.”

It's working. They rejoiced recently when John's brother and his wife entered the Church.

The Binkley children have turned out to be the best evangelizers, though. Once when the family had the privilege of hosting a traveling icon of Our Lady from Ireland, Amanda would joyfully shout to all passersby, “Come see Mary — she's at our house!”

Tina recommends Familiaris Consortio to all Catholic families. “Reading that document was life-changing,” she said. “I finally saw the big picture, my whole purpose, that I was called to this family at this moment … it's a complete ‘How To’ manual for Catholic parents.”

Dana Mildebrath, Lynn Williams, Lisa Ferguson and Caroline McDonald contributed to this article.