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The Family That Prays Together…

April 9th, 2012by Fr. Satish Joseph

I am from India. I can trace my ancestry back to 1823 and if I want, beyond that too. People find it difficult to connect my being Indian and Catholicism. Most people presume that I am a recent convert to Catholicism. In fact, as far back into 1823 my family was Catholic (Eastern Catholic). For generations, then, faith has been passed along with untiring zeal and passion. When I was a child, my father often repeated the well-known adage: “The family that prays together stays together.” And I believed it. That is, until now.

About my childhood family – it was mom, dad, my brother and I. Mom and dad both worked for the government. That meant financial security even though the income was meager. But what set us apart was that we were a praying family. Ours was the model family in the parish. Priest and nuns often came and dined at our home and our family was often quoted as the Christian family par excellence. We prayed each morning and night – together. Before my brother and I left to the Catholic school my parents could barely afford, we would gather together and pray. After dinner each night, we prayed again, sometimes for a good half hour. There was not a Sunday we missed mass whether it was the Cricket World Cup or plain tiredness. For most part we prayed together and stayed together.

That was thirty years back when we were my brother and I were kids. I went on to the Seminary, was ordained in 1994 and today I am a priest of 18 years. Here is my greatest question though. Why did the family that prayed together not stay together? It happens that today my only brother is something between an agnostic and an atheist. He could care less for the Catholic Church that the stray dogs that roam the streets of India. He loves and respects me not because I am a priest but because I am his brother.

My brother is not a bad guy. There was a time when he baptized his only daughter, participated in her First Holy Communion event and even today, will drive my parents and me to church when we visit him. But at the heart of his passion are the people of Bhopal, who were affected by the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984. The Union Carbide factory (now Dow Chemicals) spewed poisonous gas and thousands of people died while others remain affected for decades or even generations to come. This population was neither compensated justly nor their needs met adequately. My brother works for the government during the week and in the weekends, he’d rather be with the people in their struggle to cope with daily life than be at Church.

You may ask why he could not do both? “Because,” he says, “the church is only interested in getting people to church! The question is why does the church not go the people?” He was referring to the local church’s lack of involvement in the struggles of the people of Bhopal. At other times he has said to me, “There is a reason why Mother Teresa is already a saint and Archbishop Oscar Romero will never be. I think it is because one took care of the poor whereas the others questioned the system that creates the poor. Where is the church and on whose side is the church today?”

I know numerous once-upon-a-time-church-going-people who think similarly. They are young and adults alike whose alienation from the church is a moral stance. The abuse crisis and the immunity of top leadership, the concentration of decision making in the hands of a male dominated hierarchy, the unwillingness to even dialogue about women priesthood, and even the recent liturgical changes are among the reasons why some have alienated themselves from the church.

Our archdiocese is embarking on a major initiative called “Christ at the Center.” The goal is to “explore the challenges that families face today and discover with one another viable tools and methods for evangelizing and ministering to the church of the home.” Perhaps, one of the assumptions of this initiative is that if we can educate the parents about faith, then children will keep the faith.

My experience tells me that educating families in faith and providing them the resources for evangelizing and ministering to the church of the home, while beneficial, is not a panacea for a vibrant church community. Because, if I consider my family, the family that prayed together did not necessarily stay together. For that, THE CHURCH TOO MUST CHANGE. For example, the church must ask itself if it’s paternalistic organizational structure is healthy for its own good? Is the silencing and excommunication of reasonable theological voices the best way to deal with dissent? We made organizational changes as a result of the abuse crisis – but have we been church to the victims and their families the way Christ would? In the recent liturgical changes did we settle for uniformity rather than unity? Why do people who migrate to evangelical churches talk about their faith journey in the Catholic Church as devoid of the experience of God? Why do scores of people find themselves spiritually starved after their weekly celebration of the Eucharist? These are the kinds of questions that people who grew up Catholic and have since conscientiously alienated themselves from the church are asking.

Meanwhile, my parents and numerous elderly parents who hurt because their children have left the church have their question, “What did we do wrong?” I often say to them, “It is not your fault.” My family prayed together too but did not stay together in faith. That makes is sad for my family and for my church.

My next installments of Being Catholic blog will continue from where I left off. They will center on the church, culture and change.

Fr. Satish Joseph

Fr. Satish Joseph is the associate pastor at Immaculate Conception and St. Helen parishes in Dayton. He is also the founder Ite Missa Est ministries. You can find his free iPhone and droid apps by typing in itemissaest or ite missa est.