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Parenting, Faith and Church

Notes from address given at a Conference on Family, Faith and Society hosted by the Association of Catholics in Ireland in Oct 2014,

This Conference was held in advance of the Catholic Church's Synod on the Family in 2014.

Patricia and her husband Seamus were invited to speak to the topic of '

The lived reality of combining married life, family life and active participation in the Catholic Church


I was delighted to be asked to speak to the conference today and thought that I would be well up for the task of offering some thoughts on the Synod’s deliberations. I even downloaded the working document, Instrumentis Laboris, on to my smartphone and made it through the first few pages but that was about as far as it went. The demands of home with twins and a newborn meant I didn’t get much further. other forms of participation.

Alternative inspiration in terms of talking about active participation came from a most unlikely source. The Day the Crayons Quit is a book we recently bought and have been reading with the kids. The award-winning beautifully illustrated book is a firm favourite in our house, and it tells the story of a box of crayons who go on strike as they all have issues with how their owner, a little boy called Duncan, has been using them. Blue feels overworked, pink feels under-used, and black is tired of only ever getting to draw the outline of things. Purple’s issue came to mind the most. She was cheesed off that Duncan goes outside the lines when using her.

Participation can happen at different levels, which have been set out in various frameworks used within the social sciences. Within these frameworks there is a hierarchy of levels of participation ranging from passive reception of information to active leadership. The analogy of colouring seemed useful in distinguishing these both in relation to the current Synod, but also to participation in the Church more widely.

Colouring within the lines is analogous to more passive levels of participation: abiding by the teachings of Catholic Church and doing so within its current structures. These crayons may also be consulted, but they have minimal input into what lines are drawn.

Synod consultation with us ( the laity) is something the hierarchy wishes to engage more in. A positive next step would be engaging in learning as to how to do that effectively.

Colouring outside the lines is analogous to life situations that put one at odds with Church teaching- those typically thought of as marginalised or excluded from Church life e.g. the divorced, homosexuals.

The Synod of 2014 was intended ( as I understand it) to identify a pastoral response to those outside the lines, rather than to redraw the lines.

Making new dots – active participation – is defined by partnership, and moves on to delegated authority leadership, ownership, initiative. To stretch the analogy – daring to draw an outline and not just colour in.

I see no evidence of such active participation at the 2014 synod in Rome. Married couples are there as listeners. They may have scope to input but will have no vote. Furthermore they are there by invitation. In a truly equal Church, lay people would have a role in determining those to be invited.

I feel very lucky to have had experiences, through my work with Slí Eile ( a Jesuit Young Adult Faith and Justice Initiative) of active participation within a faith community and will draw on this experience in what follows.

The remainder of my talk will look at the reality of my experience of participating in Church at the different levels outlined above, as a woman who is married and has young children.

Within the lines

New Normal – our children will grow up in very different context than myself or my husband did.

In Co Tyrone, where I grew up, the Catholic church played a huge role for our community. 95% of people I knew went to Catholic Church and their local parish schools. ( I didn’t know any Protestants.) In terms of participation, the Catholics that I knew, were all recipients of church teaching, and on the surface at least, many were living within the lines.

Now, when we do go to mass, we are participating in a minority activity. We recognise as parents we need to seek out places where our children might find ‘faith cousins’. A shared understanding of faith cannot be assumed with their peers. That’s no bad thing – it’s just very uncharted territory, both terrifying and exciting. It’s part of the ‘New normal’ in terms of Church landscape that Sandra Schneider referred to in her address to CORI in April 2014 (available on

It’s possible to be within the lines and invisible or unacknowledged

Women in general – the elephant in the room (as Mary T Malone explores in her recent book, Women: The Elephant in the Church. A tract for our Times) As a woman I find the treatment of women within the Church alienating; as a mother I find it indefensible. We have boy/girl twins so gender equality is constantly monitored in our house. I am proud to say my 4 year old daughter instantly questions any difference in treatment between herself and her brother, or any absence of the feminine in any story that might be told. When her Papa started a bedtime story about a boy, Mary asked very quickly, ‘Papa, did he have a sister?’

