Family in the Heart of Catechesis and Evangelization

Written by Carl Peters

In just a few unexpected moments, in the lower level of Saint Charles Borromeo Church in Sicklerville, a nun from Bridgeton conveyed what has been at the heart of Christian discipleship for some 2,000 years.

Sister Maria de Jesus Herrera, a member of the Missionary Daughters of the Most Pure Virgin Mary, was one of several individuals asked to give a brief testimony about their experiences as a parish catechetical leader during a workshop entitled “Family in the Heart of Catechesis and Evangelization” on May 10.

The nun, part of the pastoral team at the Parish of the Holy Cross, talked about the area’s growing immigrant community and the need for bilingual women religious, and those who can drive. (“I am Uber,” she said lightheartedly.) The church has to accompany those in need, including those who are not currently active church members, she said.

Then she stopped, suddenly unable to continue as she fought back tears.

“I’m sorry. It’s is just breaking my heart,” she struggled to say. “Pray for us. There are a lot of needs in our immigrant community. There is a lot of pain and suffering and loneliness.”

Father Vincent Guest, former pastor of the parish, recalled how the nuns would drive parishioners to doctor appointments, to Newark for immigration-related issues, and other destinations. “What we’re talking about is pre-evangelization,” he said, adding that Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor is “the heart of catechesis.”

Those few minutes were at the emotional center of a day of presentations, witness testimonies and discussion on how parishes can help cultivate faith among the young and their families.

Sponsored by the Camden Diocesan offices of Hispanic Ministry, Faith and Family Life, and Evangelization, the workshop drew several dozen individuals. A Spanish-language the next day, held at Saint John Paul II Retreat House in Vineland, drew more than 100.

“It is very important for us pastoral ministers to place the family at the heart of our catechetical and evangelization initiatives,” said Andrés Arango, Bishop’s Delegate for Hispanic Ministry and Director of Evangelization, Diocese of Camden. “We need to empower families to evangelize other families. At the same time, it is important to encourage families to be authentic small Christian communities through prayer, service and love in their own homes.”

The guest speakers were Dulce Jimenez, director of Bilingual Religion Markets for William H. Sadlier, New York, and Father Alejandro Lopez-Cardinale, a pastor from the Archdiocese of Boston and president of La RED (National Network of Pastoral Juvenil Hispana).

Father Lopez-Cardinale said that the church, in a spiritual sense that has had sociological effects, played a major role in the contemporary concept of the family. Citing the Acts of the Apostles, he observed that family gatherings were the place to worship in the early church. “It was the beginning of the domestic church,” he said, with family relationships reflective of the relationships of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The church’s renewed emphasis on the domestic church since the Second Vatican Council, he said, is threatened by many elements of contemporary culture, including financial hardships, drugs, domestic violence and pornography.

Both Father Lopez-Cardinale and Jimenez offered some practical suggestions for fostering family faith, but both cautioned against rigid thinking, arguing that every parish is different and pastoral teams have to find the best approaches for those in their community. Like Sister Maria de Jesus, they implied that relationships are more important than strategies.

Jimenez offered three simple guidelines: Believe in the community, understand the participants, be creative.

The priest encouraged home visits and said he invites parishioners to the rectory for meals. (“I love to cook,” he said.) While Saint John Paul II’s Theology of the Body can be, at least initially, a hard sell to youth, he said they are receptive to social justice issues so start by engaging them with material available from the website of Catholic Relief Services.

He also encouraged parish staff to become involved, or at least present, in civic life, simply because non-church issues are such an important part of their parishioners’ lives. “We have to shake off our fear of being Catholic in public,” he said.