Focus groups give voice, hope to families

Categories: Around the Diocese,Synod

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Marc and Teresa Dvoracek had several reasons for venturing out to St. Anthony’s Parish Center in St. Cloud on the blustery evening of Feb. 23.

synod-on-family-logo-no-dateThe couple, members of Holy Spirit Parish in St. Cloud, were among Catholics who participated in focus groups this week at the request of Bishop Donald Kettler to give input on what the church can do to provide better pastoral care to families.
Marc Dvoracek noted examples of a newlywed cradle Catholic who told him there was “nothing in parish life for her,” and a divorced friend who felt out of place and unwelcome. He shared his own experience of how, as a newly married couple, he and his wife were invited to join a Bible study with other young couples with young children who had “no money for babysitters.”

“We would meet in a church basement and let the children run wild so that we could pray together,” he said. “This provided a great stabilizing force in our lives and really provided the glue to make us feel like somebody actually wanted us in the church. I think today’s young parents need to have those same supports that we had. I hope we can find ways to offer that.”

Addressing four topics

The discussion sessions, held Feb. 23 in St. Cloud, Feb. 24 in Sauk Centre and Feb. 26 in Wadena, addressed four topics: ministry to the divorced, cohabitation, support for newly married couples and the education of children.

The effort will assist Bishop Kettler in providing input for the Synod of Bishops on the family, set for Oct. 4 to 25 at the Vatican.
At the sessions, Chris Codden, director of the diocesan Office of Marriage and Family, detailed the history behind this fall’s synod — beginning with Pope Francis’ call for last October’s extraordinary synod on the “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization,” to his current request for feedback from all 3,127 dioceses around the world for the October meeting.
“If you think of all the pieces that Pope Francis has put together on this,” she said, “it is an extensive outreach to try to solve a problem on a global level but also bringing it down to a level that each diocese can use.”

The purpose of the focus groups is “to propose to today’s world the beauty and the values of the family,” she said, and to “develop, in a new and renewed way, concrete actions.”

The 20 participants at the St. Cloud discussion session broke into groups of about six to eight people, and trained facilitators read discussion questions aloud. Each participant was given a chance to respond, limited to three minutes on each question, to ensure all voices were heard. The same format was used at the other sessions.

Cheryl Wiechman, a member of St. Rose of Lima Parish in St. Rosa, heard on Relevant Radio about Pope Francis’ plan to meet next fall and discuss issues related to the family. When she read about the focus groups in The Visitor and in a neighboring parish’s bulletin, she said she “felt moved by the Spirit to check out what it was all about.”

“It was interesting to hear the history behind the purpose of these focus meetings,” she said. “I was not fully aware of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on family, and how the process began to again address this issue with our present Holy Father, Pope Francis.

“It was also interesting to see that people from many different parishes are finding the same pastoral challenges on the issues of divorce and remarriage, annulments, cohabitation and passing on the faith to our children and grandchildren, to name a few. We know what the church teaches in regard to these issues, but sometimes accomplishing the pastoral side with love can be challenging.”

A hopeful outlook

Codden looks forward to reviewing the feedback the discussion groups provided.

“We expect to learn much,” she said. “In order to better serve and journey with our brothers and sisters in Christ we must first listen to them, hear their concerns and understand their circumstances. It is only when we encounter the person that there will be an openness to Christ himself.”

Both Wiechman and the Dvoraceks found hope in the discussions.

“The attendees were mostly familiar faces,” Marc Dvoracek said. “But when you get together in a small group setting, you realize that all of us are broken. Our fellow parishioners might have a homosexual son, or have gone through a divorce, or have a child who is cohabitating. The church isn’t just a place for holy or perfect people. We’re all broken in our own ways, so these efforts are really about finding ways to heal ourselves and our own families. If people realized that, they may be more willing to listen and join the effort.

“The bottom line is we love the church and we want to see it reinvigorated,” he added. “People want to feel like they are wanted and accepted, even if they need correction in some areas. We need to be better at being a conduit for God’s mercy.”
Wiechman hopes that, with the responses from focus groups like the one she was a part of in St. Cloud, Pope Francis and

Bishop Kettler can develop concrete ideas “to support the efforts of the people in the pews to evangelize and support the vulnerable members of our communities, or even those outside our community of faith.”

“I also hope that the misconceptions concerning what we as the Catholic Church believe and why we believe it will be addressed and efforts made to alleviate the spiral we as church find ourselves in,” she said. “There is no purpose to look backwards in condemnation but forward with faith and hope letting the Holy Spirit guide our efforts to evangelize.”