Woman called to leadership – I feel a call to leadership within a faith community and feel I have certain gifts that would support that. I feel very lucky to have had work in the area of faith and justice with young adults. However what I had was a job and not a career. I have learnt through experience the need to spell out commitment and experience in relation to faith work. As a lay married woman, there’s no shorthand to express that commitment and passion. Priests, religious, and even former priests and religious have a shorthand way of communicating the significance of God in their lives. As a lay person, it’s easily missed. And even where it is acknowledged, it’s not clear where it finds expression. I am therefore, very grateful for today and for other opportunities I have had.

The absence of women’s stories and input has an impact. I’ll speak more about fertility in moment, and where it pushes people outside the lines, but for those inside the lines Christmas can be very painful.

Some key images drawn on to support teachings are unhelpful – for example:

The Holy Family

  • I’ve heard from a parenting expert that sibling rivalry is the most common reason for parents to seek support. ‘But, that’s all very well for Jesus’. He never had to deal with the aggravation of siblings. I wonder how the brothers and sisters of Jesus feel about being completely written out.

  • Mary and Joseph as model of marriage – atypical as it was sexless ( or so we are asked to believe).

Daily family life is potentially a rich mine of images for God that would help – e.g. ‘lap of God’, or questions such as ‘Is Jesus God when God goes on holidays?’

Outside the lines

What’s it like to be participating from outside the lines?

In the absence of scope to change where lines are drawn, many people find themselves on the outside of lines that have been handed down as Church teaching. I will speak to two here, not because they are in any way the most important, but because they are the ones which I have personal experience of:

Getting married was a key experience of being outside the lines. Although Seamus left a religious order, he did not seek laicisation and as a result we are not canonically married.

In any discussion re married priests, there is often reference to how many men could be brought back into ministry if married priests were allowed. There is rarely if ever any mention of what their spouses might bring.

When Seamus left, the tagline on the Jesuit Vocation website was ‘Imagine Yourself Differently’. I often thought if they, the Jesuit congregation, could imagine themselves differently, they’d be gaining two instead of losing one . Fertility places many people ‘outside the lines’ with respect to Church teaching – either by curbing it or by trying to address the lack of it. Having had our own experience of infertility, I am struck by the silence of the Church and its almost complete absence in either acknowledging or offering support along this very difficult journey.

I railed against images such as psalm 139 ‘knit together in mother’s womb’ as well as virgin birth, and the pregnancy of Elizabeth. I found a persistence of fertility and creator imagery and terminology, with little or no acknowledgement of those who might be struggling hard – rooted in lack of the female voice in shaping what teaching is and what imagery is used.

For those struggling to get pregnant, news of another’s pregnancy can be hard to hear. Perhaps the reason for Elizabeth getting pregnant was that God anticipated that she would have had a very strong reaction if she had heard that Mary – her virgin cousin- was expecting.

If church could really hear the pain of struggle to have kids, and of all other struggles, then the lines might be drawn differently, or at very least the proposed pastoral response would be different.

Making New dots

I was very lucky to have had chance to be part of Sli Eile –Jesuit Faith and Justice Initiative for Young Adults – both as a participant and also as a fulltime worker for over 10 years. It aimed to equip 18-35 year olds to actively participate in church. As a fulltime worker, I coordinated young adult justice activities and associated faith reflection and social analysis. It was inspirational work – both because of colleagues and because of young people. It convinced me that if you can create space for people to be real with themselves and others, God will be there and community emerges.

Since we got married, we have been accessing this kind of space on a more informal basis. We are currently involved in a group with other former religious and their spouses. We meet once every 6 weeks or so, and it’s a very precious and privileged space to hear people share on where God is in their lives. Very simple, yet very powerful. There’s a powerful sense of being the change we want to see. It was really rewarding to take on the challenge to create Christmas celebration where kids were fully welcome and involved, and to share out leadership. We have also arranged a couple of hill walks which have had reflective activities for both adults and kids worked in. These have been great chances to connect and reflect with others of all ages.

Leadership within this groups can be a challenge – the top down approach is more familiar and straightforward. The informal and voluntary nature of these groups means organisation can be very ad hoc but there’s much we can learn. At times that can be frustrating – but I do truly believe it’s a space spirit can breathe in. I am excited to be making new dots and look forward to connecting with other dots that may emerge through national conversation.

Finally, to return to the story of the crayons- they were encouraged not to quit as Duncan listened. He took on board their issues and reallocated roles. The result – a beautiful new colourful world!!

The link to the article on the ACI site is here

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